Challenged to play harder by general manager John Paxson, excoriated by future Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen for a lack of commitment, the Bulls responded with some passion Friday night at the United Center.
But in the end, Dallas' firepower proved too much in a 106-93 victory, the Mavericks' seventh straight overall and 12th straight in this series. The Bulls have lost six straight, one off their season high.
Despite all their losing, one thing the Bulls have been able to avoid thus far is controversy.
But Pippen's comments, though meant to be constructive, are in danger of drawing a line in the sand between him and the young players he criticized most directly.
"I'm to the point where it doesn't even matter what they say," said Eddy Curry, this season's biggest target of criticism. "I have a couple of comments I could say about people, but I keep them to myself.
"And it doesn't make what somebody says right just because they've achieved a lot in the NBA. I'm happy for Scottie for achieving so much. But at the same time, he didn't start out like he was. There was a growing period for him. That's what he has to understand."
Curry has been booed loudly at recent home games. But Friday's crowd of 18,761 greeted the third-year center positively as he scored 10 of his 12 points in the first eight minutes.
Pippen, too, drew a raucous ovation when he checked in early in the second quarter. His past accomplishments here guarantees that, but the reaction also sounded like validation of his critical public comments.
Pressed further on the subject, Curry began to relent.
"I don't read that stuff, and it doesn't bother me," Curry said. "Our record being what it is, if they're saying [bad] stuff, we deserve it."
Coach Scott Skiles said that he isn't concerned about the dynamic.
"I could fear that, I suppose," Skiles said. "But in general we have way too many distractions, way too much thinking. Guys just need to suit up, go out, play hard and earn their money. It's literally that simple."
Skiles added that he didn't sense any controversy regarding Pippen's comments, and even would welcome some if it came.
"Sometimes, controversy can be healthy," Skiles said. "We've all faced things in our personal lives. You either confront them or run from them. That's what we're faced with."
The Bulls faced a potent Mavericks team that responded when the Bulls closed to 69-66 late in the third quarter. Dallas closed the quarter with a 15-6 run, the first 10 points scored by Proviso East alum Michael Finley.
Jamal Crawford had 15 points and seven assists but didn't play the entire fourth quarter for the second straight game.