CHARLOTTE —Taj Gibson remembered the good ol’ days, when the defensive-minded Bulls were in a funk, losing players to injuries and fought their way out of it.
“It feels like my rookie year,” Gibson said. “We’re just going out there fighting with whoever we have. Guys are [playing] to the best of their ability. It’s rough. It’s midway point of the season and guys are banged up. But [shoot], you’ve got to put it behind you and fight.”
Under Fred Hoiberg, the Bulls are still trying to muster up the mental toughness that got them through those tough times. So after a 108-91 loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Monday night at Time Warner Cable Arena in which they trailed by 18 in the first quarter and never got closer than 14 the rest of the way, the Bulls seem to be only getting deeper into their funk.
Short on energy at the end of a seven-game road trip, the Bulls were further hampered by the last-minute absence of guard Derrick Rose, who was a late scratch because of “general soreness.” Rose, who had averaged 19.6 points in the first six games of the trip but was slowing down toward the end, is hoping to play Wednesday against the Atlanta Hawks at the United Center.
Hoiberg made it clear that it was the team’s decision to sit Rose.
“Derrick was not moving well in shootaround [Monday] morning — that’s when we started thingking about ,” Hoiberg said. “We got over here [to Time Warner Cable Arena] and he wasn’t moving much better, so the decision was made to not play him.
“It’s our fifth game in seven nights. Derrick just came a back-to-back. He’s playing well, we feel, right now with pace. It’s just one of those things. Hopefully we’ll get him back Wednesday.”
The sooner the better, because the Bulls (27-24) have lost five of their last six games since opening the trip with a victory over the hapless Lakers and 12 of 17 since reaching their high-water mark of 22-12 on Jan. 7.
Though Mike Dunleavy returned from back surgery against the Timberwolves on Friday — he scored eight points in 16 minutes against the Hornets on Monday — the Bulls are woefully short-handed. Jimmy Butler missed his second consecutive game with a sprained knee — he’s not expected to play against the Hawks. Nikola Mirotic is recovering from an appendectomy. And Joakim Noah is likely out for the season after undergoing surgery to repair a dislocated shoulder.
With Butler and Rose out, E’Twaun Moore and Kirk Hinrich started at guard against the Hornets. Hoiberg started the second quarter with Doug McDermott, Cameron Bairstow, Tony Snell, Bobby Portis and Aaron Brooks on the court. By then the Bulls were down 18.
Though frustrated, Gibson is confident that the Hoiberg Bulls can develop the same mental toughness past Bulls teams had. This is just the difficult part of the transition.
“Our identity was defense and then we went offense,” Gibson said. “We’ve got a whole different group of guys. In previous years we had a lot of defensive guys with dog in them. Now we’ve got a bunch of young guys, with offensive mentality. We’re trying to figure out a new system.”
And Gibson made it clear he believes in the new direction. These are growing pains.
“It’s a great group of kids — hands down,” he said. “It’s just a different group from what we had in the past. We had straight defensive guys, hungry dogs. Now we have guys coming in offensive minded., shoot the three. We used to be scrappy. Now we’re trying to mold these guys into getting scrappy.
“And every game is rough, because we’re still trying to get guys to talk. You would think [communicating] would be the easiest thing. Every day we’re just trying to get guys to talk. It’s frustrating, but what can you do? Right now other teams smell blood. We’ve just got to figure out a way to get over it. In this league nobody’s going to feel sorry for you.”
Gibson disputed the notion that the Bulls aren’t as mentally tough under Hoiberg as they were under Tom Thibodeau.
“Fred is a great coach. He has a lot of mental toughness,” Gibson said. “Even though he may seem quiet, he’s always in here giving us good talks, always giving us praise, trying to keep us encouraged.
“Every team goes through a rough stretch. That’s what makes these teams good. But at the same time, in the Thibs days, we went through a lot. So we had no choice but to keep rising. It was different personnel back then. We’ve got a totally different group of guys — young guys that are coming from a different club. We just have to try to mold them and keep pushing forward.”