Bulls' fourth-quarter solution begins with giving Butler room to work

The Chicago Bulls' biggest issue during their recent three-game losing streak is easy enough to identify.

They're struggling to score in the fourth quarter, with totals of 18, 16 and 14 points in the last 3 defeats.

Fixing the problem with a roster that is probably too young to win consistently is a challenge, one that has faced coach Fred Hoiberg repeatedly this season.

The playoffs still are within reach, but the margin for error is small, and over the next 12 days the Bulls will play seven opponents who are in the top six in either conference.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see how we've had our struggles in the fourth quarter," Hoiberg said Thursday at the Advocate Center. "It hasn't been effort. We're going out there and competing.

"We're playing hard. … We watched a lot of film the last couple days to hopefully correct some things and get some more motion and movement into our action."

Keep in mind, the Bulls have one of the league's best fourth-quarter finishers in Jimmy Butler, and he hasn't been producing lately. In Wednesday's 98-91 loss at Orlando, Butler went 0-for-5 from the field in the final quarter.

Before the all-star break, Butler averaged 7.0 fourth-quarter points, which was seventh best in the NBA. Since the break, Butler ranks fourth on the Bulls in fourth-quarter scoring at 3.1 per game, behind Dwyane Wade, Nikola Mirotic and Jerian Grant.

Butler's field-goal percentage in the fourth quarter was 44.1 before the break and 30.4 since.

Of course, the all-star break is when the Bulls changed the roster, sending veteran Taj Gibson and 3-point specialist Doug McDermott to Oklahoma City.

It's also obvious that Butler is getting more attention from opposing defenses late in games and not having Gibson or McDermott on the floor to keep the defense honest is surely a cause. Can the Bulls fix it?

Thinking back to when the Butler was at his best this season, Hoiberg stuck with a closing lineup of Butler, Wade, McDermott, Mirotic and a big, usually Gibson or Cristiano Felicio.

The idea was teams had to respect McDermott and Mirotic at the 3-point line, and it gave Butler the space he needed to take over games.

Even if McDermott was in a slump, opponents seemed to worry about him getting hot from long range. Maybe the replacement is Anthony Morrow, one of the players obtained from the Thunder, and a career .417 shooter from the 3-point line.

One reason the Bulls moved Gibson is they want to look at the young players and Morrow, 31, is a veteran.

But making the playoffs is dependent on figuring out the fourth-quarter scoring issues, so Morrow should get a look. Hoiberg tried him down the stretch against Detroit on Monday and Morrow made his only 3-point attempt.

"He is a guy that may get a look, see how it goes," Hoiberg said.

Another option is something the Bulls tried in Orlando: turn Grant into a shooting guard. Since the all-star break, Grant is 9-for-15 from 3-point range and was the team's leading fourth-quarter scorer against the Magic.

Is Grant a good enough defender to make this work? Pistons point guard Reggie Jackson scored 14 points in the final 6:40 of Monday's game, then Orlando's Elfrid Payton delivered a high-numbered triple-double Wednesday with 22 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists.

Checking the video, Grant did have a couple of bad defensive possessions against Jackson. He got screened on one trip, then the next time, he anticipated the screen and Jackson scooted past Grant on the other side while the Bulls' defender was eyeing the screener.

The thing is, when Butler started guarding Jackson, the same thing happened. That's also on center Robin Lopez not getting over to help, which is why Felicio plays so often down the stretch.

Orlando's scoring was pretty balanced in the fourth quarter. One play that hurt was when Terrence Ross missed a dunk and Payton followed in the rebound, giving the Magic a 95-91 edge with 1:15 left.

Instead of boxing out Payton, Grant went to the rim and ended up colliding with Ross, which took him out of the play.

The Bulls couldn't play Grant and Morrow with Butler, Wade and a center against most teams, so finding the right stretch-four is another necessity.

Mirotic still is inconsistent and was replaced in the rotation by newcomer Joffrey Lauvergne on Wednesday. Bobby Portis should probably get more chances in the fourth quarter.

Maybe Hoiberg is switching the lineup too much. Some of that is by necessity, since Butler and Wade have missed a combined 15 games since Jan. 1 Other times, Hoiberg tries to stick with a hot hand.

There may not be a correct answer, since the Bulls are relying on too many young players in the rotation. But getting the floor spaced seems to be the top priority.

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Scouting report

Bulls vs. Houston Rockets at the United Center, 7 p.m. Friday


Radio: WLS 890-AM

Outlook: The Bulls almost beat the Rockets in Houston without Jimmy Butler on Feb. 3 but lost 121-117 in overtime. Now they'll get to try again at home. The Rockets (44-21) will arrive with a two-game losing streak, having lost to Utah and San Antonio this week. James Harden still drives Houston as he ranks third in the league in scoring (29.1 ppg) and first in assists (11.2). SG Eric Gordon is next, averaging 16.9 points, mostly off the bench, and newcomer Lou Williams has produced 14.7 ppg in seven games with the Rockets. PF Ryan Anderson (13.8 ppg) didn't play against Utah on Wednesday because of a back injury. Under first-year coach Mike D'Antoni, Houston averages 40 3-point attempts per game, easily tops in the league. The Rockets have lost three straight at the United Center.

Next: Boston Celtics at TD Garden, 2:30 p.m. Sunday

- Mike McGraw

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