The Bulls arent a team that believes in moral victories. So the mere fact that in Tuesday nights 94-89 loss to the Clippers at the United Center, Chicago displayed a world of improvement from last months road drubbing at the hands of ex-Bulls coach Vinny Del Negros high-flying bunch on the Circus Trip doesnt make a difference to them.
While they hung tough with one of the NBAs elite teams, showed that their defense continues to be improved and valiantly battled to make it a barn-burner at the end of a night when key players like Luol Deng and Joakim Noah didnt have it going, they just didnt have enough firepower to take down the Pacific Division leaders, the true glamour club in Los Angeles at the moment.
In a start suited more to the Bulls (11-9) defensive-minded tendencies than the high-flying ways of the Clippers (15-6), the two teams came out of the gates slowly, combining for a 2-for-17 start from the field.
Eventually, the point-guard wizardry of All-Star Chris Paul (18 points) and scoring from veteran Caron Butler got the Clippers going, while the Bulls were propelled by Carlos Boozer (24 points, 13 rebounds) early.
The visitors built a slim cushion before their hosts reined them in with a blend of tough defense -- the Clippers shot 30 percent from the field --and balanced offense despite starting point guard Kirk Hinrich exiting the contest early with two quick fouls, giving way to backup Nate Robinson. Although the Bulls narrowed the gap, they still trailed, 21-18, following a quarter of play.
Arguably the deepest team in the league, the Clippers went to their potent bench at the outset of the second quarter, but Robinsons instant-offense scoring, Taj Gibsons (10 points, six rebounds) energetic play and timely scoring from the starters that remained in the game -- Marco Belinelli (18 points, seven rebounds, five assists) and Noah (10 points, 11 rebounds, six assists) both contributed with outside shooting, but Noahs rebounding and Belinellis playmaking were also positives -- ensured that the Bulls kept the game close and even overtook the Pacific Division leaders midway through the period.
For the time being, things were going the Bulls way, even with Clippers superstar Blake Griffin (22 points, 10 rebounds) knocking down his first three-pointer of the season.
However, a stretch featuring a quarter of consecutive Clippers dunks -- two by Griffin on fast breaks then an alley-oop by center DeAndre Jordan, another prolific dunker, followed by a powerful putback dunk -- changed the tenor of the game, as the Bulls ball-security issues gave the visitors easy transition opportunities and the lead in the contest.
As the Bulls ended the second quarter on the wrong end of a 12-2 run, they went into the intermission facing a 47-40 deficit.
After the break, the Bulls steadily fought back behind the point production of Boozer, Belinelli and Hinrich, quickly narrowing the gap and once again making it a close-knit affair.
For a team thats struggled to consistently knock down shots from long-distance all season, the Bulls went on a tear from three-point range -- they were 5-for-6 from the field in the first half and kept up the pace early in the third quarter -- to briefly take the lead.
Though the Bulls surrendered their edge as Paul and Griffin, receiving aid from the Clippers second unit -- veterans Jamal Crawford (10 points) and Matt Barnes (14 points), in particular, were effective -- lifted the visitors, they stayed within striking distance as the period waned on.
Heading into the final stanza, however, the Bulls were behind, 69-65.
Boozer continued to be the Bulls offensive focal point, carrying the team with his mid-range shooting, solid rebounding and interior finishing on an evening when Noah and Deng both had rare off nights as scorers and Belinelli wasnt exactly efficient as a shooter.
Still, the Clippers managed to widen the gap as their bench play gave them a major boost and the likes of Griffin and Paul -- the former in occasionally spectacular fashion -- made timely baskets.
As the game entered its stretch run, the Bulls simply couldnt make up the deficit and while Noah started to come alive late by making back-to-back tip-ins on the offensive glass, Griffin countered with alley-oops against the visitors vaunted half-court defense to help the Clippers maintain separation.
With 48.3 seconds remaining, however, a Belinelli triple cut the Clippers lead to two, 91-89, but on the subsequent possession, Paul hit a tough shot in the lane to make it a two-possession contest with 27.1 seconds left.
Out of a timeout, Noah drove baseline past Griffin for a tough reverse layup with 22.5 seconds on the clock, but Paul made three out of four free throws in the final 21 seconds to seal the deal for the visitors.
All in all, it was an admirable effort, but not enough to beat an opponent that many observers consider a title contender.