The Bulls' problems began rather quietly.
Following a season-best six-game win streak that had vaulted them just 2 1/2 games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Bulls traveled to Atlanta on Jan. 8 and were demolished in a 120-105 loss. Not much cause for concern, facing a quality opponent on the road after playing five of six at home, more problems crept up in losses to Washington and Milwaukee. The Bulls then needed a Jordan-esque performance from Jimmy Butler to beat the 4-36 Sixers, when a sense of trouble began.
Road wins against Detroit and Cleveland quieted critics temporarily, but Wednesday night's loss — again to Atlanta — produced what Derrick Rose admitted was the low point for the Bulls in this roller coaster of a season; a roller coaster featuring far more downs than ups of late, as the Bulls have now lost 13 of 18 games and are teetering near .500 for the first time since early November.
Head coach Fred Hoiberg, who admitted the first game back home after a lengthy road trip is "the hardest game you're going to play all year," wouldn't make excuses for his team after a 113-90 loss, the seventh straight game an opponent has topped the century mark. A difficult game, but for the Bulls it might have also been the most important to date.
Struggles during an odd road trip that had them in Los Angeles for four days, playing an always-difficult Denver game followed by four games in four different time zones in a six-day span might have been expected. Especially while dealing with injuries to three key players, including their All-Star shooting guard the final two-and-a-half games.
But Wednesday night was a chance for the Bulls earn a victory over an opponent with a winning record for the first time since Jan. 25, win at the United Center for the first time since Jan. 15 and snap a three-game losing streak. Doing so would have given the Bulls a glimmer of momentum heading into a period where they won't play again for eight days.
Instead, as Hoiberg remarked, the Bulls got satisfied with a break in sight and, as many teams are guilty of doing, looked ahead to the hiatus.
"It’s almost when the tough times hit our guys we're satisfied with, ‘Oh well, we’ve got the break coming up,'" Hoiberg said after the loss. "And as a team we’ve got to find ourselves. I challenged them to whatever they’ve got to do over the break, look themselves in the mirror, find a way to get committed to this thing and go on a run. And that’s all we can do right now, is look forward."
Looking forward, the Bulls are still dealing with real injury concerns. Butler will miss the next three to four weeks, Nikola Mirotic is only just standing upright after an appendectomy, and Joakim Noah likely has played his final game with the Bulls. Even Taj Gibson got banged up Wednesday night.
But Rose is playing the best basketball of his post-ACL-tear career, his 6-for-18 shooting performance against the Hawks notwithstanding. Pau Gasol, 35, was named to his second straight All-Star Game in place of the injured Butler, and he went for 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in Wednesday's loss, his 12th double-double with five or more assists; that trails only Draymond Green (16) and Russell Westbrook (13).
E'Twaun Moore is putting up career-best numbers in an extended role the past two weeks, Doug McDermott is shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc — he scored 17 points against the Hawks — and Mike Dunleavy is rounding into form after offseason back surgery. In other words, as Gibson described it:
"We have more than enough to win. We used to win games with less than this," said the power forward, who himself has averaged 9.0 points and 8.1 rebounds since Jan. 1. "It’s our mental. It’s extremely frustrating, and it hurts my heart.
"I can't seem to put a finger on it. It's frustrating. I try to tell guys, we’ve got to get back to playing for each other. Leave your heart out there and leave it on the line."
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Gasol echoed the sentiments of his coach, saying the All-Star break will give the Bulls a chance to recharge and figure out how they're going to play better basketball. Since Jan. 8, the Bulls have had the fifth least efficient offense and ninth worst defense. That's combined for a net rating of minus-7.3 points per 100 possessions; that mark is fourth worst in the NBA, behind only the Suns, Lakers and Nets, who are a combined 39-128 this season.
"I think we can be a lot better than what we are, and hopefully this break helps us understand where we are, reflect on what we can do better, what it means to — from an individual standpoint — change for us to perform at a better level and win games.
"Understanding that we’ve gone through a difficult stretch, but at the same time there’s 30 games left and we can make a really good push and a really good run. And that’s what we’re going to do. That’s my mindset."
The issue for the Bulls, however, is that the road doesn't get any easier. On their losing skid they've played seven teams with below-.500 records. They'll begin the second half of the season in Cleveland, playing a Cavs team that has won eight of 10 since Tyronn Lue's head coaching debut. The following night they host the Raptors, arguably the East's hottest team.
Now just one game in front of the ninth-seeded Pistons, the Bulls will use the All-Star break to rest bumps and bruises, reduce the timetables of those still injured and figure out how they'll dictate the rest of a season that appears to be fading fast.
"The biggest thing is we have to get back to playing winning basketball. It has to be a sacrifice. You have to give everything you can to help this team win," Hoiberg said. "All the little things. That's what it's about right now."