Roller coaster season continues with 106-101 loss to Bucks

Funny, none of the Bulls players look Dutch.

Though it did look at times Tuesday like they were getting back in transition in wooden shoes as the Milwaukee Bucks had 30 points off turnovers in a 106-101 victory over the Bulls.

But like the little Dutch boy who saved Holland in the famed fable, the Bulls found themselves plugging one basketball leak only to find another springing elsewhere.

“I thought our energy out of the gate was great,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg about a 17-7 start. “We got a double digit lead on them and then coming out in the third quarter let them right back in and gave them the momentum.”

In the meantime, the Bulls seemed to solve some issues in their leaky game. They covered their defensive boards and had a 20-14 edge in offensive rebounds and a whopping 57-40 overall on the boards. They had 22 assists on 35 baskets. They were even in second chance points and shot 12 of 29 on threes while holding the Bucks to three of 13. They got off to that fast start after the desultory debuts against Atlanta and Washington, didn’t give up a 30-point quarter and had an eight point lead with under seven minutes remaining.

“Got a lead and then started turning the ball over,” lamented Hoiberg. “Seventeen turnovers led to 30 points; we’ve got to value the ball, value the possession.”

And so this time it was turnovers, three straight in a three-minute stretch in the fourth quarter that turned into breakaway baskets and enabled the Bucks to pull away for the victory.

It was the Bulls third consecutive loss after six straight wins as they fell to 22-15 in this second of a four in five nights stretch. The Bucks are 16-24.

The Bulls were led by Jimmy Butler with 30 points and Nikola Mirotic and Tony Snell with 17 each. Pau Gasol added 10 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and four blocks in a much improved team effort all around.

But Derrick Rose with nine points after a good first half left early in the third quarter with what was called left patella tendinitis. He said it wasn’t serious and he was being cautious after feeling discomfort. He believed he would not need an MRI and still hoped to play Thursday in Philadelphia. Butler said he tweaked an ankle, though would play Thursday. Gasol added he aggravated a shoulder issue from Monday’s game and has had Achilles stiffness recently. He said he’d discuss Wednesday with the training staff about playing Thursday.

Hoiberg had said he might consider resting some players in the midst of this stretch, the only four in five of the season. But coming off consecutive losses it becomes more difficult. There’s obviously a chance neither Rose nor Gasol play in Philadelphia Thursday. Hoiberg said it would be discussed Wednesday.

What was discussed after the loss Tuesday was the exasperation with this unpredictable Bulls team, which has gone in the last month from seemingly on the verge of fatal turmoil to serious title contender back to trying to stay in the playoff race.

“I think we all have the team’s best interests at heart,” said Butler, who also had eight rebounds, six assists and four turnovers. “You have ups and down through the season, but through times like this we have to stick together.”

Frankly, no one quite knows what to make of this Bulls team, which played a pretty good game Tuesday.

They led basically the entire first half, 29-20 after one quarter and 51-46 at half. They gave up the lead after halftime when Rose went out with another sequence of turnovers, the Bucks led by Giannis Antetokounmpo with 29 points and 10 rebounds streaking ahead 67-59. But the Bulls got aggressive play from Snell and more efficiency from Mirotic to ease back ahead 77-74 after three quarters. Rose returned in the fourth quarter after being worked on by master trainer Jeff Tanaka throughout the third quarter, though it was clear Rose couldn’t move quickly. He left with the Bulls ahead 91-87.

But Mirotic committed an offensive foul, Taj Gibson had a shot blocked, Butler lost the ball driving into a crowd and the Bucks got a big three from Khris Middleton for a 99-95 lead with 2:26 left. Middleton added a well defended tough jumper over Butler with 16.7 seconds left for a 102-98 lead. Butler missed on a drive and there wasn’t much left but to try to explain another hole in their dam game.

“Obviously those turnovers led to those easy fast break points,” said Gasol. “They are a team that when they do force turnovers they are long and athletic and run the floor, so they make you pay for those turnovers. That’s kind of what happened at the end. It’s unfortunate; we’ve got to take care of the ball better. We did start the game the way we wanted to; we competed. We made some mistakes. That happens and they got going. Maybe our energy wasn’t great because of playing last night. But you have to move on, stay positive. It’s a long road ahead of us.”

And so it goes in this curious season with the sorts of dueling optimism and pessimism in quick succession this Bulls group has not experienced.

It goes down the roster as well.

The Bulls got some of their best play of the season from Snell, seven of 11 shooting overall and even calling for the ball on occasion and looking for his shot. Mirotic was taking more catch-and-shoot opportunities rather than dribbling around. Joakim Noah playing his second game after missing nine straight with a shoulder injury was more energetic, sharper with his passes with seven rebounds and two assists without a turnover in 15 minutes.

But Hoiberg seemed to have a quicker hook for Doug McDermott when the Bucks attacked him on defense and McDermott played just under six minutes. Bobby Portis played just four minutes and got two quick fouls and didn’t return. Kirk Hinrich moved back ahead of Aaron Brooks, who likely wasn’t going to play until Rose went out after Rose, Butler and Snell carried the first half offensive margin.

Rose said he felt problems late in the first half and told the team. He rode a stationary bicycle in timeouts, gave it a try, came out, gave it another try and left.

“Just felt something with my left knee (where he had the ACL surgery); just didn’t feel right when I was out there,” said Rose. “I’ve got to be cautious with my body, being smart about it. It just happened. It’s all part of the process. I’m doing everything possible to try to stay on the court, doing everything I have to do as far as getting treatment, lifting and everything. All I can do is (deal with) the reality. If I felt something all I can do is pay attention and listen to my body.

“I’m not concerned,” added Rose. “Just trying to be smart. Coming into this year, I was just trying to play consistent games, see how many games I could play this entire year and go from there. It didn’t loosen up. I tried to get back out there for the second time; still didn’t do anything. It wasn’t any need for me to be in the game when it was that close and I wasn’t able to move around the way I wanted to.

“I don’t feel (an MRI) is necessary,” said Rose. “I just needed to sit out. If I can play (Thursday), I’m going to play. I wish I could have played tonight. We started out great. That’s the hard thing about it, but it’s part of the process. I can’t be down just because I missed the second half. I’m more mad we lost the game. But I’m going to be all right.”

Though what about the Bulls?

They’re in fourth place in a tightly bunched Eastern Conference that is quickly becoming the Cleveland Cavaliers and everyone else. The Cavs lead second place Toronto by four and a half games. Toronto leads 10th place Boston by four and a half games.

It was a franchise record 12th straight game the Bulls have scored more than 100 points. They’ve lost five of those, hardly a reason to celebrate or declare a new offensive era.

Hoiberg seems to continue to search for the right mixtures and rotations from game to game, almost quarter to quarter with so much irregular production and so many streaky players.

“The big thing is playing with effort,” said Hoiberg. “That’s where it has to start; we had that for the most part tonight in the game. I’ll say it again, turnovers.”

The Bulls came rushing into this game like a flood. Rose, Butler and Mirotic had early threes; the guards were coming back to help with rebounding and blocking out. The big men were coming up aggressively in the pick and roll. Noah came in, rebounded and threw a long outlet to Butler for a score. Hinrich did so with Snell.

It looked right.

“The past few games were slow starts, but we got off to a great start,” said Butler. “But then there was the turnover margin. We didn’t get back. They’re a young group of guys and when they get that turnover they are really good at getting up the floor and it’s hard to catch them (62-32 Bucks edge in the paint mostly from transition scoring).”

It was the second unit that faltered again early in the second quarter. This time Hoiberg didn’t stay long with Portis or McDermott as Antetokounmpo was running it back at the Bulls. The Bucks were within two points midway through the second quarter. This time the Bulls didn’t back off and had three offensive rebounds on one late possession that led to a pair of Butler free throws. The fight was there.

But not the result.

Brooks, Snell and Mirotic with Gasol combined for a nice late third quarter sequence to give the Bulls the lead back. But they got careless again after five straight Snell points to get that last significant lead.

Yes, if it’s not one thing it’s another. From Milwaukee through Chicago, Atlanta and perhaps even Ft. Lee, New Jersey.

“When you come into a game you want to set the tone, want to be the aggressor,” noted Gasol. “That’s always a good sign. That allows you to weather a bad streak or stretch during a game that is probably going to come at some point. Tonight we did that, gave ourselves a chance. But we didn’t control the possessions. There are a couple of games now they are putting a little pressure on and we are not attacking it the right way, not making them pay. Things we have to clean up, be aware and get better at.

“In this league you have to figure things out quickly and situations can get bad quickly or get better quickly,” said Gasol. “It’s not always going to work out or go your way, but you have to put yourselves in a favorable position for good things to happen.”