12:18 AM ET
- Nick FriedellESPN Staff Writer Close
ORLANDO — Fred Hoiberg looked miserable.
As the embattled Chicago Bulls head coach watched his beleaguered team implode late in a 98-91 loss to an Orlando Magic squad that came into the contest with just 23 wins on the season, Hoiberg wore the look of man who couldn't escape the reality in front of him.
The 44-year-old had seen the same movie play out before many times this season. After solid wins against some of the top teams in the NBA, Hoiberg's team usually followed that up with losses to some of the worst. But in a season full of huge victories and ugly defeats, the Bulls outdid themselves on Wednesday night.
They allowed an awful Magic group to dominate them down the stretch — to the tune of a 49-29 run to close the game. For the second straight contest, the Bulls looked lifeless offensively in the fourth quarter. Without Dwyane Wade, who remains out because of a thigh injury, Jimmy Butler went 0-for-5 in the final 12 minutes as the Bulls went just 5-for-23 from the field in the final frame. The Bulls, who have now dropped three games in a row, have scored just 48 points over their past three fourth quarters combined.
"The big thing, we got off to another slow start in the quarter," Hoiberg said. "We got fouled on that first possession, knocked down one out of two free throws and then really struggled to score after that. Then it gets in our heads a little bit and becomes mental when you have this last week of fourth quarters like we have."
The Bulls are hopeful that Wade's presence will stabilize them, but the issues this group is having run much deeper than whether or not Wade is on the floor. Hoiberg said after the game that he would consider rotation changes, but at this point, there's not much left to change. The Bulls continue having problems late in games because their offense stalls. Instead of moving the ball from side to side, as they do early in games, the Bulls play too much iso-ball, which continues to get them in trouble. If Butler or Wade can't get it going, they Bulls don't have any other consistent options. That isn't a new problem for Hoiberg; it's the same one this flawed roster has dealt with all season.
"[Assistant coach] Pete Myers gave a great speech earlier and I think we listened to it in the first half," veteran point guard Rajon Rondo said. "But the second half we didn't stick to the plan."
The only consistency the Bulls have shown all season is that they are inconsistent. The fact that they lost to the Magic shouldn't come as much of a surprise given the up-and-down nature of their season. But the way in which they folded down the stretch should give Hoiberg and the Bulls' front office cause for concern. The bench looked lifeless watching the final 12 minutes unfold, as the woeful Magic made all the extra hustle plays to squeak out a win. Magic guard Elfrid Payton torched the Bulls for 22 points, 14 assists and 14 rebounds, as the Magic outscored the Bulls 27-5 in fast-break points.
When asked how the Bulls could break out of their own funk, Rondo was measured in his response.
"Mental toughness," he said. "Got to find a way. Got to come in with the right mindset. We can't pick and choose when we want to turn it on and off. So we've just got to have a better mental focus."
Does this group have that within them?
"We showed spurts of it," he said. "It's just about being consistent. Consistent effort."
If the Bulls are banking on consistent effort this late in the season, they are doomed. Butler brushed off the notion that it was a mental hurdle the group needed to overcome and blamed himself for not finding a way to make more shots. But with 18 games left to play, and the Miami Heat just a half-game behind Chicago for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls looked and sounded like a team that knew the end was near.
They face a brutal stretch of games over the next week and a half, which includes home dates against the Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies and Utah Jazz and road games against the Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards. The Bulls had to have this game against the Magic — and they couldn't get it done.
"It's hard to explain," Bulls guard Jerian Grant said. "It's definitely hard to explain. We beat some of the best and we lost to some of the worst. These last few games we got to figure it out. We're trying to make the playoffs. And we do have some tough teams we're going to play against so I know we're going to bring it. But we have some teams that are not so good that we have to get wins against."
The Bulls have shown all season that just when you're ready to write them off, they find a way to pull you back in by winning games they aren't supposed to win. Aside from their knack of beating the best, they also have the league's easiest April schedule, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. For several years, this group has been at its best when its collective back was against the wall.
"Now we've got to go win some games that nobody thinks we can win," Butler said. "I think that's the only way to go about it. Win the games we're supposed to win at home, sneak some on the road."
The problem for Butler and his teammates is that this particular setback felt different. This type of loss doesn't bring teams closer together. It breaks them apart.