Suns stun Bulls 103-101

And then depression set in.

“You have to have that killer instinct,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said Monday after the Bulls squandered a 16-point fourth quarter lead and lost 103-101 to the Phoenix Suns on an offensive rebound put back. “We have yet to find it this year.”

And off Hoiberg went following his briefest post game remarks of the season.

It was a night for many firsts as the Bulls gave up a season most 42 fourth quarter points to be caught from behind by a team playing its final game on a 10-day road trip and fifth game in the last seven nights. The Bulls, by contrast, were playing their second game in five days in the midst of nine of 10 home games. They are now 2-2 on the home stand and 11-7 on the season.

“We had them where they didn’t want to play anymore and that’s what happens in this league,” noted Derrick Rose. “If you let teams stay close, they get their confidence. Half of their bench was in and they still came back. We’ve got to find ways to close out teams.”

Though it’s more than that as this Bulls team with wins over the Spurs, Thunder and Cavaliers and a pair of losses to Charlotte and now back to back fourth quarters blowing leads and giving up at least 30 points to non playoff teams from last season continues to confront the season with ennui and a world weariness that suggests they think they are too important for the regular season.

“We’ve always got that (lack of a killer instinct),” said Jimmy Butler of the post game theme among reporters. “I don’t know what it is. Can’t close teams out; have a lead, don’t finish, lose games. It happens entirely too often. We keep talking about it, yadda, yadda, yadda, but eventually we’re going to have to fix it or we’re going to keep finding ourselves on the losing end of ball games.

“I think we got complacent,” said Butler. “Thought they were just going to lay down and in this league that doesn’t happen. I think you’ve either got it or you don’t (killer instinct); right now we don’t have it.”

And at some point it kills you because this isn’t your little-brother-by-16 months Eastern Conference. This is the new East.

The Bulls still are in fourth place in a conference suddenly facing NFL-like parity. There are 10 teams above .500 and the Bulls are just a game ahead of the 10th place Pistons. The Bulls now head for Boston and one of the East’s hottest teams, the Celtics, who move ahead of the Bulls with a win.

It’s not a quarter of the way into the season a certainty for the Bulls to even make the playoffs the way they are losing to supposed inferior teams. After all, there are more of them than the good teams. Playoff spots are earned; not reserved.

“It’s a mental thing, a mindset thing, a heart thing, chemistry thing,” said Pau Gasol, who led the Bulls with 22 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. “There are different factors that play a role there; we have to understand what is going on.

“How bad do we want this?” asked Gasol. “Games like this, like Charlotte (Saturday), we can’t afford to lose. It’s a big difference with these types of games. Losing them, at the end of the season we’re getting ourselves out of the playoffs at a certain time going forward. The thing is the conference is too tight, it’s wide open (to make the playoffs). If you want to be fighting for something you have to change things up.”

Starting lineup? Closing lineup? Rotation? Personnel? Attitude?

Butler added 19 points and Rose had 14 points, including a team most six in the fourth quarter when it appeared his three straight scores and then an assist on a Butler three pointer would save the Bulls from the discouraging loss. That last shot gave the Bulls a 101-96 lead with 1:47 left.

But the Suns came out of a timeout and freed rookie Devin Booker for a three against defensive replacement E’Twaun Moore. That brought the Suns within two with 1:39 left. Rose and Gasol had been getting switches on their pick and roll and when Gasol got the mismatch Rose threw him the ball. But passing out, Gasol had the ball stolen by Eric Bledsoe, who tied the game at 101 with a fast break layup with 1:17 left.

“We shouldn’t have been in that position,” said Gasol. “We made plenty of mistakes and turnovers to allow them to have more possessions and we paid the price and they capitalized.”

Hoiberg kept going with offense/defense changes as much as possible and came out of the timeout with his offensive group that include Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, Gasol, Butler and Rose, the latter two basically in always down the stretch.

Rose drove and pitched outside to Mirotic. He drove and spun himself into a turnover. Now, the Suns had a chance to take the lead with a minute left. Hoiberg got Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson back into the game along with Moore. Bledsoe got to the basket and missed, but he tied up Noah on the rebound. Noah won the tip and Hoiberg called time with 38.5 seconds to bring in his offensive team.

The game was there for the Bulls to steal back with even a two for one chance with 38.5 seconds left in the tie game. Rose got a screen from Gasol and missed a short push shot in the lane with 27 seconds left. The Suns rebounded but didn’t call timeout. So the Bulls couldn’t get their defenders back on the floor.

The Suns ran down the clock, Bledsoe drove and pitched into the right corner to Jon Leuer for a three. It bounced high and Mirza Teletovic came racing in unhindered, from the top of the key, grabbed the rebound and falling back after one dribble put up a shot that bounced on the rim and in for the winner. With three tenths of a second left the Bulls could not get off a shot.

“Teletovic wasn’t boxed out,” noticed Gasol. “Nobody put a body on him from what I could tell. Those are called winning plays. It’s not a basket or flashy thing, but the dirty work that we have to do more of, loose balls, the contact, the physicality of the game, the little things that make a difference between winning and losing and we are not doing enough of.

“It’s not a matter of finding it,” said Gasol. “It’s a matter of doing it, of wanting it; it’s not something lost, but wanting to do it and working at it. Not something you find, but something you want or don’t.”

That box out was Mirotic’s, though failing to box out has been a team wide constant this season. Though it hardly was Mirotic’s fault the Bulls lost. There was plenty of fault to find without looking too far. The Suns constantly kept Gasol in pick and roll and he stayed back in the lane and it gave the Suns a lot of open jumpers that helped Brandon Knight get 21 points, 17 in the fourth quarter in the Suns’ mad rush back. Butler basically had Knight for all those scores and couldn’t control him. Rose had five turnovers and again too many sideways passes instead of movement toward the basket. Tony Snell after a fast start again was barely seen afterward. The reserves, often a plus with energy, gave up the big lead in the fourth unable to score before Hoiberg got his starters back in. They scored, but couldn’t stop the Suns, who scored in 12 of 13 possessions to tie the game at 101. They were all minus when on the floor and the five starters, all scoring in double figures, were plus.

“We get a 16-point lead, play our best defensive quarter of the year, outscore them 26-10 in the third and then follow that up with our worst defensive quarter of the year and give them 42 and let them back in the game right away and then just couldn’t find a way to get a rebound,” lamented Hoiberg. “They score 28 second chance points (plus 20 Bulls turnovers); a lot of those came at key times. The urgency just wasn’t the same (in the fourth quarter). We went out, got stops, had great contests.. Then they were tough to stop and when we did get a stop, they got the rebound.

“We tried to let that group that started the fourth stay in there a little bit,” explained Hoiberg. “I thought they finished off the third well. Then we put the guys who really helped push the lead up to 16 back in the game to try to finish it, sub a little offense, defense, made a couple of mistakes.”

The Bulls young season thus far has been filled with these clichés and intangible, playing hard against the good teams and taking the poor ones for granted, displaying a lack of energy to start games, a killer instinct to finish or build on a lead.

Perhaps all of that can be explained by having a new coach trying a new system with players in new roles and a rotation, some late to the dance with busy summers or broken eye bones. At some point that has to morph into a unit. Unless it doesn’t.

Though what continues to be most striking is the relative lack of enthusiasm, that it often seems like more a business venture than a joyful escape, that the journey isn’t as enjoyable as what’s at the end. It’s a theme variously discussed but obviously impossible to quantify. It’s a talented group of players even with Rose not playing at his pre-injuries level. So they can win some of these games in which they are not challenged by the best in the league. But then you can lose some as well since the thrill of winning these doesn’t seem as urgent. After all, most of them led the league in wins for two straight seasons and they’re still buying their own jewelry.

But it’s also a governor for emotion when you are being asked to change the way you play and with whom. So there have to be periods of uncertainty, of becoming accustomed to new teammates in similar situations. It’s generally why teams created from a summer of free agency don’t succeed. Unless you get LeBron James. And, remember, even he started 9-8 in Miami.

It’s why veteran teams with continuity succeed most often. The Bulls have veterans, but they’re being spaced out among two units and charged with doing it somewhat differently, which they’ve welcomed. So it’s still there for them to embrace.

“Communication is good and that’s also something we need to work on,” said Gasol when asked about team meetings. “Address things, analyze: Why is this happening? What are you doing? What am I doing? How can we improve? Things like that should be talked about, not overlooked.”

The Bulls did talk plenty about a better start after falling behind 12-3 early against the Hornets, and they began Monday with a 16-11 lead. Snell, who was scoreless against Charlotte, made a pair of threes and had a driving score in an encouraging start for him as his aggression is often lacking. Rose had a beautiful touch pass on a three-on-two to Mirotic as the Bulls had a rare 20 fast break points in the game. They led 30-27 after one.

The second unit never could get much going and the second quarter featured six ties and two lead changes. It was 51-51 at halftime.

Then it looked liked the Bulls were putting the game away as Rose and Mirotic both had three scores each and the Suns were four of 20, scoring one field goal in the last 7:47 of the third quarter as the Bulls took a 77-61 lead after three. Closing a devastating trip of lost fourth quarter leads, the Suns looked ready to get home and see the sun again.

But they gave it one more brief shot at clarity. And it was what the Bulls have done too often this season with leads, quick shots off little ball movement, isolations, sloppy passing and ball handling. And suddenly with a three and a couple of easy drives—and with basically the defensive group on the floor—the Suns were within six points midway through the quarter. Hey, at that point why not play the six minutes. The Bulls were dead even though they didn’t know it yet.

Rose made two strong moves for scores and hit a pull up, but Knight forgot all about the tradition of chivalry. He scored 12 straight points around a Bledsoe layup and then the Bulls were fighting to avoid the shame. They couldn’t.

“You’ve got to bring it,” counseled Gasol. “Individually you have to come out and play like you want it, like you want it more than anything else. It’s just a bad loss. With a team so talented as we are it just shouldn’t happen.”