By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — The answer was simple, direct and the most honest assessment that any member of the Bulls could provide after a 117-107 loss to the 76ers on Friday night at the United Center.
What went wrong defensively?
“Everything,” Rajon Rondo said.
Their playoff hopes in a precarious spot, coming off a key win Wednesday and facing a team down two of its top players, the Bulls submitted what they themselves viewed as one of their worst efforts of the season. Chicago offered Philadelphia unfettered access to the rim for long stretches, as the 76ers racked up an astounding 70 points in the paint and turned a four-point deficit after the first quarter into a rout by outscoring the Bulls, 35-18, in the second quarter and then making eight layups/dunks in the first five-plus minutes of the third period.
At one point during the Bulls’ spiral, backup big man Joffrey Lauvergne turned to Rondo on the bench and asked him what was up with what he was watching.
“I don’t have the answer,” Rondo explained later.
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was visibly frustrated in the aftermath as the 76ers shot 55.4 percent, which was close to the highest shooting percentage of any Chicago foe this season (56.6). Dario Saric led Philadelphia with 32 points, and Shawn Long, a little-used rookie out Louisiana-Lafayette, had 18 as the boos trickled out of the United Center crowd on multiple occasions.
“For us to come out and play with that type of effort at this time of year, it’s maddening,” said Hoiberg, who pulled Rondo on multiple occasions, presumably for his poor defense, but still struggled to find answers elsewhere.
With the loss, Chicago fell to 34-39, 1.5 games behind Miami (35-37) for the final playoff spot in the East. (The Bulls hold the tiebreaker over the Heat.) There remains enough time remains for the Bulls to climb back to eighth, but whether they have the passion or consistency to do so — even with a favorable closing schedule — remains the question.
Asked directly if the Bulls still have the fire for a playoff push, Rondo responded, “Why would we not?” But he was also real about the Bulls’ standing after 73 games.
“Habits are habits,” Rondo said. “You can’t just flip a switch and say we’re a different team. You are who you are at the end of the day.
“I don’t have the answer to our inconsistency. It’s how the season’s been. It’s no different. Obviously, it gets magnified when you lose to Philly or a team you’re supposed to beat, but it’s been the same pretty much all year.”
When it was done, Bulls star Jimmy Butler sat at his locker, scanning a box score with a water bottle in hand, feeling the effects of the toll on his body after going to the free-throw line 21 times. Butler stared intently, expressionless.
The stat sheet reflected his yeoman’s effort in going for 36 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists. And it displayed his fellow four starters shooting 8-of-28 and those 70 points in the paint from the 76ers.
“We do enough talking around here as it is,” Butler said. “I think everybody knows where we stand right now, on the outside looking in. Everybody knows where we want to be. There ain’t too much to say. Nine more — we got to have them, like we said before the game. That’s what we’ll say tomorrow and the day after that then the day after that. We got to have them.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. He’s also the co-host of the @LockedOnBulls podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes and Stitcher. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.