“They’re a pain in the butt,” Chicago Bulls' Mike Dunleavy said, and he meant that in the most complimentary manner.
Dunleavy was describing the Charlotte Bobcats’ new-found devotion to defense. The Bulls shot 36 percent and were held nine points below their season average, but that wasn’t enough in Chicago’s 86-81 victory at the United Center.
Defense travels well, but the Bobcats’ offense, again missing injured center Al Jefferson, did not. They, too, shot 36 percent from the field, but the thing that has saved Charlotte’s scoring this season – free-throw attempts – never materialized.
The Bobcats were outscored at the foul line 26-8. That simply can’t happen if this 5-6 team expects to continue bobbing around the .500 mark.
“The difference tonight was free throws – we can’t lose the free throw game like that,’’ said coach Steve Clifford, whose team entered this game averaging 4.3 more trips to the line than their opponents.
The Bobcats average just over 29 trips to the line this season, third-highest in the NBA. But in the last two games, losses to the Miami Heat and Bulls, they’ve attempted 20 and 16 free throws. Poorly as they shoot in general, they can’t afford to let that advantage continue to erode.
Still, they hung tough in an arena where they lost by 30 last time at United Center. It was a one-point deficit with 51 seconds left after Gerald Henderson (16 points, eight rebounds and six assists) hit two free throws.
Then Luol Deng answered for Chicago with a 3-pointer. Henderson’s 19-foot jump shot fell short and Kemba Walker (eight points on 3-of-14 shooting) missed a 3-pointer.
“It was right there for us,” Henderson said of the opportunity. “We played hard the whole game, but we just didn’t come up with the plays at the end.
“We need to be more organized at the end of games, particularly against a team like them. You know they’ll be organized on defense.”
Clifford and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau worked together in New York and Houston for head coach Jeff Van Gundy. Dunleavy said it’s easy to see the similarities in these teams’ defenses: Keep it simple, but precise.
“I thought they always played hard; they didn’t just roll over like some teams,” Dunleavy said. “Now they play hard and they’re really well-organized.
“It’s not a gimmick,” Dunleavy said of the two teams’ shared defensive principles. “If you have good defensive instincts, you’re going to do well” in this style.
Among those doing well: Bobcats sixth-man Jeff Taylor, who finished with a career-high 20 points, outscoring the Bulls entire bench by four. This was the fifth straight game when Taylor scored in double figures. He shot 27-of-61 in those games.
“The first five or six games I struggled from the field,” Taylor said. “But I trusted in the work I put in; I knew it would turn around.”