Derrick Rose’s groin and Rip Hamilton’s shoulder aren’t all the Bulls must monitor closely during a nine-game dash to the playoffs.
The Bulls have the most victories in the league (43), but it’s not nitpicking to say slow starts and poor free-throw shooting might scuttle their championship hopes.
Both areas have plagued the Bulls this season, most recently in their 100-99 loss Sunday to the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, and both were primary areas of concern as coach Tom Thibodeau prepared his team for a rematch against the Knicks on Tuesday at the United Center. Thibodeau must find solutions to both problems if the Bulls are to reach their full potential.
‘‘It’s a concern,” Thibodeau said after the Bulls again fell behind early Sunday. ‘‘It’s a big concern.”
When a team that relies on energy comes out flat, it becomes a ship adrift. We’ve seen it again and again with the Bulls this season, especially Sunday, when the Knicks raced out to a 27-6 lead. That’s why those who claim they only watch the fourth quarter of NBA games haven’t been paying attention to the Bulls.
The score at the end of the first quarter might be the best indication of whether the Bulls win or lose. They are 31-2 (18-0 on the road) this season when leading after one quarter, 10-12 (3-8 on the road) when trailing after one and 2-0 when tied after one.
‘‘Come out with a sense of urgency,” Rose said when asked what he learned against the Knicks. ‘‘Even though we’re already in the playoffs, we can’t come out sluggish.”
Poor free-throw shooting also has been a recurring issue. The Bulls are shooting 72.5 percent from the line, which ranks 27th in the league. That is well below the 74.3 percent that earned them a 26th-place ranking last season.
The Bulls were 22-for-31 (71 percent) from the line against the Knicks but only 1-for-5 in the fourth quarter, when Luol Deng and Rose missed two free throws apiece in the last 40 seconds. Rose also missed two free throws with the game on the line in a road loss Jan. 29 against the Miami Heat.
While Rose might be as mentally tough as they come and is harder on himself than anybody, he also wouldn’t be the first player to let such failures creep into his head.
‘‘You’ve got to make them,” Thibodeau said after the Bulls went 8-for-17 from the line in a loss Thursday to the Houston Rockets. ‘‘You have to step up and make. Everyone is in the same boat. You have to find the time. You have to make the time. You have to get it done.”
Turnovers also have plagued the Bulls in recent losses, but that is less of a concern. Rose and Hamilton have been among the main culprits. Rose was stripped numerous times in his return Sunday after missing 12 games with a groin injury. He outran his dribble at other times. Their turnovers should decrease as both players regain their timing.
Identifying the problems and fixing them are separate issues. The Bulls’ biggest weaknesses aren’t in question, and it’s not like they shoot fewer free throws in practice than other teams. Thibodeau has stressed ‘‘readiness to play” all season, which makes the Bulls’ frequent free-throw failures especially frustrating.
Here’s where Thibodeau will earn his new contract. The Bulls are good enough to win it all, but they can’t expect to overcome slow starts and poor free-throw shooting consistently against playoff-caliber teams.
No one knows that better than Thibodeau, who continues to search for solutions.