The Bulls were home underdogs on Saturday night, one loss away from being eliminated from playoff contention. Standing in their way was a surging LeBron James and a Cleveland Cavaliers team that could have wrapped up home court advantage in the East with a victory. And yet, given their plethora of baffling losses in what's soon to be a lost season, the Bulls' 105-102 victory to stave off elimination didn't come as much of a surprise.
Instead, it marked yet another example of consistent inconsistency that has plagued the team during a season in which they've proved capable of competing against — and beating — the league's best teams. And it's the reason why one more loss — or Pacers win — will mean the Bulls missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Saturday's primetime matchup marked the 16th and final game this season against the teams with the NBA’s current six best records: Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Toronto and the Clippers. And including the Saturday's win, the Bulls went 11-5 in those contests, including 7-1 against the top two teams in their conference, Cleveland and Toronto.
"Yeah if you would have told me at the beginning of the year we’d be 7-1 against the top two seeds and be on the outside looking in I would have thought you were crazy," Hoiberg said after the game. "But it’s where we are."
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To put that 11-5 record in perspective, the Bulls are the only of the 24 other teams to record a winning record against the NBA’s top six teams. And it isn’t close.
The only other team even hovering around .500 in those games is Houston, which went 8-11. The closest team to the Bulls in the East is Detroit, which went 5-9 against the Big Six. In fact, the teams currently seeded third through sixth in the East (Atlanta, Miami, Boston and Charlotte) went a combined 15-45, including Charlotte’s paltry 3-12 mark.
But that impressive record, which included a four-game sweep of Toronto, three wins over Cleveland, two against Oklahoma City, and home wins over San Antonio and Los Angeles, has been rendered irrelevant by the Bulls’ shortcomings against the league’s worst teams. Against those groups currently with the NBA's worst eight records, the Bulls have gone 12-7. A winning record can be misleading, as that number is the fewest wins by a team ranked in the top 10 in the East.
So, with two games remaining the Bulls’ season, their win percentage against the league’s six best teams (.687) is higher than it is against the league’s eight worst teams (.631).
You read that correctly.
Even if the Bulls win their final two games, at New Orleans and against Philadelphia, their win percentage against the bottom eight will be .667, still below.
And that's what Fred Hoiberg pointed to during his pregame comments Saturday as to what went wrong early in his first year at the helm.
By the end of November the Bulls were 10-5, third in the East and just two games behind the Cavaliers for the top spot in the East. Their December schedule included 11 of 15 home games, and seven games against teams at or below .500. But losses to Phoenix, New York and Brooklyn set them back. And, looking back, that quadruple-overtime loss to the Pistons wound up being a major blow to the Bulls’ playoff chances.
“And that’s costing us now,” Hoiberg said of the 8-7 December record. “Those early games may not seem like much at the time but you look where we are now, and there’s such a thin margin for error because we didn’t take care of business with some teams that we absolutely should beat.”
When the wheels fell off in mid-January — a five-week span in which the Bulls lost 14 of 19 games — they still remained in the playoff hunt, tied with the Hornets for seventh in the East on Feb. 19. They teetered around .500, remaining in the thick of the race, but the baffling performances continued.
A 13-point loss in Orlando. A 21-point loss in Washington two days after beating the Raptors on the road. They recovered from that loss in the nation's capital with three straight home wins. But that streak was followed with what was, in retrospect, the beginning of the end, two straight losses to the Knicks. The Bulls have gone 4-7 since then and, as Hoiberg admitted, will "hope for a miracle" in the final week of the season.
It’s why Hoiberg disagreed that there was any sort of silver lining in the Bulls’ ability to compete against the league’s best this season. As they proved often this season, Saturday night included, flashes of greatness and team cohesiveness mean little when they’re countered with just as many no-shows. Hoiberg said the Bulls will need to improve their consistency in all areas next season. Until then, they'll have to reflect on what could have been playing meaningful games in April.
“It is frustrating because we’ve given away so many golden opportunities over the course of this year to put ourselves into a position where we’d be locked into a playoff position. Where we’d be making a decision on whether we rest a player going into the playoffs.
“But it is what it is. There’s nothing we can do about that now. But certainly a good learning lesson for us next year.”