Pau Gasol, Bulls Lose

After three straight wins and a supposedly easy home game against a team with nothing to play for, the Chicago Bulls go ahead and drop themselves out of the playoff top 8. From the looks of how Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol are playing, it’s not going to be a surprise if they end up missing the postseason for the first time since 2008.

The Bulls, fighting for the 8th spot in the East, lost to the New York Knicks 115-107, at home. Due to the Detroit Pistons winning their game, the Bulls are now ninth in the East with a 36-34 record. The Pistons are at 38-34. Detroit have been inconsistent too over the course of this season. But they don’t seem banged up, and they don’t look like a team that suddenly stops trying during a very winnable game, only to wake up when it’s too late.

Early in the fourth quarter the Bulls were already down by 22 points. The winning streak and overall improvement in effort and defense suddenly disappeared. All their good moments from the first half didn’t matter, as they led the Knicks hit 15-for-32 from beyond the arc, while they outrebounded the Bulls 58-37, including a 14-6 victory on the offensive glass, previously one of the things the Bulls were always proud about dominating.

The Bulls have too many players struggling, probably playing injured. Taj Gibson is trying, but he’s been holding back on a hamstring issue for quite some time. It limits him on both sides of the court and hurts his ability to provide the paint defense Pau Gasol hasn’t had in a very long time. And while Gibson’s numbers aren’t impressive (10 points in this game), he’s something of the heart and soul of this team, and with him hurt (Joakim Noah is out of the picture), too much falls on players that aren’t healthy.

After missing 14 games over a 17 stretch, Jimmy Butler is back, but isn’t really back. Fred Hoiberg said he’s dealing with overall soreness. There’s probably more to that than just minor pain. He’s shooting just 36.4% from the field over the last six games. His movement seems to be bothering him, which means a key part of the defense isn’t holding up his own. He hasn’t made a single three pointer since coming back from injury to play consecutive games.

Butler isn’t alone in that. Mike Dunleavy made his debut this season in early February, but it’s clear his struggles aren’t just rust and playing time issues. He’s shooting just 26.9% from the field over the last five games and although overall this season he’s hitting his three pointers over 41% of the time, the Bulls, especially at this stage of the season, can’t afford to have such an important player doing so poorly on an offense that needs every little bit of help it can get.

And Gasol? If Noah wouldn’t have been injured, he probably would have been the traded one. That means a step back for the Bulls in terms of personnel, but at this point, it’s logical. Re-signing him doesn’t make much sense unless he takes a lot less money. He’s averaging 16.8 points and 11.1 rebounds this season and the Bulls are +4.7 points better per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, but he’s inconsistent offensively, bad defensively and disappears too many times, like his 4-point performance against the Knicks.

What is working? Derrick Rose is playing well and finished with 21 points and even hit some three pointers. Nikola Mirotic was fantastic with 35 points, including nine three pointers. These two are doing well on a regular basis lately, but without so many key players being able to contribute on a nightly basis, it seems like the Bulls won’t be able to keep up with the Pistons and the Wizards, who might not be symbols of consistency, and yet seem to be in better shape than the Bulls heading into the final stretch of the regular season.

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