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Bulls continue two-step forward, one-step back season with bad losses

Bulls continue up-and-down season with bad loss originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

INDIANAPOLIS — Every time the Chicago Bulls appear to make progress, they trip things up with a maddening loss.

The latest example came Tuesday night when the Bulls blew a nearly flawless first half, a 21-point lead and lost to an Indiana Pacers team playing without Tyrese Haliburton and on a seven-game losing streak.

“It sucks because we had control,” Zach LaVine said. “We played a great first half, terrible second half, even worse 4th. A game like this, we’re supposed to win.”

Let’s hope LaVine meant that because the Bulls had a 21-point lead, not because of the Pacers’ shorthanded status. By this point of the season, the Bulls have proven multiple times that they can’t take any opponent for granted and that their margin of error is extremely small.

After limiting the Pacers to 46 points on 32.7 percent shooting in the first half, the Bulls got outscored by a staggering 70-48 in the second half, allowing 53.2 percent shooting. TJ McConnell might still be driving unimpeded to the rim.

The Bulls committed nine of their 16 turnovers in the second half and allowed the Pacers to score 24 points off those miscues. An ugly relapse into allowing offensive rebounds at inopportune times allowed the Pacers to post 19 second-chance points.

In short, the list of ugly was long. Especially since the Bulls had an opportunity to post their first four-game winning streak of the season and leapfrog the Pacers in the play-in standings.

Coach Billy Donovan even said the Bulls addressed at halftime the fact that the Pacers have made a habit this season of rallying from double-digit deficits.

Does that make what happened in the final 24 minutes better or worse?

“You have to love being in those situations and the grind of it. And we have not been able to make a decision to do that, quite honestly—what we all have to do collectively,” Donovan said. “It’s not one player or one thing. It’s a multitude of things where we look overwhelmed when the intensity level goes this way. And we have to respond better to that. That’s kind of what it is.

“I like this group. We have a high-character group. They’re good guys, relationships are good. But we have to be able to fight to overcome some of this stuff.”

If the Bulls are still talking about the need to compete harder or match intensity levels at this stage of the season, the expectations for the remainder probably shouldn’t be too high. The Pacers simply increased their defensive pressure, even picking up full court on multiple occasions and trapping DeMar DeRozan often.

And the Bulls simply wilted.

“They were really aggressive. We had a really hard time handling the basketball, passing it, even just getting into offense,” Donovan said. “And when we did a pretty good job defensively, we gave up so many second-chance opportunities where they just kind of outworked us, got to loose balls.”

This is damning stuff.

So is the fact that the Pacers made a point to try to take the ball out of DeRozan’s hands late. DeRozan is too gifted a scorer to still post 11 of his 33 points in the final period, with zero turnovers. But he also did not force matters when the traps occurred just past half court.

“A lot of times DeMar was in situations where he’s trying to wrestle two or three guys to get open. That’s just not sustainable,” Donovan said. “DeMar is a great competitor and is trying to do everything he can to go get the ball. But we’ve gotta be able to handle it with multiple guys and get into offense and play.”

Instead, LaVine had four of his six turnovers in the final period. Typically sure-handed Alex Caruso had two more.

All season, players have maintained their belief that they are a good team. Victories over the Eastern Conference’s elite like the Celtics and Bucks have further fueled that belief.

But with each additional deflating loss, how long until the players run out of that belief or the Bulls run out of time? Especially since most rival teams continue to operate under the belief that Bulls’ management isn’t planning significant moves in advance of the Feb. 9 trade deadline?

“I always try to figure out whatever situation I’m in,” DeRozan said, reiterating that he doesn’t get involved in front-office business. “If you give me a car with three wheels, I’m going to figure out how to get where I need to go.”

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