By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (670 The Score) — It has taken 38 games, nearly half of a regular season, but the Bulls are beginning to be who we thought they were, as the late Dennis Green might say.
After an abysmal 3-20 start in which their struggles ranged from suffering the third-worst loss in franchise history to blowing leads of 17 points thrice in late-game collapses, the Bulls reeled off a seven-game winning streak that was unprecedented in that it came after a 10-game losing streak. There was no making sense of the Bulls for a good three months.
There might be now. In the past four days, the Bulls have suffered three competitive losses to teams sitting in playoff spots. The latest was a 124-115 setback to the Raptors at the United Center on Wednesday night, when the Bulls led by two points early in the fourth quarter before Toronto reeled off a 23-6 run as Chicago went cold offensively and failed to get back on defense in transition.
“Each and every game, you got to focus on it, because you don’t want to create (bad) habits,” point guard Kris Dunn said of the defensive intensity. “The last couple games, we kind of let the fourth quarter go. The last two games, we were in a good battle, games we could’ve won, and we didn’t get the stops we need due to a lack of focus.”
The Bulls’ defense has shown signs of slippage lately. Justin Holiday used the phrase “falling asleep a little bit” to describe the struggles, while Hoiberg was irritated in saying, “We felt sorry for ourselves and didn’t run back in transition.”
The task for Hoiberg and his coaching staff is making sure those concerning signs don’t become troubling trends. The Raptors had 17 fast-break points and shot just shy of 49 percent. The Bulls led 31-21 after the first quarter, then allowed 103 points across the final three frames as the Raptors were paced by 35 points from DeMar DeRozan and a career-high 25 from reserve guard Delon Wright.
“You got to find a way, especially when you’re going through a rough patch, to find a way to continue to guard and keep yourself,” Hoiberg said. “Again, we didn’t do that tonight.”
The loss dropped the Bulls to 13-25, six games back of the eighth seed in the East and 2.5 games clear of the worst mark in the league in this rebuilding season. The development of Dunn, strong play from Lauri Markkanen, immediate boost from Nikola Mirotic, the impending return of Zach LaVine and usually high-effort level suggest the Bulls won’t be the league’s worst team, as the early season path had set them out to be.
On the other hand, the Bulls’ youth, talent deficiency in several key areas, recent regression in close games and the possible sale of veterans ahead of the Feb. 8 tread deadline signals that there won’t be any run coming at the eighth seed in the East.
As you’d expect a player might do, Holiday shot down the notion that the Bulls lack the talent to win on some nights, though he did acknowledge their window for error is small.
Of Chicago’s 13 wins, only three have come against teams that currently have winning records.
“In my eyes, it’s all effort and focus,” Holiday said. “And those are things you can control.
“As long we come out, do our job as a team and play hard, it gives ourselves a good chance.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.