AUBURN HILLS, MICH—The margins in the Eastern Conference aside from Cleveland and Toronto are thin, and the Bulls found them themselves sitting outside the playoff picture last year because taking care of business against peer competition was too much.
They’ve followed the mold this seas as the Detroit Pistons continued their recent dominance over the Bulls, winning 102-91 at the Palace of Auburn Hills Tuesday as the Bulls completed their four games in five nights stretch with one win and three straight alarming losses.
It was the same old story from the night before in their late loss to Portland Monday, as the Bulls held a slim lead into the fourth quarter and couldn’t hold it as their defense and bench let them down.
“We gotta find a way to get some production (from the bench). It is what it is right now,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Just do the best with what we got.”
And to make matters worse, the Detroit Pistons’ bench was full of players ready to play big minutes in the fourth and one couldn’t tell the difference, as Darrun Hilliard, Aron Baynes and Jon Leuer carried the Pistons, each having at least a plus-16 for the night.
Hoiberg had few options, evidenced by playing Jimmy Butler 43 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back and Dwyane Wade 34 minutes when he sat out the last back to back.
“You gotta get these guys to go out and play with some confidence, and get the rotations where we have some starters out there with them,” Hoiberg said. “And fight and do the best we can.”
A balanced attack from the Pistons was led by Tobias Harris scoring 22 points with seven rebounds, while Butler tried to put the Bulls on his back again late, scoring 32 with six rebounds and four assists, but was unable to stop the Bulls from losing their sixth game in nine tries.
Nikola Mirotic’s triple gave the Bulls a 75-71 lead but the Pistons went on a 12-0 run to take firm control, as the Bulls fatigue began to creep in. Gone was their advantage from the free throw line that helped them work themselves back from a large deficit as they trailed by 17 in the second as the Pistons blitzed the Bulls early.
“What we have is what we have,” Wade said. “The good teams figure it out earlier than not. If we don't figure it out we'll be .500 all year. If we do, we're going to take some games and go over. It's on us.”
[SHOP: Get your Bulls gear right here]
Mirotic went right back into his slumber, going two-for-seven and hitting one of four from three. Cris Felicio replaced Bobby Portis in the rotation but was a minus-17 and Isaiah Canaan was one of five and missed both of his 3-point attempts, as the Bulls shot a putrid two-for-15 from long range (13 percent).
“So what if they’re in a slump,” Butler said. “Pretty sure, sometime soon, the starters are going to be in a slump but I guarantee they’re going to shoot their way out of it because we need them to. We need them to stay aggressive.”
It’s making Hoiberg rely on guys like Butler and Wade more than he should, and one wonders how much more they can handle
“I gotta continue to produce and probably play a little bit better,” Butler said. “Do a little bit more to put us in position to win.”
But Butler was more perturbed about the defense.
“The problem is not on the offensive end; they got whatever they wanted,” “We’re not defending the way we’re capable.”
“We’re messing up assignments. Not boxing out. Not playing to guys’ weaknesses. We gotta fix it. All of these count early on. We have to turn this around.”
The Pistons are already a bad matchup for the Bulls, with an aggressive point guard and one of the league’s most active bigs in Andre Drummond. Add the fourth game and fifth night element to it and it was a recipe for disaster.
Drummond’s fresh legs accompanied by Jackson’s fresh spirit meant bad news for a weary team that played a full 48 the night before in Portland. Drummond had 15 with 10 rebounds and three blocks in just 25 minutes while Jackson, in his second game back from a knee injury, scored just seven with seven assists in 18 minutes.
Drummond was bouncy and the Bulls didn’t have an early answer aside from the perimeter attack by Butler and Wade, who scored 19.
But the Bulls began chipping away at a 51-34 lead with 3:47 left in the second quarter, with Butler scoring 12 of the last 14 points to pull within seven. A steal and alley-oop from Wade to Butler took some air out of the Pistons, as they reclaimed some real estate with Drummond and Jackson on the bench.
A Rajon Rondo layup gave the Bulls a 62-61 lead with 5:18 in the third, completing the comeback. Rondo scored 10 in 37 minutes after his one-game punishment, giving the Bulls a little boost in the second half.
But like loss to the Blazers, the Bulls found themselves not making enough stops when it counted most, and are now one game from .500.