It was termed “do or die” by the Bulls’ coaches and players, as the Atlanta Hawks were the first opponent in the season’s most critical week.
But as history has shown—and aptly pointed out by Pau Gasol, teams just can’t turn it on when they feel like it, especially 70 games in.
The Bulls’ race to the playoffs is turning into a race to the lottery, as they suffered yet another critical blow to their chances, falling below .500 with a 102-100 loss to the Hawks at the United Center, completing a season sweep from the Hawks and falling 2.5 games behind the eighth-seeded Detroit Pistons, despite a rousing start and an inspired, desperate finish after falling behind by 15.
They had a chance to tie with 13.6 seconds left but while going for two, Mike Dunleavy’s layup rolled off the rim, a curious call considering they were down three with no timeouts remaining.
“We had a play drawn up to give us two looks at the three (point shot),” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Mike made a great cut to the basket, unfortunately it didn’t go in.”
But nevertheless, the Hawks finished the game at the free throw line as Jeff Teague completed his 26-point night and held off an emotional charge from the Bulls.
If the Bulls had carried that desperation throughout, they likely would’ve won the contest easy but it’s hard to play off emotion for 48 minutes when you’ve been devoid of it for the better part of three months.
“We need to go out and fight like that. We need to have that kind of spirit and energy,” Hoiberg said.
A Jimmy Butler triple followed by a full court pass to Gasol resulted in a dunk and United Center explosion as the Bulls had their first sign of hope with a 11-2 run, cutting the lead to 90-86.
Then a surge from Aaron Brooks, complete with circus shots and all, tied the game at 93. Brooks finished with 16 points, six assists and four rebounds in 22 minutes. Rose overcame a slow start to score 20 with five rebounds and five assists and Gasol scored 19 with 11 rebounds.
Things looked lost then the defibrillator worked again, as Butler converted on a four-point play, hitting a triple while being fouled with 19.6 seconds left, cutting the lead to one.
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It was a bright moment in a game where Butler again struggled, starting off 2-7 before finishing 5-16 with 15 points in 35 minutes.
He started off with a tip dunk after a fast break, during one of those high-emotion instances when the Bulls looked like they were capable of running the Hawks out of the building, taking a 39-26 lead before the second quarter obliterated any hope of comfort.
Those 12 minutes will likely play in Hoiberg’s nightmares this offseason when he wonders why this team didn’t make the playoffs. From the 9:45 mark of the second quarter, the Hawks outscored the Bulls 26-6, swarming them and forcing bad shots all the way to halftime.
Paul Millsap hit two triples in the last minute of the half to give the Hawks a 52-45 lead, sapping any momentum the Bulls dreamed of having as they shot 15 percent (4 of 26).
“Going into the second we were over 50 percent but we started settling a little too much,” Gasol said. “They played pretty well so we have to give them credit defensively.”
It was death by a thousand cuts—or backdoor cuts, as Teague didn’t reach double figures until the third quarter when he scored 14 of his 26, cutting into the teeth of the defense at will, and the most impactful player wasn’t a high man in the scoring department at all.
But Millsap was all over the floor defensively, with blocked shots at the rim and steals underneath the basket when the Bulls thought they had easy opportunities, as he often stripped players on the way up, leaving the Bulls complaining to the officials while the Hawks galloped downcourt.
Millsap scored 11 with 11 rebounds, but his versatility threw the Bulls off-balance early, and he hit a big jumper late when the Bulls were charging.
“The second quarter we hit a low and then let them take the lead at the half,” Hoiberg said. “We were able to recover from our poor second quarter and give ourselves a chance to win.”
Desperation was all over the Bulls early, doing things that had been missing for weeks: active defensively, crisp ball movement and definitive decisions on both ends of the floor.
Gasol was potent on the pick and pop, and if nothing else Rose was active with his playmaking as the energy flowed through the building and the team, leading to a 13-point lead.
But the Hawks knew that would only last but for so long, as the league’s best defensive team over the last three months lived up to its billing, weathering the storm.
They stayed patient while the Bulls’ emotion went from full to empty almost at the blink of an eye.
And that’s when the Hawks pounced and preceded to put distance between themselves and the Bulls, sending them to their fourth straight loss—and making the postseason look more and more like a mirage.