Bulls' second foe might be toughest

OK, undoubtedly the Bulls made entirely too many dumb decisions late in possessions, handing the ball to non-shooters with 5 seconds or less on the 24-second shot clock. They made lazy passes, weren't strong with the ball, dribbled aimlessly around the perimeter with the shot clock running down. And there was loosey-goosey stuff that has not been characteristic of the Bulls' play against the Heat during the LeBron tenure there. Even when the Bulls have half of their players on crutches, they usually put forth more energy against Miami.

But the Bulls need a player (other than Augustin) who can use dribble penetration to scramble defenders or force a double-team that will ultimately create shooting space for players such as Mike Dunleavy and Taj Gibson, who can't create their own shots. What Noah interpreted as lack of spirit Sunday might very well have been the evidence of a lack of talent in a very specific and telling area.

Last season's roster had a couple of those players in Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli, but was built knowing Derrick Rose wouldn't be around. This season's roster was built counting on Rose to be that player, so Augustin is Plan B. He has been a B-plus/A-minus stand-in so far and totally unexpected, but as was the case Sunday, if Augustin goes cold, the Bulls have virtually no way to successfully play around that. Once again, they don't have that ballhandling wing player who can break down a defense. And as great a season as Noah is having, it doesn't bode well when a team's best passer is its center.

So, the Bulls are going to score 117 on a bad defensive team on a night when they do everything close to perfection . . . and have multiple 24-second shot-clock violations when the opponent can ramp up the defense and Augustin has a bad night. It's a reality that is likely to prevent the Bulls from simply taking off and separating from the likes of the Raptors, Wizards and Hawks to land a top-four spot in the Eastern Conference, which is indeed a worthy goal for this season.

Is finishing strong going to help them get past the Heat or Indiana Pacers in the second round? Absolutely not. The Bulls have no way of mounting sustained offense in the course of a series -- which, by the way, directly undermines the defensive effort.

But finishing fourth and getting past an opponent like the Wizards, Raptors or Hawks and into the second round would do wonders going forward for Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell, Augustin and Dunleavy, to have gotten as many as a dozen games of playoff experience. The two things the Bulls will do with greater consistency than almost any team in the league the rest of this season is play with maximum effort and contentious defense.

As Noah knows, committing a massive effort every time out is necessary when you have to overcome a glaring weakness like they have on offense. But even on nights when the spirit is willing, the inability to score is going to be the Bulls' second opponent.

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