From the 9-minute mark of the first quarter to the 2-minute mark of the fourth quarter, the Bulls played well enough to win. Unfortunately that five-minute stretch Saturday against the Charlotte Hornets also counted in the final tally, with a lackadaisical start and quiet finish proving costly in the Bulls’ 102-96 loss Saturday at the United Center.
A Doug McDermott 3-pointer from the top of the key tied the game at 94 with 2:06 remaining, and the Bulls were given consecutive chances to take the lead at home after a pair of errant shots from Nicolas Batum, the game’s leading scorer with 24 points.
And while the Bulls got the looks they wanted – first Derrick Rose ran the pick-and-roll with Pau Gasol, playing in his 1,000th game, and got the center an open look from 15 feet that went long; then McDermott had a look from the right wing that went halfway down before popping out – execution was an issue down the stretch, as they made just five of their final six shots after McDermott’s game-tying triple.
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The Hornets, ranked fourth in the NBA in efficiency, wouldn’t give the Bulls any more chances. Cody Zeller hit a pair of free throws and Kemba Walker connected on a stepback jumper after Jimmy Butler’s 3-point try from the right corner rimmed out to essentially put the game out of reach. Where the Bulls struggled in the closing moments, the Hornets scored eight points on their final five possessions to seal the victory, their second in three tries against the Bulls.
“We missed some shots we thought we hit. But we’ve got to get stops,” McDermott said after the game. “We didn’t do a job. Batum kind of had it rolling in the second half and we couldn’t really cool him off. It’s tough but we’ve got to bounce back, we’ve got more coming at us. We’ll be able to bounce back.”
That the Bulls had a chance to win in the closing minutes was a surprise in itself, considering they put themselves in a 12-3 hole to begin the game. Energy was lacking, the defense appeared to be a step behind Charlotte, winners in six of their last eight, and the offense wasn’t clicking, missing six of their first seven like they did to end the game.
Nikola Mirotic, who returned after suffering a concussion in Wednesday’s win over Denver, scored seven points on 3-for-4 shooting in the opening period. But aside from him, the other four starters combined to shoot 5-for-15.
“We know what it takes to win and having high energy from the gates, truthfully that’s on the starters,” said Butler, who missed his first five shots. “Definitely on the guards, on myself and Derrick for letting it happen. The bench did their job. They came in high energy, got us back into this game. It’s on us. The starting five has to go out there and start with energy.”
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A gutty performance from the second unit included a 16-4 run that gave the Bulls a three-point lead, but the Hornets responded on the backs of Batum and Kemba Walker, who finished with 17 points, to take a two-point halftime lead.
The Bulls appeared to be rolling in the third quarter, with Butler and Rose showing off that energy by each scoring nine points, while the Hornets were limited to 20 points and committed six turnovers, which turned into eight points for the Bulls. That looked more like the defense that entered Saturday leading the league in field goal percentage defense, though it faltered late when the offense couldn’t respond.
The fourth quarter was a back-and-forth affair, with neither team leading by more than one possession from the 9:45 mark until less than a minute remaining, with Walker’s jumper putting the Hornets up four, 98-94, with 28.9 seconds left.
Taking out the first 3 minutes and final 2 minutes, the Bulls outscored the Hornets, 91-82. In the remaining 43 minutes they shot 35-for-77, a respectable 45 percent.
But those other five minutes counted in the final tally, and despite the Bulls getting the ball in the right hands – they had 29 assists on 37 made field goals – the slow start felt as though they were playing catch-up all night, even when they took the lead in the third quarter.
“We just weren’t playing with pace. Coming out the gates they came out playing harder than we did as a whole on both ends of the floor,” Butler said. “When we play like that we’re not a good enough team to just play lazy and expect ourselves to outscore people.”
Scoring in general has been a difficulty for the Bulls of late. Though ranked in the top-10 in pace, they’ve now gone six straight games without scoring 100 points. There were signs of more progress – Derrick Rose scored 19 points and made three 3-pointers, half his season total entering the game, and McDermott looked good with 13 minutes and got late-game minutes – and now the challenge for Hoiberg is to get his players to show that consistency for 48 minutes. It didn’t happen at the start or very end Saturday night, and the result was the Bulls’ second home loss this season.
“I thought we missed some really, really good looks. I thought even Doug and Jimmy at the end had great looks that hit every part of the rim and bounced out,” Hoiberg said of the late-game struggles. “Our movement’s getting better and just we have to sustain it, we have to do it for 48 minutes.”