Bulls can't make plays down the stretch

WASHINGTON -- Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and his players usually find ways to win close games. On Tuesday night against the Washington Wizards they found different ways to lose one.

Whether it was missed shots down the stretch (the Bulls shot just 39.3 percent in the game and managed just 17 points in the final 12 minutes), emotions that couldn't be controlled (Kirk Hinrich picked up two technical fouls and was ejected with just 3:19 left in regulation), blown free throws (Jimmy Butler and Nate Robinson missed four straight foul shots in the final three minutes) or simply plays that couldn't be made (the Bulls repeatedly missed chances down the stretch to pull out the win), this is the kind of game that will have Thibodeau pulling out the little hair that he has left.

Sure, the Bulls can point to the fact that they are banged up, already playing without Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Marco Belinelli, Rip Hamilton and now Taj Gibson, who injured his left knee again in the second quarter. The problem with that argument, while understandable, is that it doesn't hold as much weight in a game that the rest of the (relatively) healthy players knew they should have won.

There's a reason why the Bulls locker room was so quiet after this loss. There's a reason why Butler slumped over in his locker staring into his cell phone. There's a reason why a frustrated Robinson blurted an expletive while discussing his misses at the line. The Bulls didn't live up to the standards they've set for themselves against the Wizards.

"Unfortunately sometimes our energy drops when we miss and that can't happen," Thibodeau said. "You have to play through. You have to be mentally tough when you face some adversity. We're short-handed, we have to play with great intensity all the time, That's what gives us our shot."

But as has been the case in various points over the last month or so, the Bulls started to unravel when times got tough. The edge that Thibodeau always talks about was missing and his players aren't sure how to find it again. They're searching for answers just like their coach.

"We need to execute what we need to do to win the game," Hinrich said. "We knew transition was going to be a big part of this game and rebounding and we didn't play good in either regard tonight. We have to have our edge and also we have to be right. We have to go out there and be able to take away the other team's strength. We just couldn't do that today."

What has to be most disconcerting is the mental toughness that Thibodeau always barks about is disappearing in long stretches. His team is battered and bruised and lacking emotion. When things start to go downhill they can't find a way to turn things around and get back on track. This is epitomized by the rough stretch Butler is going through at the foul line. After missing two crucial shots in the final seconds on Saturday against the Dallas Mavericks, Butler went to the line and missed again against the Wizards. He felt awful about his mistake and Thibodeau made it a point to say those didn't lose the game, but Butler knows he must do better.

"It's frustrating," Butler admitted. "That's the word that I would put on it. You look over at Nate, he's cussing himself out. It's tough knowing that the game's kind of on your shoulders you missed two. It's devastating to us personally as a team and all of our fans."

What is more devastating for the Bulls with just nine games left in the regular season is that the writing for this year appears to be on the wall. For as well as the Bulls played in last Wednesday's win over the Miami Heat, the reality is that this team is falling apart both mentally and physically at the wrong time. They still have a chance to surprise somebody in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, but this team hasn't caught a break in a long time and can't make the most of the few they've gotten. They'd love to go into the playoffs with some kind of rhythm, but even the players understand that that probably isn't possible at this point in the year.

"It is (important to get into a rhythm)," Bulls forward Carlos Boozer said. "But how can you do that when you've got so many guys that are important to you out? There's got to be a mix of doing the right thing but at the same time we've got key guys we have to get back before we can get consistent. But the guys that are playing are playing great. We're super shorthanded, we're playing heavy minutes against different matchups and having a chance to win every night. Our goal is to be healthy going into the playoffs but we'd like to get a good rhythm before we do that."