For the Chicago Bulls, it’s long past time to enter crisis mode.
That has been the consensus — in the locker room, among fans and from coach Billy Donovan — for weeks as the team continues to flounder below .500.
“We’ve got to become more desperate,” Donovan said. “Wanting to win, it’s great to say or talk about, but there’s things that you have to do. We have to look more desperate.”
This Bulls team has plenty of tactical concerns: a lack of offensive rebounding, a dearth of 3-point shooting, injuries sidelining key role players such as Javonte Green. But the main issue comes down to mentality.
After 6½ seasons on Miami Heat teams defined by defensive grit under coach Erik Spoelstra, Goran Dragić is familiar with the makings of a tough team.
But after Saturday’s win against the Orlando Magic, Dragić said he couldn’t describe this Bulls team as mentally tough — at least not enough to compete against the top echelon of the Eastern Conference.
“I’m not saying we can’t get to it, but you have to teach that,” Dragić told the Tribune. “Most of those games when we’re not making shots, we get good looks and we’re not making shots and it affects our defense.
“That’s not the case when I played with Miami. We didn’t care if you missed 10 in a row. Our main goal was to play hard on defense. Of course they’re going to score on you, but as long as you put an effort in and you tried to play team ball, you can live with it.”
Entering the season, the Bulls were eager to continue the efforts of last season’s scrappy team that fueled its scoring with defense. Instead, the Bulls have fallen into an opposite pattern — allowing poor offensive nights to seep into their defense for a complete collapse.
When their shots stop falling, the Bulls become visibly rattled. As a result, they’ve struggled to win close games, going 9-16 in clutch situations this season, the fifth-lowest winning percentage in the league.
To Dragić, the key to righting the ship comes down to learning how to win ugly games.
“Those are the better kind of wins — when you win in the mud, when the score is 95-93 and you know you can play much better offensively but you win it with your defense,” Dragić said. “And we haven’t shown that this year.”
Many of the Bulls’ second-half collapses seemed to feature two different teams. The successful version of this roster spreads the ball, pushes the pace in transition and emphasizes an unselfish style of offense.
But when the Bulls begin to disintegrate, they revert to an isolated offense that results in frustrating — and often head-scratching — shot-making on one-on-one plays.
This typically forces the bulk of the offense onto the shoulders of DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine. Both players are well aware that hero ball won’t be enough to save the Bulls this year season.
“We’ve just got to keep playing the same,” DeRozan told the Tribune. “When teams pick up the aggressiveness and we kind of fade away from what was working instead of sticking to it, we’ve got to stick to it. We’ve got to understand the points of the game when it’s time for us to do whatever needs to be done.”
The issue here isn’t understanding. After second-half meltdowns in Indiana and Charlotte last week, Donovan, DeRozan and fellow veteran Nikola Vučević acknowledged that their statements were often repetitions of the same tired problems and promises.
The Bulls have tried to address their mentality for months. And frustration has been a hallmark of this season ever since a reported locker-room eruption followed their 150-126 embarrassment by the Minnesota Timberwolves in December.
“You get to a point where it gets kind of jammed down your throat enough, eventually you say: ‘Enough, enough. I’ve had enough,’” Donovan said. “You get to that point where you just put your foot down and treat every possession like it’s your last one.”
With a 23-26 record and 10 weeks left in the season, have the Bulls already slipped through the event horizon Donovan described?
“We’re past that,” Vučević said. “We have to show it. We have to start doing it. We do it for a half, 30 minutes, and then we don’t do it for 48. It kind of just all falls apart.
“It’s tough. We don’t have the luxury of time in front of us.”