Once, the saying goes, is chance, twice is a coincidence, and the third time is a pattern.
If that is indeed the case, then the Bulls have developed a troubling pattern of coasting early in games, and it finally bit them tonight against a gritty Philadelphia squad. Derrick Rose was able to lead his team to comeback wins against the Grizzlies and the Bucks last week, but with ten turnovers and no outside shot to speak of, the Bulls fell short against the 76ers, losing 97-85 in a game they never led.
The loss snaps the Bulls' 14-game winning streak at the United Center, but with the Celtics' road loss to the Indiana Pacers, Chicago retains its two-game lead in the Eastern Conference standings.
Once again the Bulls came out playing loose defense against a team fighting for its playoff life and it showed. Thaddeus Young absolutely owned Carlos Boozer in the paint, to the point that 76ers coach Doug Collins began calling isolation plays to take advantage. Young finished the first half with 16 points and seven boards.
Despite coach Thibodeau's' best efforts to find a lineup to match Philly's intensity, the Bulls got run off the court in the first half and trailed by as many as 23 points. Not only did Chicago miss its rotations on defense, but it couldn't throw the ball in the ocean from the side of a pier, shooting 36% from the field.
Whatever Thibodeau said at halftime (between profanities), Chicago came out in the second half playing trademark defense, Rose began attacking and by the end of the 3rd quarter the Sixers lead was down to five. But as happens so often when teams have to spend all their energy getting back into the game, the Bulls simply ran out of gas down the stretch.
Rose finished with 31 points, five assists and four rebounds, but his ten turnovers were the difference. Luol Deng, who has looked gassed for the last two games, went three for 11 from the floor for ten points, almost half his season average. Not to sound like a broken record, but these are the things that happen when a player is 4th in the NBA in minutes played. Boozer and Joakim Noah are still a work-in-progress on the floor together, although they did find some success during the Bulls' third quarter rally. Noah finished with his second-straight double-double with ten points and 13 rebounds. Boozer notched 15 points and nine boards.
Overall the Bulls had a terrible night shooting the basketball, going 40% from the field, 11% from the three point line, and worst of all, 60% from the free throw line. It seemed like every time Chicago was getting back into the game someone would brick a pair of free throws, then Philly would get out in transition and re-extend its lead. Between that and an uncharacteristic 17 turnovers, the Bulls didn't give themselves much of a chance to win tonight.
Ultimately, the Bulls almost needed a loss like this to break them of their newly-formed habit. No player in the NBA takes a loss harder than Rose, and his team seems to follow suit: The Bulls are 15-4 this season in games following a loss. With Boston's defeat Monday the Bulls retain their two-game cushion in the playoff standings, which is becoming more important by the day: Chicago has now lost the season series to both the 76ers and the New York Knicks.
The Bulls get a day off before traveling to play the bottom-dwelling Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday evening.
Follow Zachary Lee on Twitter @rightfieldsucks