CHARLOTTE—Shorthanded, tired, weary and ready to go home after a 13-day stay away from the United Center, the Bulls had one final chance to imprint a decent impression on their cross-country swing.
But with Derrick Rose a late scratch likely due to the big picture, the small one took a backseat as the Bulls had little chance against the Charlotte Hornets Monday, a squad that waxed the Bulls with a close-to-full roster earlier this season.
The Bulls competed but were out-manned in a 108-91 loss at Time Warner Cable Arena, their third straight loss and fifth in seven games, concluding their road trip with a 2-5 mark.
Already without Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic and with Mike Dunleavy just playing his second game back, it didn’t leave Fred Hoiberg with a lot of options, and a 38-point first quarter from the Hornets dashed any real hopes of being more than competitive.
“That didn’t help,” Pau Gasol said. “They had a strong start, made a lot of shots. We didn’t make them feel uncomfortable enough, to make them take tough shots. They started strongly and confidently. We fought back but it was too big a hole to get out of.”
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Their only solace came in fleeting moments, like when Cameron Bairstow found himself on an island against the jittery Kemba Walker at the end of the third quarter, and with Walker ready to dance Bairstow into embarrassment, Bairstow held his ground and defended Walker’s shot at the buzzer—to cheers from the Bulls fans in attendance and the bench.
“I thought the one thing we did do was I thought we executed our stuff very well,” said Hoiberg, noting the Bulls’ 25 assists on 35 field goals. “They were sharing the ball out there. After that first quarter, we dug ourselves a whole, it’s hard to climb out.”
They competed, shorthanded as they were but participation trophies aren’t given out when a team with title aspirations fall to 27-24.
The Bulls cut a 25-point lead down to 12 when Gasol found Doug McDermott for a wing triple midway through the fourth quarter, but the Hornets quickly restored order, with their wings getting everything they wanted.
They stretched out the Bulls’ defense for 13 triples and got to the line 30 times, while the three ball was the only thing keeping the Bulls within a respectable distance, hitting 10 of them but getting out-rebounded by a wide margin.
Gasol was the only reliable option, with 22 points and 10 rebounds with seven assists. Taj Gibson scored 11 but the offense was difficult to come by, if not impossible, as the Bulls shot just 39 percent.
In a vacuum, this loss wouldn’t look as bad if the Bulls hadn’t given away more than a handful of winnable games, but added to the lot of losses on this trip, with regrettable finishes in Utah and Denver, the tussin’ doesn’t go down so smoothly.
“Right now a lot of teams smell blood,” Gibson said, trying to laugh it off. “We just gotta figure out a way to get over it. Nobody’s gonna feel sorry for you.”
And going home for one game before the break is no solace, as the Atlanta Hawks are no pushover, and the first home game after a long road trip is usually difficult—especially considering the Bulls have been in four time zones in four days, taxing in itself.
“We have one big one left,” Hoiberg said. “It’s not the All-Star break yet. We have to put this behind us. It was a long, grinding trip. It’s tough, it took a toll on our guys.”
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Meanwhile the surging Hornets have won four of five, as Walker again played tormentor with 30 points, seven rebounds and eight assists. With the older Kirk Hinrich taking Rose’s place in the starting lineup and no Butler, Walker wasn’t challenged on the defensive end and roamed free on offense, along with Nic Batum.
Batum plugged in holes, scoring 19 with 13 rebounds and eight assists as the Hornets pulled closer to the eighth spot—and the Bulls are now a mere half-game out of eighth place.
Yes, it seems time to consider the possibility of the Bulls being left out of the postseason party, even with the aforementioned circumstances.
The Hornets are getting themselves together and while no one in the Eastern Conference is running away with anything, the Bulls’ streak of seven straight playoff appearances appear to be in real jeopardy with this latest losing binge.
“The thing us you have to go back, regroup and come out swinging on Wednesday,” Hoiberg said.
The question is, how much snap is left in his team’s punches?