Without All-Star point guard Derrick Rose, recovering from ACL surgery and likely to be out for a few months more, the Bulls looked to be a team in trouble before the season began. Yet here they are with a 13-10 record, leading the Central Division and in fourth place in the Eastern Conference despite having one of the worst offensive engines in the NBA.
They’ve done it mostly by stepping up their effort on defense. The Bulls are second-best in points allowed at 90.4 per game: only Memphis, who beat Chicago 80-71 on Monday night, is better (90.0). It isn’t the offense that has Chi-town hopping: while they have had have had five 100-point games and are seventh in total rebounds (10th in both offensive and defensive boards) and are third in free-throw percentage (80.1), the Bulls are middling to poor in the other offensive categories as witnessed by their 27th position on offense at 92.5 PPG, ahead of only New Orleans, Indiana and Washington.
Injuries have taken a toll besides Rose: the club has had to do without Kirk Hinrich and Richard Hamilton for stretches at a time. Hinrich returned to the lineup Monday after missing two games with a bruised knee, but looked out of sorts with only four points in 31 minutes on the floor. In fairness to him, nobody was great against one of the top teams in the East. The Bulls as a group put out their poorest offensive effort since 2008, although Carlos Boozer registered a double-double (16 points, 13 rebounds) and Marco Belinelli chipped in with 13 points.
When the Grizzlies went to their bench in the second quarter, that seemed to light a fire under the home squad that the visitors couldn’t extinguish. While both teams shot a paltry 37 percent, Memphis took advantage of 16 Bulls turnovers and Chicago simply didn’t have an answer, ending up on the short end of the final three quarters.
One game doesn’t make or break a team, and six games remain for the Bulls in December after they host the Celtics on Tuesday: tough back-to-back contests on the road in New York and Atlanta, a Christmas Day tilt at home against Houston, then back on the road to Indiana on the 26th, and finally two creampuff matchups back at the United Center versus Washington on the 29th and Charlotte on New Year’s Eve.
It’s said that defense wins championships: by that standard, the Bulls have nothing to worry about. Still, it’s tough to win anything with an offense that’s ranked fourth from the bottom, so they’ll need Boozer and Hinrich and Luol Deng — along with Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson and the bench players — to step it up even more when they have the ball.