There’s little doubt that fourth quarters have been a failure for the Bulls during the annual circus road trip.
They missed 11 straight shots down the stretch in Houston, turning a 5-point lead with 4:41 remaining into a 93-89 loss on Wednesday.
On Sunday in Portland, the Bulls scored 2 points in 5 ½ minutes after tying the score early in the fourth.
The loss to the Los Angeles Clippers was a straight blowout after the first quarter. Even the Bulls’ lone win at Phoenix featured a 14-point blown lead in the fourth quarter before they won in overtime.
So the obvious question is whether the Bulls are playing the wrong lineup in the fourth quarter or the poor performances are due to an inability to execute.
“We’re a team that’s always been great at executing down the stretch and we’re not in the right position,” Joakim Noah told reporters in Houston, according to espn.com. “It’s frustrating.”
The most obvious lineup suggestion would be to try playing veteran guard Richard Hamilton more. He’s rarely played in the fourth quarters this season.
Hamilton was 7-for-10 from the field overall in Portland, then made 2-of-10 shots against Houston. He sat out the fourth quarter in both games.
“Like I always say, whatever they need me to do, I’m going to do,” Hamilton told reporters after the loss to the Rockets. “If it’s play whatever, I’m going to play. Just trying to stay positive, just try to keep getting better each and every day.”
One move that seemed predictable the recent weeks was playing second-year forward Jimmy Butler more often. With his strong defense and energetic rebounding, Butler can make an argument for being the Bulls’ most consistent bench player.
Butler scored 6 points in the fourth quarter against the Rockets, so it’s tough to argue his limited offensive skills hurt the Bulls. His rebounds usually create more scoring chances. The team’s two most reliable fourth-quarter scorers, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, came up empty against the Rockets.
One odd move in Houston was that Noah played the entire first half and posted 11 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks. In the second half, a fatigued Noah had 0 points, 2 rebounds and 1 block.
Everyone knows why Carlos Boozer doesn’t get the call very often in the fourth quarter. Coach Tom Thibodeau prefers to stick with defensive lineups and it’s difficult to argue with his success in three years on the job.
The biggest problem right now might be the inability to combine the skills of point guards Nate Robinson and Kirk Hinrich.
Robinson led Wednesday’s surge into the lead. He abused Rockets guard Jeremy Lin, scored 11 points in the fourth quarter and hit the 3-pointer that make it 84-79 with 4:41 left.
But then Robinson launched a quick 3-pointer on a fast break, held the ball too long on other possessions and was caught behind a screen when Houston’s Toney Douglas drained the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:10 left.
Hinrich would do a better job with defense and court awareness, but he brings none of the explosive scoring that Robinson can supply when he’s hot Hinrich is averaging just 4.8 points and shooting 30 percent for the season.
Should the Bulls try to accelerate Marquis Teague’s development? He has the athletic skills to shine in this role and had a strong fourth quarter against Boston on Nov. 12.
Anything seems worth a try with the Bulls riding their first regular-season three-game losing streak of Thibodeau’s tenure. Maybe Teague should get a look Saturday against Milwaukee’s small backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis.
“I don’t think it’s time to panic yet,” Deng said. “I think we’ve got a lot of guys that want to win. We don’t have any guys in this locker room that are dogging it and are OK with losing.
“We’ve been winning the last two years, so this is something we’re not used to. And the best way to (bounce back) is just go out and work as hard as you can.”
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