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Ball Don't Lie

The Chicago Bulls’ struggles at home continue to mystify

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Luol Deng looks for answers (Getty Images)

The Chicago Bulls enter Monday night’s game against the Atlanta Hawks with a surprisingly poor 10-10 mark at the United Center. Big man Joakim Noah deems that mark to be “very average,” which is candid as far as athletes often go, but he’s very wrong in that dismissal.

It’s worse than average, as just six other NBA teams either boast a .500 (Sacramento) or worse (Cleveland, Orlando, Charlotte, Washington, New Orleans) mark from home. You’re supposed to win a whole lotta games at home, no matter how poor your overall record is. It’s why we’re not ready to anoint the Clippers, who have played 22 of 37 games away from Los Angeles. It’s also why we’re not ready to dismiss Denver, who began the season with a disappointing 17-15 record after starting the season playing 22 of its first 32 games away from Denver.

For a lottery team, 10-10 is a crummy home record. For a 20-15 Bulls team, looking to circle the wagons in their conference while awaiting the return of Derrick Rose from knee reconstruction surgery, it’s mystifying. The team has made its delicious hay for years by out-working opponents during the regular season, so why can’t they get it together at home? Jimmy Butler, in talking with ESPN’s Nick Friedell, thinks he has the answer:

"We're not ready to play at home," Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler said, relaying Thibodeau's message. "We come in here thinking this is Chicago, this is us, this is our home floor, but whenever we go out there, we're flat, we're not ready to play. I feel like that's on us. As far as everything else goes, we know we got to play hard, we got to execute, play defense and stay together."

The eye test gives Butler’s thoughts credibility. Not only are the Bulls toning it back a bit in Chicago, but they’ve lost a series of winnable games against either overmatched opponents (Charlotte, New Orleans, Phoenix) or teams they were at one point trouncing in the first half (Milwaukee twice, and a near-loss to New York last month). In something that goes almost completely against form, the Bulls even looked a little full of their big leads in both of those eventual Buck losses. Strange, for a group that treated just about every regular season contest like a Game 7 on its way to acquiring the league’s best record in 2011 and (tied for, in) 2012.

Chicago is not a good offensive team, but at home the group is taking that stank to a new level in averaging just 91.7 points per game despite a fast pace. That’s over four points per game fewer than the team’s road average, crazy marks in a league that demands you play significantly superior ball while at home. The team appears to rely more on screen and roll basketball instead of the quick-hit interior-and-then-even-deeper-into-the-interior ball it relies on away from the United Center.

That’s the boring aspect of things. Here’s the sportswriter-y take that you can all roll your eyes at.

For some reason, even without Derrick Rose around, these home games tend to feel like comfortable events. I’m aware I’m dredging my smelt through a cornmeal mix of cliché, but when Chicago goes on the road there appears to be a bit more focus, and a bit more insistence on ruining the favored opponents’ day. This is on the players, completely and fully, but the “rattle your jewelry” work of some United Center attendees doesn’t help, especially on those nationally televised Saturday games on WGN.

Some have suggested that Chicago plays down to its opponents, but that can’t be the case for a team that has blown out lacking teams like Cleveland (twice) and Dallas, while running a 4-0 record against New York and Miami. It’s also been suggested that the Bulls have to play near perfect basketball offensively just to perform competently in that area, and the team’s sub-standard work and pitiful output (29th in points per game at home, topping only those Hornets) would seem to give that credibility.

For whatever reason, the spark isn’t there. Perhaps the team is missing an element. Like, someone who was unfairly dismissed in 2002 because of Jerry Krause’s paranoia.

Perhaps it’s time to let Ray Clay rile things up:

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