By Mike McGraw
Instead of a New Year's resolution, the Bulls made an admission Monday -- the bump in the road they hit after beating New York on Dec. 21 has become a full-fledged slump.
The Bulls horrified most in attendance at the United Center by falling 91-81 to the Charlotte Bobcats, who hit town on an 18-game losing skid. The Bobcats won for the first time since Nov. 24.
All the usual clichés apply: Every NBA team is talented, the Bobcats are a young team that was due to break through, etc. The fact is, except for a few minutes late in the third quarter, the Bulls played awful.
"We're in a funk right now," Taj Gibson said. "We've been up and down this season. We have to push ourselves through it."
Excuses hardly matter, but the Bulls did have a couple. Kirk Hinrich, the team's best perimeter defender, sat out with a sore left knee, and Joakim Noah slogged through an illness to produce just 2 points and 4 rebounds in 30 minutes.
Without Hinrich, the Bulls struggled to guard Charlotte's quartet of offensive-minded guards. Kemba Walker finished with 18 points, Gerald Henderson scored 16, while Ramon Sessions and ex-Bull Ben Gordon contributed 15 points each. Those four players scored 70 percent of the Bobcats' points.
"I was glad Kirk wasn't here, because Kirk is a great defender," Gordon said. "He just knows how to play. Him not being out there tonight, I thought gave us a definite advantage."
The Bulls (16-13) couldn't turn the tables on the small guards. Nate Robinson, starting in Hinrich's place, hit 2 of 11 shots. Marco Belinelli was 3-for-12. Richard Hamilton (11 points) played a key role in a 16-6 run that tied the score at the end of three quarters, but his minutes limit expired and he sat in the fourth.
The Bulls were outrebounded for the seventh time in the last nine games (52-49), although they did build a 14-2 edge in second-chance points. Luol Deng led the home team with 20 points, while Carlos Boozer added 19 points and 14 boards.
Asked what disappointed him the most in this game, coach Tom Thibodeau said the start. The Bulls shot 29.2 percent in the first quarter and fell behind 28-18. They became the first Charlotte opponent not to score at least 20 points in the opening quarter this season.
"I've got to figure this out. I have to have us ready at the start of the game," Thibodeau said. "We have to have an edge at the start of the game. We can't ease our way into a game and say, 'We're good. We'll get it corrected.' It doesn't work like that."
After the impressive win at New York, the Bulls were blown out by Atlanta and Houston in their next two games. They broke the skid against Washington on Saturday, but even that was an ugly win and a close game until the final five minutes.
"We've been there before," Deng said. "We've just got to play hard. Just stay positive, keep playing together. When you're struggling like that, the next game you just have to come out and play harder."
Robinson suggested he and his teammates need to find their inner child, which has something to do with recalling their love of the game.
"Go back to learning how to just play basketball, have fun," Robinson said. "As long as we play hard, everything will take care of itself. Tough times never last. Tough people do. I think we're a tough group and we'll be all right."