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For Bulls, grit success is elusive

Jim Boylen and his coaching staff are doing all they can to help the young players understand toughness, especially in late-game situations, but the players also have to take some responsibility.

Bulls head coach Jim Boylen talks with Lauri Markkanen.
Bulls coach Jim Boylen talks with Lauri Markkanen.
Darron Cummings/AP

For Bulls vice president John Paxson and other higher-ups, when it comes to improvement, the burden falls squarely on the players.

Paxson made that case clear several times leading into the season.

So on Monday, coach Jim Boylen was simply reaffirming that point of view.

The topic was toughness, and Boylen said a coaching staff can only do so much. At some point, this 2-5 team either learns toughness and runs with it or it doesn’t.

“I think they need to take more responsibility for their preparedness,’’ Boylen said. “I think they need to take more ownership of their readiness to play. The head coaches in this league have never been expected to coach effort. Effort has to come from each guy. Those are the things that I talk about. You control your effort and competitiveness.

“We had a good September and October, good training camp. I think we set the course of what we want to do. We had a poor game [against the Pacers on Sunday]. Let’s see if we respond.’’

They might want to start. It isn’t like the schedule becomes more favorable for these underachievers. This week, the Bulls will host LeBron James and the Lakers, head to Atlanta for a back-to-back, then host the Rockets.

The Bulls are developing a bad reputation for soft play, especially at the end of games.

The anointed pillars of the rebuild — Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine — don’t exactly scream grit. Both fall more in the finesse category, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be tougher.

The question for Boylen: How does an NBA coach instill such an intangible?

“You have guys that innately have that,’’ Boylen said. “Some of us are born with it, some of us have that, some of us don’t. Some of us have different degrees of that. Some weren’t raised to play that way. For some guys, it’s the only way they could get on the floor. Sometimes your individual talent and skill level determine how much physicality you need throughout your career.

‘‘It’s just the way it’s always been. Guys who couldn’t jump or didn’t move that well had to grab to compete. Guys who could jump over people, run around people and run by people, maybe they didn’t have to do those things as much.

“Then there are guys somewhere in between. And then there are a few guys who have it all, right? They can run people over and run by them, jump over them, do all those things. How I do it is I show them the situation on film. I show them in practice the situations where I thought they could have a higher level of urgency or physicality or competitiveness or toughness. That’s how I do it. And in those moments, I hope they learn that it’s acceptable, that it’s OK to hit somebody once in a while within the game. It’s OK to be physical.’’

Boylen isn’t looking for his players to join some sort of “Fight Club,’’ but there have been too many offensive rebounds given up, too many 50-50 balls lost and too many opposing players driving the lane with impunity.

“As they learn and get stronger and feel more comfortable, they grow into that tougher mindset,’’ Boylen said.

“So, yeah, I think you can talk about it, coach it, expect it, demand it, but playing more physical is an individual, conscious decision. Playing hard is an individual, conscious decision.’’