This was the kind of game the Bulls usually look back on with regret in February when they're out of the playoff race.
"I kind of worry it will be too late when we start to come out of it," said Eddy Curry after the Bulls' 101-96 loss to the New York Knicks on Saturday night dropped them to 16 games under .500 with nine of the next 11 games on the road.
"We definitely have to make some turnarounds real soon. It can get real ugly real fast. It's already starting to get ugly."
It was deja vu all over again as the Bulls blew a fourth-quarter lead, Curry gasped to a halt with a scoreless fourth quarter after scoring 20 points, 19 in the first half, and the Knicks pulled away thanks to casual defense by the Bulls and 16 fourth-quarter points by Keith Van Horn.
"If only they hand out `W's' in the first half it would be great," Bulls coach Scott Skiles said.
But because they don't, the Bulls remain anything but great. They fell to a miserable 12-28, two games behind last season's 30-win team after 40 games.
The Knicks won their second straight under new coach Lenny Wilkens and moved to 18-24.
The Bulls are holding on to this fantasy of making the playoffs because they are only six games out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But they're also behind an improved Knicks team with Stephon Marbury, who had 18 points and eight assists, and a Miami team that recently defeated them twice. Plus, they're still experimenting with new lineups and rookie call-ups, like Ronald Dupree, who started at small forward.
Yes, it's all over but the drafting.
On Saturday, Skiles returned Curry to the starting lineup, though reluctantly.
"I don't feel it's a situation where Eddy has been so great he now deserves to start," Skiles said. But Skiles said veteran Antonio Davis was wearing out playing center and needed to be moved to forward.
Curry opened impressively with 10 first-quarter points and 19 in the half as the Bulls took an early nine-point lead and trailed only 56-55 at intermission. But Curry was 0-for-2 in 13 second-half minutes. Jamal Crawford also scored 20 points for the Bulls.
Allan Houston led the Knicks with 26 points, 23 in the first half, and Van Horn had 24.
"[Curry] seemed to lose his footing a couple of times and fumbled the ball. He looked like he was out of gas," Skiles said.
Curry had a different take on his performance. "They got a whole lot tougher in the second half," he said.
Not that much. The Knicks went only 3-for-21 in the third quarter, but the Bulls were only able to take a 75-68 lead by the end of the period. That disappeared in less than two minutes as Van Horn ran circles around Scottie Pippen with a follow dunk and a three-pointer before Marbury hit a three-pointer that gave the Knicks a 76-75 lead with just over 10 minutes left.
"I knew we were down and the team needed me to do something," Van Horn said. "Lenny wanted me to keep shooting, and I was going to. Fortunately, I got it together."
Van Horn then hit two more three-point shots--the Knicks hit 10-of-15 threes overall--and the Bulls could only strain in an attempt to catch up.
"We were last in the league in defending threes for a while," Skiles noted. "Now we've creeped up a bit to fourth or fifth from the bottom. It's still not something we've done very well.
"We run into fatigue. It's difficult for us to sustain the effort we need to win. We gave up 12 points in the third and 33 in the fourth. We played solid defense in the third, about as good as we've played all year. We just let down. They took it to us."
It's the lament of the losers.