More fourth-quarter struggles doom Bulls in ugly loss to Magic

More fourth-quarter struggles doom Bulls in ugly loss to Magic

ORLANDO—With little beads of sweat near the top of Fred Hoiberg's hairline, he stood trying to explain the unexplainable, except the Bulls' 98-91 loss to the Orlando Magic was as unsurprising to those who have watched this team go through the motions as it was confusing for Hoiberg to go through the emotional merry-go-round for yet another 48 minutes.

As long as there's a competitive game in the fourth quarter it means Hoiberg's Bulls have a good chance of blowing it, even if the opponent is the 24-41 Orlando Magic, especially if the Bulls are without the services of Dwyane Wade.

Boom and boom.

The only thing Hoiberg would definitively claim was that this recent string of losses don't have anything to do with a lack of effort—although it's hard to say the Bulls have played a particularly inspired brand of basketball over the last several days.

"We're playing hard; it's not an effort thing," Hoiberg said. "Going out there and competing, we've had very good stretches of basketball."

Hoiberg wasn't referring to any critical stretch of basketball on this night, as the Bulls mustered 14 points after they began the fourth quarter tied with the Magic. And the play where Magic high-flyer Aaron Gordon scored on an inbounds play with 0.7 seconds left on the shot clock as the Magic inbounded the ball with just one option seemed to show a lack of recognition that many playoff teams have established through 60 games.

Habits that have truly developed are usually honed at this stage, when the separation between teams with playoff aspirations and those looking for lottery inspiration becomes painfully clear.

"We pretty much knew the low clock play they were going to run," Hoiberg said. "They threw it to the best athlete on the floor and he jumped over the top of our guy and tipped it in."

And perhaps painstakingly, Hoiberg rattled off plays where the Bulls executed well in the fourth—the problem is he did it in a five-second soundbite and had the rare occurrences committed to memory.

"We got off to another slow start in the fourth quarter," Hoiberg said. "We really struggled to score. It gets in our heads a little bit. It gets mental. When you have the last week of fourth quarters like we had…missed a couple open shots, gave them some easy ones on the other end. Had some awful turnovers."

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In each of the last three fourth quarters, the offense has gotten worse each time—and it was pretty ineffective for the first loss in this three-in-a-row stretch when they put up 18 points against the Clippers last Saturday night.

It almost feels like a game of "Clue" with this team, finding different ways to make you doubt their appetite for making the playoffs. Monday, it was open shots that were the culprit, at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

Wednesday it was their star going scoreless in the fourth as Jimmy Butler went 0-for-5 after starting off 7-for-16 with 21 points entering the final period. Against the Pistons, he was swarmed on pick and rolls, and the Bulls couldn't take advantage.

This time, their offense completely stalled yet again with errors, violations and all-around confusion as they shot five of 23 after shooting 53 percent in the first 36 minutes.

Aside from Jerian Grant showing he can be a human defibrillator, the Bulls might not have even scored 10 points in the fourth against one of the worst teams in the league.

And this is with Houston, Boston and Charlotte ahead in the next four days.

"Sometimes it's as simple as having a really good fourth quarter where you find a way to close out the game," Hoiberg said. "Hopefully it'll happen soon. Fourth quarters have been a huge issue for us this last week and if we want to have any chance of playing beyond the regular season, we gotta get better."

It's assuredly a byproduct of not having Wade around, with teams loading up on Butler and shutting down his driving lanes, leading to forced jumpers that have a high degree of difficulty.

"No, it's not mental. A lot is on myself, I have the ball," Butler said. "Either score a basket or put somebody in position to score. Don't turn the ball over, nothing they can do about that."

Butler had five turnovers, one of which led to a CJ Watson steal, layup and foul that extended the Magic lead to 87-81 with 7:03 left. The downward spiral began well before that play almost seemed to signify the Bulls were going to add another inexplicable loss to the ledger, considering they held a 13-point lead in the opening minutes of the third quarter.

They allowed Magic point guard Elfrid Payton to run wild, as he compiled a triple-double in the third quarter and finished with 22 points, 14 rebounds, 14 assists, two blocks and two steals.

Evan Fournier was able to find creases in the defense in the paint and on the perimeter to score 20 while new addition Terrence Ross scored 14.

Even with all that, the Bulls' answer to this clue is "in the kitchen, with the self-inflicted wound to the heart."

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

The door has officially been closed on the 2017-18 season for the Chicago Bulls, and the word that most comes to mind is “unfulfilling.”

Or maybe even “indistinguishable.”

Draft night was supposed to be a culmination of a painful seven-month stretch that only had occasional yet costly moments of light.

Death lineup? Meet Death March. And Death April, while we’re at it.

The Bulls brass sold everyone on a full rebuild after trading Jimmy Butler one year ago, with an unspoken promise that this draft would bear franchise-changing fruit—hence the general feeling of angst or even indifference with the solid selection of Wendell Carter Jr. and their not-so-secret affection of Chandler Hutchison.

It was why fans believe the Bulls got cold feet about trading to move up, and why they believe the Bulls weren’t being pragmatic in staying away from Michael Porter Jr.

Porter, some believe, has star written all over him given his prep ranking this time last year and the Bulls were in position to speed up this process without having to go into a painful Process.

They were desperate for a star, believing the tankathon had produced so much suffering it had to be something on the back end.

There was the fight (or the punch).

The aftermath.

The miserable 3-20 start.

The 14-7 streak that produced the audacity of hope.

The reality that 14-7 was damaging enough to the lottery chances that a 3-11 finish couldn’t rectify.

And finally, the coin flip that cost them five spots in the lottery one month ago.

So that empty feeling has less to do with Carter and Hutchison, who’ve done nothing to earn the “blah” reaction from the fan base and some media. It has everything to do with the unanswered questions over the last 82 games and lack of clarity over the three hauls from draft night last year.

It’s not that Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn underperformed individually last season, but the lack of cohesiveness due to injuries and circumstances has led to the varying thoughts.

LaVine is approaching restricted free agency and by all accounts is taking his continuing rehab in Washington very seriously.  Markkanen has added plenty of muscle since the offseason began, appearing as if he can play Michael B. Jordan’s in-ring foil in the next installation of “Creed” as Ivan Drago’s long lost son.

And despite the report about Dunn not working as hard on the floor this offseason, that would be more of a concern if this were late August, not June.

The last time they were seen together on the floor, they looked no closer to a pecking order than the day they arrived.

What we know is that they’re productive NBA players, capable of putting an individual tattoo on a game at a moment’s notice, skillful enough to take your breath away.

And for whatever reason, the expectations changed once the three displayed they could be dynamic on their own—a star needed to be anointed and groomed to go with the star they believed was coming their way after the season.

Management is fully behind Markkanen, but Paxson’s strong words about LaVine at the season-ending news conference illustrated how much it feels LaVine has to prove next season.

With his restricted free agency status looming, the Bulls’ initial offer will show how much they value him until and if he gets a better deal on the market.

And the fact the Bulls weren’t afraid to draft Trae Young while having a healthy debate about Collin Sexton on draft night has to show they have at least some skepticism about the future at point guard.

But stars—developing stars, acquired stars, drafted stars—have to do it on their own. No amount of promotion or prodding from management will validate their faith, if that’s the route the Bulls choose to go.

This has to be a meritocracy or it won’t work and, honestly, it’s time for a reality check.

All the worry about the Bulls getting back to title contention sooner rather than later seems like folks getting ahead of themselves.

The front office has taken its share of shots from media and fans, so some questioning is earned but they’re right about one thing. Rebuilds aren’t completed in a day or 12 months.

Expecting some magic potion to arrive in the form of a top draft pick isn’t going to cure what ills this roster, and it doesn’t seem likely all the cap space will result in a free agent choosing the Bulls over the usual suspects.

However, methodical building can look like complacency if not done with a sense of urgency.

And with urgency in mind, this past season was unsatisfying to say the least—heading into the next phase with two more young pieces to develop while the first three are still in the evaluation stage.

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Donte Ingram's 2018 keeps getting better and better.

The March Madness hero, who buried a game-winning 3-pointer in the first round of Loyola's win over Miami, will play on the Bulls' Summer League team.

Ingram, a Simeon Academy graduate, had himself an incredible senior season with the Ramblers, who advanced all the way to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.

In five NCAA Tournament games Ingram averaged 7.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists for the Ramblers. He also had 18 points in the MVC Conference Championship Game to secure the Ramblers' March Madness berth.

He'll join first-round draft picks Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison on the Las Vegas Summer League team, which will begin play early next month.