Game Recap: Rockets 99, Bulls 93

“You know, I felt like we let go of the rope. Usually we’re a team that [shows] great fight all year, great resolve. Get down, fight back, never let go of the rope. The last two games I’ve felt we let go of the rope. We’ve got to get that fight back. We’ve got to get that edge back. Right now, we’re not playing well. We’ve got to work our way out of it.”

That was Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau’s rather grim pronouncement after last night’s listless home loss to the Rockets. It also happened to be the first time the Bulls have lost two in a row in over a year, a stretch of 86 regular season games, which is the second longest such streak in NBA history.

So let me say this: The sky isn’t falling.

I know it feels that way. Over the past two seasons, the Bulls have been so consistent and made such a habit of bouncing back after a loss that a win last night was basically expected.

But let’s be realistic, folks. I understand that the Bulls are the number one “no excuse” team in a “no excuse” league, but they still have the best record in the league (thank to OKC’s loss to the Grizzlies) despite the fact that Derrick Rose has missed 21 of the team’s 55 games.

Think about that. The reigning MVP has been absent from 38 percent of his team’s games, and that team still has the best record in the league.

Beyond Rose, Rip Hamilton (who returned last night) has been more ghost than player. Luol Deng has been dealing with a torn wrist ligament. Joakim Noah has missed games. C.J. Watson has missed games. Taj Gibson has missed games.

Though all that, and despite the crazy lockout-shortened schedule, the Bulls have continued to play with all-out intensity every night.

However, they are human, not basketball machines. And while I get that these men are paid — and paid very well — to play a game. But most people are paid to do jobs. I am. Yet I lose focus from time to time. Sometimes daily. It’s called mental fatigue and it happens to everybody.

If anything, it’s kind of surprising this didn’t happen earlier.

For the last couple weeks, almost every game recap here or elsewhere has used the word “flat” to describe how the Bulls are playing. They aren’t sharp. Last night, they committed 19 turnovers for 25 points going the other way. After building a 15-point second quarter lead, they closed the half with a flurry of turnovers (5 in the last 4.5 minutes) that gave the Rockets a spark of hope that eventually proved fatal for the Bulls.

You want to talk about the Bulls missing their edge? The Rockets were 17-for-24 at the rim. That’s a conversion rate of 70.9 percent. Normally, the Bulls limit their opponents to 56.4 percent shooting at the rim. In fact, they lead the league in that particular category. But last night little Goran Dragic went 6-for-6 at the rim, and almost every one of those shots was a straight path directly to the hoop for a layup. No jukes, no fancy moves, nothing.

You want to talk about mental fatigue and lack of focus? With just under 11 minutes to go, the Bulls were down only 75-50 when Chase Budinger drilled a wide-open three. The Bulls called timeout and then responded by turning the ball over via an offensive charge by Noah. A minute later, Budinger hit another wide open three. About half a minute after that, Budinger nailed another one and suddenly the Bulls were down 84-72.

If it had been a pickup game, guys would have been screaming, “Who’s guarding that guy?!” Well, Deng was supposed to be covering Budinger, and he lost him all three times. Wasn’t close enough to get a hand anywhere near Budinger’s face.

Deng’s a pretty good defender. That rarely happens to him.

So yes, in addition to being minus Rose, the Bulls are a step slow and a little sloppy. They’re dragging their feet. They’ve temporarily lost their edge and focus.

But I really believe it’s temporary. So do the players.

Said Boozer: “I don’t think we let go of the rope. Any time you lose two in a row, questions creep in. Look, the only way we’re going to get out of it is us. We fix it ourselves. We put ourselves [in position for] this great season and we’re going to finish it with a great season.”

Added Korver: “It’s correctable, man. Obviously, it’s frustrating, you want to play better, you want to play well every night. I think we lost two games in a row for the first time in I don’t know how long. Obviously, we don’t want that to happen and there’s some things we need to correct, but we’ve still got 11 games left and the playoffs. It was nice to have Rip back tonight. Hopefully Derrick comes back soon and we’ll peak towards the end.”

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