Their own worst enemy: Bulls stunned by Nets

Their own worst enemy: Bulls stunned by Nets

BROOKLYN—The Chicago Bulls' biggest enemy isn't the schedule, the Milwaukee Bucks or Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat.

It's what they see when they look in the mirror.

With a chance to put themselves in a spot to clinch a playoff spot against a Brooklyn Nets team with nothing to play for, they came up short as they've done so many times this season when opportunity was at their fingertips.

When Jimmy Butler's corner jumper came up long with five seconds left, it not only prevented them from getting back to the precious .500 mark, it also put them in a perilous spot of losing control of a playoff spot, falling 107-106 to the talent-deficient but game Nets squad in Dwyane Wade's return from an elbow injury.

Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie was cut in Bulls' training camp came back to bite his former team, scoring the final seven points of the game to put the Bulls away in the Nets' final home game of the season.

"Is it deflating? No, because we're still in it man," said Jimmy Butler, who led the Bulls with 33 points, including going five for five from the 3-point line. "All we gotta do is win, and we're right there. But we've got to figure out a way to pull these games out in the end, get stops in the end, score some baskets in the end. We should be OK.''

Dinwiddie scored 19 points in 27 minutes off the bench, taking advantage of an opportunity he wasn't given in Chicago. Hitting a triple to tie the game was a result of yet another defensive breakdown where the Bulls didn't rotate and didn't seem to communicate, a seasonlong issue.

"You can't have that breakdown," Hoiberg said. "We had one switch and didn't run him off the line."

Wade fouled Dinwiddie the next time down on what appeared to be more miscommunication on a pick and roll, resulting in two free throws with 13 seconds left.

"One thing we were doing with Brook (Lopez) in the post, he would dribble and we would double and rotate," said Wade, who scored 14 points with seven rebounds but had five turnovers in 25 minutes. "We didn't rotate quick enough, Spence hit a 3. The other pick and roll, he kind of got an open lane to the basket, I don't think I fouled him."

Nevertheless, it put the Bulls in another weird spot—a spot they seem to be mighty comfortable at through 80 games.

Whether it's a loss to the Knicks or the 76ers at home, they can point to a bevy of games, recent and long ago, as to why they're battling to hold onto a playoff spot that isn't yet guaranteed.

What's more telling, they squandered a nine-point lead midway through the fourth quarter and the Nets pounced.

"They're a good team," Butler said. "They've been playing as well as anybody to tell you the truth. They've got guys that play incredibly hard."

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson kept attacking the Bulls, scoring the bulk of his 19 points and 12 rebounds in that final stretch that saw the Bulls curl under pressure they created.

Caris LeVert, a rookie who shoots 32 percent from 3-point land on the year, got hot late, hitting four of seven from long range and scored 19.

The Bulls played the percentages and got burned as the Nets shot just 32 percent from three but made big ones.

"We had a couple key turnovers in that stretch that got them out in transition," Hoiberg said. "Turnovers were obviously an issue for us all game long. We had a 2-on-1 break and couldn't take advantage of it."

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The third quarter saw the best of the Bulls as they scored 37 points on 68 percent shooting, fueled by the one player whose internal alarm clock knew it was a mid-afternoon game in Butler.

If not for a puzzling midseason stretch where Butler looked mentally and physically fatigued, he could do some serious campaigning to be on the bottom half of the MVP ballot.

He'll have to settle for dragging this inconsistent bunch to the postseason, if the Bulls can take care of business at home for the last two regular season games. 

The effect of missing Rajon Rondo can't be overstated, considering they looked lost with disjointed without a true point guard on the floor. Jerian Grant got into the lane a couple times for scores before heating up in the third quarter, while Michael Carter-Williams just had a miserable night off the bench.

Still, neither was the playmaker that Rondo is, and one player who depends on Rondo felt the aftershocks in Nikola Mirotic.

Mirotic missed all of his six shots and didn't score until hitting a free throw in the first minute of the third, being replaced by Bobby Portis and watching the Bulls immediately go on a run when he sat.

Still, Mirotic was on the floor late and the Bulls again came up short in a game they had no business sweating in.

Now, they must sweat out the final five days of the regular season, and only have themselves to blame for the perspiration.

"Mentality is we have two must-win games where we have to have great focus and energy," Hoiberg said. "The mentality is we have to win both."

And with their recent history as a guide, they can't be counted on to beat sub-.500 teams, at home or abroad.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg criticizes refs for not calling carries on Celtics' Isaiah Thomas

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg criticizes refs for not calling carries on Celtics' Isaiah Thomas

Fred Hoiberg wasn't pleased with the officials on Sunday.

Following the Bulls' 104-95 loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 4, the Bulls head coach criticized the refs for not calling carries on Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas.

"He had a hell of a game tonight, but when you're allowed discontiue your dribble on every possession, he is impossible to guard," Hoiberg said of Thomas. "He is impossible to guard when you're able to put your hand underneath the ball and take two or three steps and put it back down. It's impossoble to guard him in those situations."

After hearing those comments, Thomas said that he can't recall at any point this entire season where he was called for a carry.

"I've been dribbling that way my whole life," Thomas said. "I don't know what to say to that."

Thomas finished the game with 33 points and seven assists in 35 minutes played, leading his team to even up the series at 2-2.

Bulls comeback falls flat as Celtics tie series at 2-2

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USA TODAY

Bulls comeback falls flat as Celtics tie series at 2-2

By the numbers it looks like the series has gone to form but it certainly feels like the Bulls lost more than control of it with their 104-95 loss to the Celtics at the United Center Sunday evening.

The series is tied at two games apiece but it certainly has the feel of a Celtics advantage, and not just because they have two of the last three games in their building in a series that hasn't seen a home team win a game.

It looks as if the Celtics have figured the Bulls out, taken their best shot and delivered some serious blows of their own, in the form of a 5-foot-9 dynamo who produced a signature moment of his own when his team needed him desperately.

If Isaiah Thomas isn't the best player in this series, he was certainly the freshest star when it counted, spearheading a 15-2 run to finish the third quarter when the Bulls made a resounding comeback to look as if they would ride a wave of emotion to an improbable 3-1 lead.

Thomas scored or assisted on the next 20 Celtic points, getting into the lane at will along with finding shooters and buckets inside, the biggest stretch of his 33-point night, as he added nine assists on 10 of 21 shooting and hitting 12 of his 13 free throws.

It didn't matter that the Bulls missed a grand opportunity to exploit one of the most vulnerable defensive players in the league in Thomas, as they refused to attack him after he picked up his fourth foul early in the third.

He kept attacking the Bulls, jumping on the expressway known as the Bulls' paint and finishing multiple times against taller defenders to restore order and press the lead back to 10 at the end of the third.

The Bulls were gassed after coming back from a 20-point deficit, with Jimmy Butler literally doing everything on his way to a 33-point night with nine assists and five rebounds. After a game where he didn't go to the foul line at all, he took every bump and every bruise on his way to 23 free throws.

Nikola Mirotic and Isaiah Canaan scored 13 with Dwyane Wade adding 11, but it was Wade's missed fast break layup that resulted in an Al Horford 3-point play after a dunk that made it 92-80, ending a relatively serious Bulls' threat.

Horford scored 15 with 12 rebounds while Brad Stevens' adjustment from Game 3, Gerald Green, scored all 18 of his points in the first half, helping the Celtics take control as they again gouged the Bulls from the 3-point line in the opening moments—starting with Thomas' patience against an aggressive Bulls defense.

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The game was an instant replay early, with the Celtics jumping out to an 11-4 lead and methodically increasing it throughout. Hoiberg gave his struggling point guards another chance, but Grant and Carter-Williams were again not up to task, with Hoiberg pulling them in favor for Isaiah Canaan.

Canaan hasn't played meaningful minutes in months and certainly has been little more than an afterthought since early April but provided a spark in 33 minutes, being a plus-20 and at least bothering Thomas on defense.

Canaan took a charge on Thomas and then hit a triple, bringing the deficit to five midway through the period. The Bulls took their first lead with a Robin Lopez duck-in hook shot at 65-63 before Thomas sliced inside for two layups on consecutive possessions.

Lopez began picking away at the Celtics on the glass, but only played 22 minutes as Hoiberg opted to go away from him and switch to a smaller lineup. It was a tactic that backfired, as the Bulls lost their advantage in paint scoring with each scoring 48 after the Bulls had dominated that department in their first two wins.

Among many things the Bulls tried, competing was their best counter and it'll have to be that in spades from here—because it looks like the Celtics have all the big faces, even if it's in a small package.