CHICAGO -- There weren't any answers to be found in the Chicago Bulls' locker room late Monday night, only more questions. That's because the Bulls didn't just lose 103-101 to the Phoenix Suns, they imploded. They gave up 42 points in the fourth quarter, blowing a 19-point lead to a team playing the back end of a back-to-back and playing its fifth game in seven nights. As has been the case all season, the Bulls haven't been able to deliver a knockout blow when they needed one.
"Hell, I think you either got it or you don't," swingman Jimmy Butler said of the Bulls' killer instinct. "Right now we don't have it."
The problem for the Bulls is that they aren't sure how to find it. How does a team that has had so much success over the years continue to have a problem bringing a consistent identity night after night?
"If I could put a finger on it, I wish I could," Bulls point guard Derrick Rose said. "But I can't. I don't have an answer for that."
Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg didn't either. He acknowledged that his team played its best defensive quarter of the season in the third quarter, giving up just 10 points, then followed that up with its worst defensive quarter of the year in the fourth, giving up 42. Anybody who has watched the Bulls this season shouldn't be surprised by the outcome. There are still times on the floor when the Bulls look unsure of what they are supposed to be doing. Scouts around the league seemed miffed by how poorly the Bulls are running Hoiberg's new offensive system, one that was supposed to bring fun and excitement back on a nightly basis.
"We got to understand what's going on. How bad do we want this?" Bulls big man Pau Gasol said. "Because games like this and games like [Saturday against] Charlotte you just can't afford to lose. It's a big difference winning those types of games and then losing them at the end of the season. We're putting ourselves out of the playoffs right now -- the Eastern Conference is too tight. It's wide open but you got to go for it. If we want to be up fighting for something, we got to change things up a little bit."
Gasol acknowledged that it may be time for the Bulls to have a team meeting to get on the same page. Yet again, players exchanged glances and words with one another at various stages because of missed assignments. Butler got upset with Gasol late in the fourth quarter after another Suns basket, but it takes an entire team effort to blow the game the way the Bulls did on Monday. As a championship winning veteran, Gasol knows that a clearing of the air may be in order.
"I think team meetings are good," Gasol said. "Communication is good and that's also something good we need to work on -- address things. Analyze, reflect [on] what's going on, why is this happening? What are you doing? What am I doing? How can we improve? Things like that are things that should be talked about, not overlooked."
Many players and staff members are still holding out hope that this group is struggling because it hasn't found its groove, that they are still going through the adjustment of learning what Hoiberg wants each night, but the broader issue is that there are times when the Bulls just don't play as hard as they need to.
"Every game is a lesson learned," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "Just got to learn from it. It's still early in the season. We just got to keep pushing -- there's always learning steps. No matter how long we've been together, every game is going to tell you something new and we still got a bunch of new guys in the system, still learning the system, still learning the defense, still learning Fred's whole philosophy. We just got to learn from it."
The Bulls better start learning quickly, though. Championship-caliber teams don't play like this group has over the first six weeks of the season. For a season that started with so much internal promise because of the change in leadership, the Hoiberg era hit its low point to date on Monday.
"It's just a bad loss tonight," Gasol said. "Games like this with a team so talented as we are, it just shouldn't happen."