Sure, it was natural to think after the Bulls rolled over Cleveland on Friday, that a visit from New Orleans would result in a big, easy win.
But sometimes it’s just not your night, and many times Derrick Rose bailed out banal performances with fourth-quarter heroics. With Rose watching from the seats, the Bulls’ need for another hero went unmet.
They lost to the Hornets 89-82 at the United Center. Putting some numbers to the Bulls’ frustration, they trailed 66-60 heading into the fourth quarter, cut the lead to 4 points eight times and never got closer. They missed a chance to go 3-0 for the first time since 1996.
This was a long way from Friday’s 29-point romp and stomp over the Cavaliers. It was almost a complete reversal, in fact, with Kirk Hinrich, Richard Hamilton and Carlos Boozer shooting a combined 4-for-26 from the field. Coach Tom Thibodeau left all three on the bench down the stretch.
“We were just searching, trying to get some energy out there,” Thibodeau said. “I just felt we were flat.”
That was obvious from the opening tip, when the Bulls couldn’t buy a basket and fell behind 10-2 and 16-6.
They seemed to right the ship, with an unlikely boost coming from former Hornets guard Marco Belinelli. He contributed a 3-point play, fastbreak dunk and 3-point basket to tie the game at 18-18.
The Bulls actually built a 7-point lead late in the second quarter. But New Orleans point guard Greivis Vasquez finished the first half with back-to-back 3-pointers, the Bulls trailed 46-44 at half and never led again.
“Thibs has said, it can go from good to bad quick,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “You’ve got everybody telling you how good you are and praising you, you get knocked on your tail. That’s one thing about this league, you can’t get comfortable at any time in any game, because there’s always somebody looking to knock you down.”
The Bulls (2-1), on the other hand, couldn’t knock anything down. They shot 33 percent from the field overall, missing chippies, blowing fastbreak chances and knocking down just 3 of 17 shots from 3-point range.
Luol Deng led the home team with 19 points, but even he was just 6 of 15 from the field. The next three leading scorers were reserves — Nate Robinson with 15, Belinelli with 13 and Gibson with 12.
“Tough day at the office,” said center Joakim Noah, who had 11 points and 11 rebounds. “We got our butts kicked. They outplayed us. They were way more on edge than us. It’s unfortunate because it was a good opportunity to go 3-0. But on to the next one — three games in, 79 more to go.”
New Orleans (2-1) played without No. 1 overall draft pick Anthony Davis, who suffered a concussion in Friday’s win over Utah, and shooting guard Eric Gordon, who will miss several weeks with a knee injury.
Davis’ absence simply provided opportunity for players likes backup center Jason Smith, who scored 16 points in 15 minutes.
“They missed some shots, too,” said Hornets coach Monty Williams. “Deng missed a lot of shots he normally makes. Boozer certainly wasn’t himself tonight. So we played pretty tough defense, but they didn’t know down the shots they knocked down last night.”
After the easy win in Cleveland, maybe this was the right time for the Bulls to remember that it will be a rocky road with Rose. Winning two out of every three games would be an excellent outcome, but more potential danger awaits Tuesday when Dwight Howard-less Orlando comes to town.
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