The Bulls should be good enough to win their share of games in the Eastern Conference, even without Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler.
They rallied from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to take a late lead at Cleveland. But a couple of fatal flaws left the Bulls on the short end of a 97-93 loss at Quicken Loans Arena.
Without Rose (or Nate Robinson, for that matter), the Bulls continue to struggle down the stretch in close games. Luol Deng had a terrific game with 27 points and 11 assists, but he missed a tough shot and threw a bad pass with the game on the line.
Then the Bulls (7-8) had trouble keeping the Cavs' big-bodied front line of Andrew Bynum (20 points, 10 rebounds), Tristan Thompson (14 points, 14 rebounds) and Anderson Varejao off the glass.
Cleveland finished with a 41-36 rebounding advantage, but the Bulls made up some ground on a fateful final sequence.
Trailing by 2 points, Deng put up a driving shot that rattled around the rim. Joakim Noah got the offensive rebound and missed a putback attempt, then Bynum deflected the ball out of Noah's hands. It went to Carlos Boozer, who missed a point-blank layup that could have tied the game with nine seconds left.
Thompson hit 2 free throws, and that was that.
"This was the end of a long trip," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters after the game. "We've got to gather ourselves quickly now because we don't have much time before we play again."
This game demonstrated some things about the Bulls' potential long-term future. Deng again made it clear he's an all-star caliber talent, even if he's not necessarily a good closer.
At the same time, Deng's potential replacement, rookie Tony Snell, looked good. Snell scored 13 of his 18 points in the second half to help pace the comeback. He can hit 3-pointers and score off the drive, while his absurdly long arms make him an effective rebounder at 6-feet-7.
Taj Gibson had another big game, hitting 7 of 10 shots for 18 points. Boozer and Kirk Hinrich scored 12 points each.
"We learned a lot on the road, but we've got to do better," Gibson said. "Just because we're coming home doesn't mean anything. Teams tend to get a chip on their shoulder when they come into Chicago, so we have to be ready."
On the other side, if Cleveland shooting guard Dion Waiters was auditioning for a ticket out of town, he opened some eyes. The second-year pro scored 20 points off the bench on 8-of-10 shooting from the field.
It has been rumored that the Cavs are willing to trade Waiters in the aftermath of a reported locker-room argument also involving teammates Thompson and Kyrie Irving. Deng has been mentioned as a potential target.
The Bulls could use an offensive weapon like Waiters, based on how he played Saturday. But is he the best player the Bulls could get for Deng? And should the Bulls be worried if Waiters has, in fact, worn out his welcome after just over a year in Cleveland.
Trade talks typically don't get serious until closer to the February deadline, so nothing is likely to happen soon.
Thibodeau switched up his point guard rotation Saturday, playing veteran Mike James instead of Marquis Teague. James had 2 assists and no points in 13 minutes.
The Bulls finished the circus road trip with a 1-5 record and now play their next four at home, beginning Monday against New Orleans.