CHICAGO – All the Los Angeles Lakers need to do to end the kvetching is to drop by the United Center for a game. If the Timberwolves want to get healthy, skip Lourdes and detour back to the Chicago Bulls’ crib on W. Madison St. Sacramento fans might even be able to save the Kings if they can steer their heroes through the cleansing waters of the visitors’ showers of the UC.
There is a famous statue of Michael Jordan outside the east end of the United Center, but these days the big gal from New York harbor would be a better fit. The NBA’s tired, its poor and its huddled masses all have taken refuge there lately.
The Phoenix Suns were the ones yearning to breathe free Saturday, dragging a 12-game road losing streak to Chicago on what would be its fourth away game in five nights. What happened? Big exhale for coach Alvin Gentry and his guys in a breezy 97-81 victory.
On Dec. 31, Father Time wanted to slap Baby New Year after sitting through Chicago’s 91-81 loss to the Charlotte Bobcats, which ended the 18-game losing streak of former Bulls superstar Jordan’s squad.
There was the Christmas stinker against Houston in which the Rockets thumped the Bulls by 23 lumps of coal, er, points. Two UC losses to division rival Milwaukee in which Chicago coughed up leads of 27 and 15 points. And a hot mess against New Orleans way back in early November that seemed to set the tone, losing to the Eric Gordon- and Anthony Davis-less Hornets.
The Bulls are 10-10 at United Center this season, compared to 10-5 on the road. They are shooting worse and scoring fewer in their own building than in other teams’. None of this bears any resemblance to the Chicago-in-Chicago record established in coach Tom Thibodeau’s first two seasons, when it went 62-12 while grabbing the East’s No. 1 seed in both 2010-11 and 2011-12.
It’s starting to look as if the Bulls haven’t had a home-court advantage as much as a hometown one, named Derrick Rose. No Rose equals home woes. Once as welcoming as the Bates Motel, United Center now offers the warm neon glow of a “Vacancy” sign to weary travelers.
“It’s not any given night, that’s the problem,” Bulls center Joakim Noah said after the Suns’ loss, which essentially canceled out Chicago’s rousing road victory at New York the night before. “We’re 10-10 at home, that’s not very good. It’s very average. There’s obviously a problem if we’re going on the road and beating some of the best teams, and then coming home and facing lower-echelon teams and not even competing. We have to fix it and it’s definitely something we can solve.”
That was the sense of dread before the game Saturday for many in the UC stands, that the Bulls might again play down to the competition. Then again, do that enough and you become one of those lesser teams.
Thibodeau sounds as if he has reached the point where herding the Bulls onto a plane, circling O’Hare for an hour, then busing them to a Windy City hotel Sunday night in advance of their Monday home game against Atlanta might be an option. It is little consolation to him that the rest of the Central Division is 25-50 on the road, compared to his team’s plus-5.
“I have to take a hard look at everything,” Thibodeau said. “I don’t think it’s a starting lineup, substitutions. I don’t think that’s it. It’s a team-wide thing.”
One common denominator – and the most obvious place where Rose’s absence cripples them – has been inefficient offense. The Bulls shot 36.4 percent against Phoenix, the seventh time in their 10 home losses in which they were at 41.7 percent or worse. There are few easy buckets these days for Chicago.
They’re compounding their problems, too, by boiling over instead of digging deep. In the second half Saturday, rally notions got back-burnered by four Bulls technical fouls (Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, Nate Robinson and Thibodeau).
Said Noah: “We complain way too much. When things aren’t going our way, we have to find a way to stick together more and not act like it’s the end of the world. It’s just too negative.”
Considering the postgame mood, Thibodeau had a pretty good quote on the sort of team he expects. “They tell you you’re playing at midnight on the roof, you have to have guys that say, ‘Let’s get the ladders.’ “
A greater test, though, comes once they’re up there and someone takes the ladders. That’s what it feels like at United Center lately.