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Article updated: 1/13/2011 6:52 PM

Bulls search for solutions to avoid bumps on the road

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau says poor starts have led to three straight losses on the road to teams with losing records: New Jersey, Philadelphia and Charlotte. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau says poor starts have led to three straight losses on the road to teams with losing records: New Jersey, Philadelphia and Charlotte. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

 

Associated Press

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The Bulls are still learning how to navigate this unfamiliar world of the NBA's upper echelon.

At least, that was the talk following Wednesday's 96-91 defeat in Charlotte -- the Bulls' third-straight road loss to a team with a losing record.

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Update: Indiana lost 10 of 13 games recently, but managed to snap a nine-game road losing streak at Philadelphia on Tuesday, then beat Dallas minus Dirk Nowitzki a day later. Rookie forward Paul George scored a season-high 16 points against the Mavs. The Bulls beat Indiana 92-73 at home on Dec. 13. Carlos Boozer finished with 22 points and 18 rebounds that night while Pacers leading scorer Danny Granger (20.9 ppg.) sat out with an injury. After losing their first 12 games at Conseco Fieldhouse, the Bulls have gone 4-6 there since 2005-06.

Next: Miami Heat on Saturday at the United Center, 7 p.m.

The Bulls have gone 16-5 since Dec. 4 and many of those wins were so thoroughly routine, it seemed as if they didn't need to try very hard to dispose of weaker opponents. Well, that behavior eventually catches up with teams.

During this road losing streak, the Bulls trailed by double figures in the second half at New Jersey, Philadelphia and Charlotte. They caught up and had a chance to win at the end, but failed each time.

After the loss to the Bobcats, coach Tom Thibodeau pointed to the slow starts. The Bulls trailed Charlotte 36-22 after the first quarter.

"Everyone says, 'Oh, it's the last five minutes.' No, it's not. It's the start of the game," Thibodeau told reporters. "It's readiness to play. We've got to come out with a lot more intensity and we've got to guard people at the start of the game."

Forward Luol Deng, who scored 22 points against Charlotte, but none in the fourth quarter, suggested the Bulls are getting too comfortable with their supposed role as an NBA power.

"I think we're winning so many games that we're starting to relax a little bit and we can't do that," he said. "Right now, we're waiting until we're down and then we're picking up our intensity."

It's easier to recover from slow starts in a familiar environment, and the Bulls are tied for the league's second-best home record at 17-3. But they are the only team that's at least 10 games above .500 with a losing record (8-10) on the road.

The Bulls (25-13) didn't lose much ground in the Eastern Conference standings because a couple of winning streaks ended Wednesday. Orlando's nine-game win streak came to a close at New Orleans and Miami's 13-game road streak ended against the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Bulls face Miami for the first time this season on Saturday at the United Center, but first will try to avoid stretching the road skid to four games at Indiana on Friday.

One potential explanation for the Bulls' slow starts is they have two relative non-scorers in the starting lineup in center Kurt Thomas and shooting guard Keith Bogans.

They'd like to get more scoring from sharpshooter Kyle Korver. He took just 2 shots from the field against Charlotte, both 3-point makes, and finished with 9 points.

The problem is teams are attacking Korver relentlessly on defense. When he and Carlos Boozer are on the floor together, it gives the Bulls two players who struggle badly when isolated one-on-one.

Another suggestion would be to reintroduce James Johnson to the lineup. Early this season, there were a few times when the second-year forward helped spark the Bulls during sluggish performances. Lately, though, he's played in just three of the last 22 games and only has been given garbage-time minutes.

Ronnie Brewer has provided a boost off the bench with his athleticism. In theory, the Bulls could add Brewer's talents to the starting lineup and still bring a high-energy, athletic player off the bench in Johnson.

So far, playing harder for longer has been Thibodeau's solution to the Bulls' issues. It's a plan that can work, but these past three road games have shown playing with constant high energy is easier said than done.

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