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."
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."