By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (670 The Score) — About 40 minutes after the Cavaliers earned their 12th straight win with a 113-91 victory against the Bulls at the United Center on Monday evening, LeBron James stood in front of a couple dozen media members.
The topic of the second question he was asked as the Cavaliers continued to play their best basketball of the season? Ohio State football.
“Can you tell us how you feel about the Buckeyes not getting in the playoffs this year?” a reporter asked.
This meant nothing yet seemed symbolic of the state of the Bulls’ rebuild. With their current group, they’re an afterthought.
Monday marked the Bulls’ ninth straight loss, which is currently tied for the eighth-longest streak in franchise history. It started with the Cavaliers shooting 60 percent in the first quarter. It included a five-minute stretch in the second quarter in which the Bulls “lost our minds,” coach Fred Hoiberg said.
In the third quarter, Bulls game operations showed Chance the Rapper on the Jumbotron to elicit a reaction from the fans. In the fourth quarter, they went back to that well a second time, because nothing better was happening on the floor as it pertained to the home team. When Chance called it a night midway through the fourth, he gave James (23 points, seven rebounds, six assists) and J.R. Smith a handshake on the way out. Their nights were already done.
The loss dropped the Bulls to an NBA-worst 3-19 and 1-14 in their last 15 games. Had the Hornets’ Kemba Walker not missed a quality look at layup in the closing seconds on Nov. 17, the Bulls would likely be staring at a 15-game losing streak. The franchise record is 16.
Amid all this, the concern for the Bulls shouldn’t be — and isn’t, they claim — their ugly record. As player development remains the big-picture goal, the Bulls should worried in the near term about whether poor habits are forming.
There were signs of those Monday. Afterward, Hoiberg rued the Bulls’ inattention to defense when their shots weren’t falling. In what’s been so evident as to transform from a subtle to recognized-by-the-casual-fan weakness, the Bulls failed to identify mismatches on offense. Hoiberg took a second-half timeout at one point because the Bulls were playing a version of rec ball — and inefficiently at that.
“When the lights turn on, for whatever reason, when things get tough, we just stop doing the things that make us a solid team, that make us a team that gets good shots,” Hoiberg said. “We stopped running the offense out there for a while. We tried to go back and get it all on our own. You can’t do that. You have to keep playing together on both sides of the ball. Obviously offensively, you got to share it. That’s our only chance getting a good shot on the board.”
On one occasion, point guard Kris Dunn, one of Chicago’s better defenders, loafed down the court after a live-ball turnover. It resulted in a Cleveland layup by big man Kevin Love, who simply beat Dunn down the floor with hustle.
“When we’re not scoring the ball, we kind of hang our heads a little bit,” Dunn said. “Like I said before, I think we got to take pride on the defensive end. Teams are going to be coming at us. We got to be able to have a goal, you know. Try to get three stops in a row, try to get four stops in a row.”
As management has repeatedly stated, Hoiberg won’t be judged by wins and losses this season. He will be judged by the effort that his players put in, as will they. That Hoiberg and the Bulls are still asked about that on a semi-regular basis could be viewed as somewhat of an indictment in itself.
Dunn admitted the nine-game losing streak is a monkey on the Bulls’ back, but perhaps the bigger concern is preventing the losing streak from sabotaging the Bulls’ attitude, as that’s a recipe for poor habits to become the norm.
“That’s what we have to figure out as a group,” Dunn said. “The coaching staff, they’re on us to make sure we don’t create bad habits. As a group, when we’re in practice, keep battling, keep making each other better. When it comes to the games, don’t try to hang your head if the offensive game is not coming. Try to do something else besides score the ball.”
It’s a message Hoiberg has continued to preach but not one he’s seeing often enough.
“Tonight, we took a step backwards,” Hoiberg said.
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.