By Mike McGraw
Nate Robinson had it rolling, with 11 points in the fourth quarter and he'd just canned a 3-pointer to give the Bulls an 84-79 lead at Houston with 4:41 left.
But when Robinson grabbed a long defensive rebound and headed quickly the other way, he got a little carried away. Instead of working for a good shot, he pulled up for a quick 3-pointer that bounced off the rim.
That play in itself didn't burn the Bulls, but it was the beginning of the end. The quick 3-pointer was the first of 11 straight misses and the Rockets roared back for a 93-89 win on Wednesday at the Toyota Center.
The result cemented the first three-game losing streak of the regular season in coach Tom Thibodeau's tenure with the Bulls. They also dropped below .500 for the first time since starting 2-3 in 2010-11.
"Obviously, you hate the losing part of it," Thibodeau told reporters after the game. "I'm more concerned with us doing things the right way and focusing on our improvement."
The Bulls (5-6) did plenty of things right in this game. They ended a run of poor second-quarter performances by delivering a 16-1 run. Robinson (21 points), Taj Gibson and Houston native Jimmy Butler made the bench play a strength.
Luol Deng (19 points, 10 rebounds), Carlos Boozer (13 points, 15 rebounds) and Joakim Noah (11 points, 4 blocks) got the best of former teammate Omer Asik (4 points, 6 boards).
But it all unraveled in the final four minutes. The Bulls struggled to get good looks, but held the lead until Toney Douglas canned a 3-pointer from the top of the key to give Houston an 86-84 edge with 1:10 left.
On the play, Asik set a high screen and Robinson went under it, then got knocked around by the rolling Asik, giving Douglas plenty of room to launch his shot.
"The big thing is, everyone has a responsibility with team's schemes, pick-and-roll defense," Thibodeau said. "So we have to stay disciplined and we have to stay attached and we can't make things up."
The Bulls grabbed 3 offensive rebounds on their next possession. Deng and Robinson missed jumpers, then Deng missed a tip and Gibson secured the offensive board. But then Robinson took off down the lane and tried to fire a pass to Deng in the corner that had little chance of success. It sailed out of bounds for a turnover.
"The fourth quarter is different. We have to stay disciplined on the defensive end and understand on the offensive end, everything's going to happen quicker," Thibodeau said. "So you can't try to thread the needle in those situations. You have to make the first simple pass. We have to know what our looks are, in order. That's something we have to work on."
By the time the long possession ended, the Bulls had to foul with 20 seconds left and Douglas hit both free throws to make it 88-84.
Adding insult to injury, Noah drove to the basket from the left side and for some reason, attempted a layup with his right hand, giving Asik an easy blocked shot. That led to a free throw by James Harden (28 points) with 11 seconds remaining and it was over.
The Bulls have one more game left on the circus road trip, on Saturday in Milwaukee.