Bulls grounded by Atlanta 115-107

Welcoming back to your box of chocolates Chicago Bulls. That’s right, you just never know what you are going to get.

Sure, you’ll generally get good performances from Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, Butler with 39 points Wednesday and Wade 25 in the Bulls 115-107 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

But a Bulls team that was leading the league in number of rebounds and rebounding margin was outrebounded 49-30, outscored 20-9 on second chance points. A Bulls team that was 25th in the league in steals plundered Atlanta for 15 steals, six by Butler and five by Wade. A Bulls team second poorest in the NBA in forcing turnovers harassed Atlanta into 24 turnovers for a whopping 38 points. But a Bulls team allowing opponents some of the best shooting games of the season also couldn’t stop the Hawks, Atlanta with an early 17-point lead, 50.6 percent overall shooting and pulling away down the stretch after the Bulls got within 103-101 with 4:55 remaining in the game.

The Bulls have done so about half the time, now 4-4 and Thursday going to Miami for Wade’s reunion game with the Miami Heat. Atlanta is 6-2.

The Bulls obviously were trying to gain some momentum going into that game with Butler playing a season most 39 minutes and Wade a second most 34 minutes. Both were terrific with Butler also getting seven assists and making four three pointers. Wade made two more three pointers for 12 on the season, almost double his last season’s total, and he was 10 of 17 shooting overall in the game. But other than a little late surge from Taj Gibson, who had 13 points and six rebounds, Butler and Wade were mostly on their own in trying to hold off eight Atlanta players scoring in double figures led by Thabo Sefolosha off the bench with 20 points.

Though the Bulls starters also had their share of defensive issues again Wednesday, they were able to score enough to produce an 18-18 start in the first six minutes of the game. But the reserves had another ineffectual game as Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg continued to tinker with different rotations, again bringing Bobby Portis in before Cristiano Felicio, having Isaiah Canaan off the bench first and no playing time for Denzel Valentine.

The game changed in the first quarter when the Bulls went to the bench for Portis, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic and then again at the end of the third quarter with a similar group.

Those were two of the principal turning points in a game in which the play of Butler and Wade usually would have been enough for victory.

But tied at 24 with 1:41 left in the first quarter, Atlanta closed with an 11-3 run to lead 35-27 after one quarter. Sefolosha took advantage of Mirotic and then the Bulls seemed to give up on an end of quarter play with 3.7 seconds left for an easy full court layup.

Sefolosha had perhaps the game of his career, opening the second quarter with 10 straight Atlanta points, 18 points for Sefolosha in six minutes as the Hawks went ahead 50-33 for their biggest lead.

The Bulls got within 68-61 at halftime and looked in the third quarter like they were taking over the game against an Atlanta team that won in Cleveland Tuesday and was tiring. The Bulls led 85-80 with 4:08 left in the third. Then that similar reserve group gave up a 14-3 close to the third quarter and the Bulls trailed 94-88 after three. Again the Bulls fought back after trailing 103-92 with 8:31 left.

But then it was a four-minute meltdown late in the fourth quarter with three turnovers in four possessions that wasted the wonderful Butler and Wade games.

“Our bench has had good moments so far this year,” said Hoiberg. “Obviously, it wasn’t our bench’s best game of the season. I still believe in those guys; just have to get them playing better.”

The reserves have played well at times, Canaan with an important defensive presence in Monday win over Orlando. And Mirotic played well early with four double figure scoring games in his first five. But he’s two of 18 shooting the last three games and one of 13 on threes. McDermott continues to shoot well, 53 percent on the season. But he is averaging only about six attempts per game this month and barely more than one three point attempt per game.

Could they miss Michael Carter-Williams that much?

There was a lot of post game talk about the scouting report and being more attentive, thinking and recognizing situations and matchups. Which is commonplace for all teams.

But there were some very obvious flaws playing an Atlanta team without a great individual scorer after losing Jeff Teague and Al Horford. The Hawks with coach Mike Budenholzer are sort of a Spurs light, or the way they mostly were pre the development of Kawhi Leonard. Atlanta pushes the ball into a high pick and roll to get penetration into the lane, collapsing the defense and kicking the ball out and then if needed a swing pass for the shot.

You have to work to defend any consistent system, but it can be done. Like Butler says. You have to deny the Hawks the initial penetration and then have a big man step up. The Bulls again were weak in both aspects, enabling the Hawks to get into the drive, pitch and pass rhythm.

“It’s on all of us to communicate,” said Wade. “We’re out there on the floor. We see certain things. We’re going to get comfortable. They (the coaches) have to feel confident and know that we can make the adjustment as well, depending on who is on the floor. You have to study and you have to be prepared for multiple players coming in and guarding multiple situations. This is all trust. That’s what we continue to try to build here.”

It’s perhaps too much to ask in eight games with nine new players. OK, yes it is a lot.

This group, as Butler noted, has shown it can score and compete. Coming into the game the Bulls were 10th in the NBA in scoring and with an impressive 6.9 point per game margin, fifth in the league. But the defense continues to break down, both with the starters and reserves, though Hoiberg does always keep one or two starters with the reserves.

Wade gambled some and got beat a few times when he missed, but his steals and aggressive play on the ball was vital in enabling the Bulls to get back into the game from the large deficit and take that five-point lead late in the third and again rally in the fourth. Wade and Butler have shown they’ll keep the team competitive with their play.

Yes, we’ve heard that one before, usually after the losses.

Though there still seem some structural problems with the defense, especially on the perimeter. The Bulls bench Wednesday was outscored 54-18. That’s not going to happen often by that margin, but they need to give the team more consistency. That group, however, still is to be determined. The shakedown cruise continues. On to Miami for the carnival.