The Bulls' playoff chances took a substantial hit for the second straight night.
Playing the latter end of a home-and-home with the lottery-bound New York Knicks, the Bulls suffered their second straight loss, 106-94, Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. It came on the heels of Wednesday's surprising home loss to those same Knicks, now 30-43, that has dropped Fred Hoiberg's group 1.5 games behind the idle Detroit Pistons for the No. 8 seed in the East.
Derrick Rose continued his stellar play with 30 points and three assists, while Jimmy Butler added 19 points and three steals. But for the Bulls, playing without Pau Gasol, a sluggish start and another lack of defensive energy doomed them against a team in which they should have handled.
Instead, the Knicks raced out to a nine-point lead, shot better than 51 percent from the field and out-rebounded the Bulls, 45-34. Carmelo Anthony scored 26 points on 9-for-17 shooting and rookie Kristaps Porzingis again torched the Bulls for 19 points and 10 rebounds. The Knicks, ranked 23rd in offensive efficiency, hadn't scored 100 or more points in consecutive games since March 5.
"I'm not going to sugarcoat it. It's two extremely tough losses. And for me, looking at the winning streak we had when we won three and won four out of five, we came out with a defensive mindset in the first quarter and we set the tone. And the last two nights that hasn't happened."
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The Knicks came out firing, hitting 58 percent and connecting on five 3-pointers to take a four-point first quarter lead. Anthony scored 10 of his points in the opening stanza while Porzingis, who torched the Bulls for 29 points on Wednesday, added five. The Bulls managed to keep New York at bay in the second quarter but couldn't capitalize, shooting just 30 percent while missing nine of their 10 3-point attempts in the quarter.
The offense was stagnant, minus Rose, most of the night without their facilitator in Gasol. The 7-footer missed the game with swelling in the right knee that caused him to miss four games earlier in the month. Hoiberg said before the game he doesn't expect Gasol to miss any more games, but his absence was noticeable.
The Bulls were forced to start little-used Cristiano Felicio, who grabbed just a single rebound in 21 ineffective minutes. The Bulls had just 15 assists on their 37 made field goals, as Rose was forced to go into attack mode early with the Bulls trailing; Rose's three assists were his fewest since March 1.
The lack of ball movement compounded when the lack of defensive pressure reared its head in the second half. New York outscored the Bulls in the third quarter for a second straight night, and the Knicks capped off their offensive outburst when point guard Jose Calderon threw an alley-oop from the opposite free throw line to Derrick Williams for a two-handed slam. The Bulls' lone glimmer of hope was when they cut the deficit to 11 with a little more than four minutes remaining.
But out of a timeout, Calderon and Anthony his consecutive 3-pointers that pushed the lead back out to 17 and end any hope of a Bulls' comeback.
The Bulls finished their last real easy portion of the season - in which they played six straight games against teams with sub-.500 records - with a disappointing 3-3 record. They'll now play six of their next eight on the road, with six of those games coming against teams currently in the playoff picture.
"The big thing is to keep swinging. We've got a lot of basketball left to be played. And you can't walk out of here with your head down and feel sorry for yourself or it's going to compound these last 11 games," Hoiberg said. "You've got to come out together. I told them to look in the mirror, what they can do to help this team find its way out of this two-game tough stretch that we've had and bring it the rest of the season.
"That's all we can do right now is control what we have in front of us."