Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Hornets (01.02.17)

CHICAGO -- The Charlotte Hornets may be entering the new year as a winning team, but coach Steve Clifford isn't convinced his team is playing winning basketball -- at least not on a consistent basis.

On the other side, consistency is something that managed to elude the slumping Chicago Bulls for much of the season.

Entering Monday night's road test against the Bulls, the Hornets are performing well with the exception of being winless in six games against the Eastern Conference's three top teams after dropping a 121-115 loss to defending champion Cleveland on Saturday night.

But what's most concerning to Clifford is the lack of urgency the Hornets (19-15) display against struggling teams like Chicago, which lost two straight and eight of its last 11 games after falling to Milwaukee, 116-96, on Saturday night.

"The players get a little bit more juiced for (the Cleveland) game, but, look, the best teams, the great teams, may get up for a (national) TV game, but it's every game and that's what we need to get to," Clifford told reporters Saturday, according to the Charlotte Observer. "If you're a team that's pretty good and you don't understand that, you're not going to get to be (really) good. It's every game."

Charlotte struggled defensively early against the Cavaliers and allowed 71 first-half points. The Hornets will attempt to rectify that against the Bulls, who they beat 103-91 on Dec. 23.

"We have to be better," Hornets guard Kemba Walker told reporters Saturday night after scoring 37 points against the Cavs.

With every game, the problems continue to mount for the Bulls (16-18). Last week, an ESPN report suggested that coach Fred Hoiberg is on an ever-increasing hot seat due to Chicago's roller coaster play.

In addition to that, starting point guard Rajon Rondo has fallen out of favor with Hoiberg. Rondo was benched twice in the past week and did not play in Saturday's 20-point loss to the Bucks. Hoiberg elected to start Michael-Carter Williams in Rondo's place and used Jerian Grant off the bench.

The Chicago Tribune reported that Rondo met with Bulls general manager Gar Forman Saturday night. Asked if he felt like he had enough status as a veteran to ask to be moved if he continued to see his playing time diminish, Rondo -- according to the Tribune -- replied, "Absolutely."

Rondo told reporters that Hoiberg has told him that he has looked slow over the past five games.

"(Hoiberg) asks me all the time if I'm healthy," Rondo told reporters. "I respond the same, that this is the best I've ever felt this part of the season."

The Bulls struggled down the stretch against the Bucks. Despite 26 points, eight assists and seven rebounds for the game from Jimmy Butler, Chicago was outscored 36-20 in the fourth quarter and the defense allowed Milwaukee to shoot 56.6 percent shooting from the field.

Hoiberg told reporters before Saturday's game that Rondo has been "very professional" about being benched. Rondo said if the trend continued, he would use the time on the bench to advise younger players while doing his best to keep his game and his body in shape despite not playing as much as he would like to.

But when asked if he felt like he was being singled out for the Bulls' struggles this year, Rondo -- who has a history of chemistry issues with teammates before coming to Chicago in the offseason -- was succinct in his response.

"I'm Rajon Rondo," he told reporters. "It is what it is."

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