For 24 minutes the Bulls looked reminiscent of the team they had defeated at the United Center two days earlier. The ball moved with precision, cutters found open shooters and the pace quickened as Fred Hoiberg’s group attempted to outrun a Clippers team on the second half of a back-to-back.
The result was a 19-assist first half that gave the Bulls a 61-55 lead at halftime that felt like more given how well they had played. Their 13 fast break points and 15 second-chance points before halftime were reflective of a team playing its best basketball of the year ready to earn a fifth impressive win in its last six tries.
And though they had struggled out of the gates in the third quarter, a Rajon Rondo 3-pointer gave the Bulls a 71-70 lead and gave them back some momentum briefly halted by a 15-5 Clippers run.
The momentum was short-lived, as the next 10-plus minutes became the Bulls’ ugliest stretch during this six-game span. Brook Lopez, who had 12 points in the first half, missed a 17-footer and Blake Griffin finished with a vicious dunk over Paul Zipser on the other end.
That became a microcosm for the second half, as the Bulls were outscored 26-9, shot 3-for-18 and committed seven turnovers. In that span Jamal Crawford scored 14 of his 25 points to push the Clippers’ lead to 16 and effectively close out the game. The Bulls wound up scoring 30 points in the second half – after a 32-point second quarter – shooting 10-for-35 and committing 13 turnovers in 101-91 loss.
“We just have to find a way to fight through tough times, understand what makes us a successful team,” Fred Hoiberg said. “When we get it on the floor we’re pretty tough to stop. That all stopped (in the) second half.”
The loss didn’t come at a critical juncture for the Bulls, who had won four of five and were playing with a sort of house money after beating the league-leading Warriors on Thursday. But there was still momentum to be gained playing a Clippers team that had lost in Milwaukee the previous night and lost four of five since the All-Star break.
All 11 Bulls who saw time in the first half scored, and the Bulls had built their lead while getting just eight points on three field goal attempts from leading scorer Jimmy Butler. Rondo was aggressive with the second unit, tallying six assists while reserves Paul Zipser and Cristiano Felicio both went 3-for-3 in the first half.
Early in the third quarter Lopez was called for offensive fouls on consecutive possessions. Hoiberg’s group wound up committing five offensive fouls in the half that he admitted took the Bulls out of their rhythm. Hoiberg himself was called for a technical foul arguing an offensive foul call on Zipser during the Clippers’ 26-9 stretch.
It didn’t help matters that Rondo rolled his ankle stepping on Clippers head coach Doc Rivers’ foot following the 3-pointer. He jogged to the locker room to get the ankle taped and returned for the fourth quarter, but the Bulls were outscored 12-2 to end the third quarter in his absence, and the offense never regained its form. Rondo finished with nine assists in 29 minutes and was easily the Bulls’ best option at the point; Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne each finished with two points in a combined 22 minutes.
“Obviously he’s a motor in that lineup and that group, and it kind of took it away a little bit,” Wade said of Rondo. Wade struggled with 10 points on 2 of 11 shooting. “We didn’t get back in it, (the Clippers) really got it going. It obviously hurt us. We depend on Rondo a lot to push the pace, to get us moving, to get the ball moving. It was a tough stretch there for a minute but it’s not an excuse.”
Butler spent most of the night passing out of double-teams; his seven field goal attempts were the fewest in a game that he played 30 minutes or more in since Dec. 19 against the Pistons. He registered five assists in the first half but appeared passive at times after halftime, though Hoiberg disagreed with the assessment.
Butler pointed to the Bulls’ turnovers as the reason for the second half drop-off in the second half.
“We can’t turn the ball over. That’s the main thing,” he said. “We were whipping that ball around in the first half, taking care of the basketball, getting easy shots. Second half we didn’t do that. That was the game within itself.”
Butler averaged 16.6 field goal attempts and 9.5 free throw attempts in 48 games before injuring his right heel in Oklahoma City on Feb. 1. In eight games since he’s averaging 15.0 field goal attempts and 8.0 free throw attempts. The turnovers have been frustrating but Butler, who has shot 37.5 percent in those games, insists he’s taking what defenses are giving him.
“I want to get everybody involved. I think that’s what coaches want me to do, it’s what everybody wants me to do. I’m trying to do that,” he said. “I think we all know I could shoot the ball at any time. Good shot, bad shot, but I don’t want to do that.”
The Bulls still find themselves in good position in the East. After wins over Toronto, Boston, Cleveland and Golden State, they sit comfortably in the No. 7 as they prepare for four of their next five on the road. So while Saturday’s loss wasn’t one they needed, it’s certainly one that got away after 24 minutes of near-flawless execution.
“It was all about pace,” Hoiberg said. “First half we had it, second half we didn’t.”