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Bulls 'humbled' by loss to Hawks as six-game winning streak ends

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Bulls 'humbled' by loss to Hawks as six-game winning streak ends

ATLANTA — It was evident from the jump, the Bulls didn’t have the same energy and fervor as the Atlanta Hawks.

And it was just as evident their six-game winning streak would go up in smoke, as it did Saturday afternoon with a early-fourth quarter Hawks surge putting the Bulls away at Philips Arena, 120-105.

After falling behind by 19 early, the Bulls made a rousing comeback to put a scare into the team sitting a couple spots below them in the Eastern Conference, as this could very well be a second-round playoff matchup come May.

“Like Fred (Hoiberg) said, we have the bullseye on our backs now. People are starting to see us come around,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “We got outhustled. It’s good for us. That team really had their eye on us. We got humbled.”

It showed as the first minute of the fourth erased a lot of the Bulls’ hard work as turnovers, a game-long bugaboo, doomed them, leading to fast break dunks for the Hawks when they were reeling and possibly on the verge of collapse.

It was 22 giveaways that led to 25 Hawks points, as if they needed any more easy buckets, as the highest-scoring team in the East lived up to its reputation.

[MORE: Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler: Rising together, debunking myths]

Al Horford dominated the afternoon with 33, 10 rebounds and six assists, giving Pau Gasol fits and leaving them to wonder if they had showed up in the first several minutes of the game if there would’ve been a different outcome.

 “Turnovers got their confidence up, our pick and roll coverage was not good, to say the least,” Hoiberg said. “They were getting whatever they wanted out there. (Horford) was phenomenal.”

They rebounded from a slow start against Boston, but they got burned with that fire on the road. The Hawks got to every loose ball, and kept the Bulls on their heels for the majority of the game.

Paul Millsap scored 18 with eight rebounds, two steals and six blocked shots, emphasizing the difference in energy between the two clubs.

The Bulls gave up nearly 50 points in the first 18 minutes, as they allowed the Hawks to execute their offense to its ball-moving and backdoor-cutting best. And with the Bulls not about to find an early rhythm, it was almost a laugher.

“I think we did a bad job of communicating while we were out there,” Rose said.  “They executed, they knew who were going down to on the inside. They played hard.”

There weren’t enough timeouts Hoiberg could have at his disposal to stem the tide and for the first time in awhile, Pau Gasol wasn’t available for the easy safety-valve jumpers for Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler.

It contributed to Rose having six turnovers and Butler three, but the Hawks simply made life difficult for the Bulls even through the Chicago runs.

“I think tonight, he got himself off his feet a couple times. A couple times we didn’t give him an outlet, that’s not on him,” said Hoiberg on Rose’s turnovers. “But a lot of careless ones, too many unforced.”

The Hawks’ bevy of bigs, including Horford and Tiago Splitter, were quick enough to jump out on Gasol while helping on drives to prevent the open looks. It was one reason it threw the Bulls all out of their rhythm, along with the Bulls’ overall sluggishness and inconsistent energy.

“We were trying to play catch-up the entire game,” Rose said. “We got within two, a call on the other end, a 3-point play, I don’t know that I touched him or whatever. But tonight we didn’t have that energy on the defensive side of the ball.”

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Gasol, who had been on a tear averaging 19.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.5 blocks in his last four games, couldn’t muster a similar showing when it was clearly needed.

He turned it over four times, often leading to fast breaks and wayward looks to the officials.

Then for a quarter and a half, the Bulls woke up, a chief reason why they scored more than 100 for the ninth straight game.

They came in waves, finally corralling the Hawks’ efficient offense and shut down the easy lanes to the basket and easier looks. Rose and Butler paced the comeback, along with the resurgent Nikola Mirotic, as the lead was slicked to two with a couple minutes remaining in the third.

Mirotic scored 24 with 10 rebounds while Butler led the Bulls with 27 and eight rebounds. Rose scored 17 with five assists in 35 minutes.

Butler picked up his fourth foul with over four minutes remaining but prodded Hoiberg into staying on the floor and went without picking up his fifth for the rest of the game, along with Rose playing the entire third, breaking usual Hoiberg trends.

The Hawks’ often-frenetic style took advantage of nearly every Bull mishap, especially with former Bull Kyle Korver stalking the perimeter for one of his three triples, although he didn’t have to do much once the Bulls decided to give the game away early in the fourth.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

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USA TODAY

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

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USA TODAY

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

Denzel Valentine’s troublesome left ankle is going to keep him on the sideline for at least the next two weeks. Fred Hoiberg said Saturday before the Bulls’ home opener against the Detroit Pistons that Valentine is suffering from a bone bruise in the ankle he sprained on the second day of training camp. Valentine will be evaluated in two weeks.

“It sucks because of all the work I put in this summer and being around the guys you want to be out there so bad,” he said. “Things happen for a reason, and now that we know what’s going on I at least have a time frame and be patient with it; it’s bad news but good news at the same time as it gives me time to get ready.”

Valentine had been practicing earlier in the week and appeared close to a return after spraining the ankle on Sept. 25. But the third year wing complained of discomfort in the ankle and missed practice on Friday. A scan of the left ankle revealed the bone bruise, and Hoiberg wouldn’t speculate on when exactly Valentine might return.

It’s the same ankle Valentine had surgery on in May 2017. Valentine also missed the last two weeks of last season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. The injury couldn’t come at a worse time for Valentine or the Bulls, who are in desparate need of help both in the backcourt and on the wing.

Though Valentine isn’t a true point guard, he averaged 3.2 assists per game off the bench last season. The Bulls could use that kind of production when Kris Dunn returns on Monday, as Cameron Payne and Ryan Arcidiacono haven’t exactly showed promise in the early going.

Instead, Valentine is on the mend and it’s unclear when he might return. Given he’s had surgery on the same ankle before, the Bulls will be cautious upon his return.

“I’m a fighter, I’m not going to quit; just deal with the hand dealt," Valentine said. "I can’t sit here and be negative, I just got to fight, stay mentally strong and this will be bittersweet when I come back and have a great year.”