Bulls come up short against Hornets, 94-86

The Bulls aren’t exactly building toward opening night.

Seemingly taking a step backward from the aim of playing a faster, unselfish game, the Bulls Monday reverted to more individual play and a tentative game in a 94-86 loss to the Charlotte Hornets.

The Bulls were led by Jimmy Butler with 18 points while playing 37 minutes, Taj Gibson with an impressive 14 points and nine rebounds in just 17 minutes and Joakim Noah with 12 points (eight of 15 on free throws), 13 rebounds and seven assists. Noah played 33 minutes with Pau Gasol not making the trip to rest.

It was a close game throughout with 21 lead changes and 13 ties, and only lost for the Bulls in the last half of the fourth quarter when the Hornets pulled away after leading by one point after three. Which would generally not be an issue in preseason as starters usually do not play much at the end of games. But Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg planned to narrow the rotation and have regulars playing more at the end of games this week in preparation for the regular season opener Oct. 27.

But with Butler and Noah playing the majority of the quarter along with Doug McDermott, Bobby Portis and E’Twaun Moore, the Hornets dominated. Portis scored eight of the Bulls 14 fourth quarter points as no one other than Noah had an assist. The Bulls fell to 2-4 in the preseason.

“We took a step in the right direction, I thought, defensively,” said Hoiberg. “We were really good offensively in the first quarter (33-33 tie) and from then on we were not good at all. We’ve been pretty good this preseason on that end. Tonight for whatever reason we didn’t play with any pace. We decided to play a slow down game tonight. That’s not how we’ve been practicing.”

That can happen against Charlotte, which has been a mirror image of the Bulls under Tom Thibodeau with rough defense and a slow offensive pace with ample retreat after shots. The Hornets have talked about pushing the ball, like everyone does in preseason, but with Al Jefferson inside and Cody Zeller as their power forward, they don’t appear like a running team. Rookie Frank Kaminsky played about 15 minutes and scored four points. The Hornets were led by their guards, Kemba Wallker and Jeremy Lin, who combined for 40 points as the Bulls often were beaten off the dribble. It was a game that noted the absence of Derrick Rose with the Bulls three point guards combining for six assists in about 60 minutes.

Rose was with the team and shooting pregame with his new mask to protect his facial fracture. But he is not scheduled to play in the last two preseason games. The Bulls host the Indiana Pacers in the United Center Tuesday.

Butler was aggressive with his offense and making mid range shots. But he was zero for four shooting threes for 17 percent in the preseason. He had two assists. The Bulls were six of 27 on threes and shot 37.6 percent overall.

There were positives, especially with Gibson.

The forward coming off ankle surgery and still limited was blowing past everyone inside in his limited playing time. His play on the offensive boards and mid range shooting helped carry the Bulls to that 33-point first quarter and then to their biggest lead at seven early in the second quarter.

“Taj was outstanding tonight,” said Hoiberg. “It was great to have him back out there playing a little bit more minutes.”

Noah starting for Gasol, who was in repose, showed signs of his 2013-14 form as he carried the ball out of the backcourt and filled up multiple box score columns. Noah’s ambitions toward the offensive boards earned him 15 trips to the free throw line, though he made eight. Noah was two of eight from the field, but it was encouraging even as he missed a pair of 18 footers. Last season he even refused to attempt them and Monday looked healthier than he was anytime last season.

“Jo was very active,” said Hoiberg. “I thought he defended Al Jefferson very well. He was battling, he was active, he was enthusiastic on the bench. He gave everything we expected out of Jo.”

Portis continued his relentless play and relentless efforts to change Hoiberg’s rotation, scoring 12 points with that eight early in the fourth quarter to keep the Bulls within three with six minutes. Portis was four of six shooting in the fourth; the rest of the team was three of 14 with several shots taken as the 24-second clock expired, something the Bulls had avoided previously in the preseason.

“I would like to see us get out and run and push and throw ahead and attack before the defense gets set,” said Hoiberg. “For whatever reason, we took a step backward in that tonight.”

Mirotic shot the three well with back to back threes midway the third quarter when the Bulls took a 67-61 lead. He was three of six and staying away from his favored pump faking. But no one else got much going from long range. Tony Snell was one of four for three points in 22 minutes. The combination of the Bulls hesitant play with forced shots late in the clock and Hornets guards getting to the basket enabled Charlotte to go from trailing 51-50 at half to a 73-72 lead after three on a near half court three.

“The good thing is we get to bounce back and play tomorrow,” said Noah. “I think we played better defense tonight, but we have to play better. I can do better. I’m missing free throws. We didn’t score a lot of points in the fourth quarter, so we’ll figure it out. I think we have to be patient and keep improving. Stay positive as a group. That’s the most important thing. Playing with Derrick is very different. He is very explosive off the pick-and-roll. So, I think that will be good. It will definitely be a very good option for us. We’re all learning each other.”