By Mike McGraw
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Anyone who has listened to Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau speak to the media during the past two seasons has heard him repeat several phrases over and over again.
Monday night's 99-93 loss to Houston -- the Bulls' third in the last six at the United Center -- provoked a new line from Thibodeau during his postgame news conference.
"I felt like we let go of the rope," Thibodeau said. "Usually, we're a team that shows great fight. All year, great resolve. Get down, fight back. Never let go of the rope.
"The last two games, I felt we let go of the rope. So we've got to get that fight back, we've got to get that edge back. Right now we're not playing well. We've got to work our way out of it."
The Bulls (42-13) already endured a lopsided loss at Oklahoma City on Sunday. So this defeat ended their streak of 86 games without dropping two in a row. That's the second-longest run in NBA history, according to Stats, LLC, behind Utah's 95-game streak from 1997-99. The Bulls hadn't lost two in a row since Feb. 5 and 7 of last season, at Golden State and Portland.
Whether Thibodeau's "let go of the rope" comment was meant as a tug-of-war analogy or a "hanging on for dear life" scenario is open to interpretation. But he made it clear that he's disappointed with the Bulls' quality of play.
This was the 11th straight game that Derrick Rose has missed with a groin strain, while Richard Hamilton returned to action for the first time since March 5 with a bruised right shoulder.
The Rockets, meanwhile, were missing top scorers Kevin Martin (shoulder) and Kyle Lowry (bacterial infection). Houston pulled off a 41-14 run from midway through the third quarter to midway through the fourth quarter, turning a 13-point deficit into a 14-point advantage.
"Right now at this time of the year you have teams that are playing with great urgency," Thibodeau said. "Houston played a great game. They played hard. They fought. They're fighting for a playoff spot.
"Every night when you come in, you've got to be ready to fight. People are playing for things. You relax, you let your guard down, you're going to get knocked on your butt. That's the way it is.
"I'm disappointed in the way our team is playing. It's collective. We're capable of playing much better. The one thing I know about this league, things change quickly, both from good to bad and bad to good.
The Bulls finished with 19 turnovers, compared to Houston's 8. They dominated the glass, leading in second-chance points 26-10, but gave up too many open looks when the Rockets took control in the second half.
"When you turn the ball over and put them in the open floor and they get easy baskets, they're going to get confidence," Thibodeau said. "When you do that, you're making your job twice as hard. That's what we did, beat ourselves.
After Houston went ahead 90-78 with 6:46 remaining, the Bulls stepped up their defense and limited the Rockets to 2 points over the next six minutes.
But the Bulls had too many empty possessions. Once they climbed within 92-88 with 1:11 left on Luol Deng's long jumper, Courtney Lee answered with a turnaround jumper to make it a 6-point game with 51 seconds left, and the Bulls ran out of time.
Deng led the home team with 24 points, while point guard Goran Dragic scored 21 for Houston (29-25).
"I don't think we let go of the rope," said Carlos Boozer, who contributed 18 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists. "Anytime you lose two in a row, questions creep in. The only way we're going to get out of this is us. We fix it ourselves."