If the Bulls were able to do one thing for the better part of 44 minutes on Wednesday, it was offensive execution against the Atlanta Hawks in the form of Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade.
Unfortunately for them, that was the one thing they failed to do late, sloppily and clumsily throwing away several offensive possessions for the final four minutes and giving away a winnable game, falling 115-107 at Philips Arena.
The Bulls clawed back from a 17-point deficit to take a third-quarter lead and stayed close even after relinquishing it soon after, pulling to within two on a Doug McDermott floater to make it 103-101, capping off a 9-0 run.
But the grit and toughness they showed in refusing to give up didn’t turn into execution when they could have closed out a Hawks team on the second night of a back-to-back — producing some downright puzzling sequences.
Bobby Portis, whom Fred Hoiberg was rolling with for most of the fourth quarter in place of Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson for a spell, traveled at the 3-point line.
“He had a couple shots he needed to take when he’s all by himself,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve talked to him about it and we’ll continue to talk to him. Gotta rise up with confidence.”
Then the next possession, Rajon Rondo didn’t look comfortable shooting in the corner with the shot clock running down, getting his shot blocked. It was the second time he hesitated in close proximity, as he’s shooting 35 percent in his last five games and 20 percent from three.
“He did on a couple of them,” Hoiberg said. “It happens when you’re not in a great rhythm shooting the ball.”
And finally, after getting another stop to keep the deficit manageable, Hoiberg told the Bulls to push the pace instead of calling for a timeout to regroup.
They wound up getting one seconds later anyways.
Butler was hounded on a drive, leading to a Kent Bazemore dunk to make it a 109-101 game with a little over two and a half minutes left.
Out went Rondo and Portis, with Butler taking over as prime facilitator late with Isaiah Canaan on a wing and Gibson re-entering.
In effect, those two minutes wasted some gritty play led by Butler and Wade. Butler scored a season-high 39 points to go with seven assists and six steals while Wade scored 25 one night before returning to his old stomping ground of Miami — but the rest of the Bulls didn’t follow suit.
The Hawks shot over 50 percent for the game, although the Bulls slowed them down after the first quarter and a half that saw them look dazed and confused against the Hawks’ penetrate-and-kick-or-cut offense.
Dwight Howard scored 18 with 10 boards, three steals and two blocks while matchup nightmare Paul Millsap scored 16 with 11 rebounds and six assists. The Hawks outrebounded the Bulls by a 49-30 margin in large part due to Howard and went to the line six more times — two Bulls staples so far this season.
Their only saving grace was forcing turnovers, reaching in and staying handsy as opposed to solid. Since they couldn’t stop the Hawks’ precision offense that has them cutting and constantly moving, they were in no position to actually force misses most of the night, leading to a 103-94 lead when they blitzed the Bulls to start the fourth quarter.
“I loved our fight, getting back into it, being down 17,” Hoiberg said. “We came back, had a five point lead and then (gave) them the momentum back. We have to come out and be ready for that fight.”
Eight Hawks scored in double figures as the Bulls allowed them to shoot over 60 percent in the first half.
Reserve guard Thabo Sefolosha, not known as a scorer with his 5.8 points-per-game scoring average, had a career night in a handful of minutes. Getting free and open from a Bulls defense that wasn’t tracking him, he hit seven field goals in seven minutes — without missing.
He so thoroughly infuriated Wade during that 18-point stretch Wade angrily stole the ball from him twice for scores, almost trying to make up for a couple defensive lapses that got Sefolosha, who finished with 20, going.
“He got confident. We did it out to ourselves, some unforced errors,” Hoiberg said. “To get some wide open threes and they fed off that the rest of the half. Again, we battled, made it a game. We can’t keep digging holes.”
The rampage was so unexpected but considering the way the Bulls defended in the early going, Stevie Wonder would’ve driven down the lane without much traffic. It was the Bulls’ worst nightmare and put them in a position of giving a Hawks team more confidence when they came in full of it after surprising the champion Cavs in Cleveland the night before.
A pull-up jumper in transition from Wade gave the Bulls a 74-73 lead three minutes into the third, but the Bulls were unable to sustain what got them back in it, putting them back to .500 as South Beach and Wade’s reunion awaits.