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A conflicted Bulls team left the Staples Center on Sunday evening, chewing on the reality of an 83-78 loss to the Clippers that could have damaging effects whenand ifit comes to playoff seeds.
On one hand, the Bulls went 2-1 on this three-game West Coast trip, practically grounds for a parade in recent seasons.
On the other, the Clippers swept the season series from the Bulls, who were left to ponder yet another inexcusable poor start and, worse yet, an atypical late collapse.
"It's disappointing because every game is big," guard Kirk Hinrich said. "It's a close race. You can't come out or finish like that in the NBA or you're going to get crushed."
Instead of putting a cherry on the sundae to top this trip, the Bulls took a pie to the face, getting outscored 13-3 over the final 4 minutes 13 seconds. Ex-Bulls Elton Brand and Rick Brunson inflicted the most painful damage down the stretch.
With L.A. trailing 75-74 with 3:02 remaining, Brand blocked a dunk attempt by Eddy Curry, who otherwise played well with 19 points, eight rebounds and a season-high five blocks.
After Corey Maggette tied the score by converting a technical foul shot off a defensive three-second call, Brand hit baseline jumpers on three consecutive possessions. The third came with 24.2 seconds left and off penetration and a pass from Brunson, pushing the Clippers' lead to 81-78.
"I always want to be in that position to hit those kind of shots," said Brand, who had 20 points and 11 rebounds.
On the Bulls' next possession, Ben Gordon's three-point attempt over Bobby Simmons rimmed out with 8.9 seconds left.
For the second time this season, Brunson then iced a Clippers victory over the Bulls with free throws, sinking two with 7.6 seconds remaining.
Brunson finished with 11 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. Simmons added 11 points and 12 rebounds.
"They play tough defense, but at the end, we controlled the tempo," Brunson said.
At the start too.
The Bulls committed seven turnovers and shot 29.2 percent in the first quarter, during which coach Scott Skiles used 10 players.
"I was trying to find any combination that we could stop them with or at least show some effort," Skiles said. "It was difficult."
The Clippers led 51-39 at halftime and were shooting free throws because the Bulls exceeded the foul limit before the Clippers were whistled for one.
The Bulls attempted their first free throw at the 3:18 mark of the second quarter and shot a season-low 10, 21 fewer than L.A.
"I don't know if I've ever been involved in a pro game where somebody shot 10 free throws," Skiles said.
In the second half, the Bulls finally woke up defensively. Slowly, they rallied, taking their first lead since the opening basket at the 2:25 mark of the third on two free throws by Tyson Chandler.
Chandler, a game-time decision because of a sore back, fouled out with five points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes. The Bulls also lost Antonio Davis late to a mildly sprained left ankle. Davis later said the ankle felt fine.
When the Bulls held the Clippers to two points in the first 7:46 of the fourth, they had their chance to establish momentum. But Gordon somehow missed a breakaway layup, Chris Duhon missed a wide-open driving layup and the Bulls missed countless open jumpers.
"I didn't underestimate the shot," Gordon said of his missed breakaway. "I just didn't get it high enough."
Gordon went 6-for-17 for 14 points as the Bulls shot 23.8 percent in the fourth quarter and 34.4 percent overall. Hinrich added 16 points and eight assists.
"We shot a lot of balls short," Skiles said. "And when we don't bring it on the defensive end, we're in trouble."
The Bulls have 22 games remaining, 11 at home and 11 on the road. Also, 11 are against teams with winning records, something the Clippers don't have.
"We're still in no position to look at anybody's record and take them lightly," Skiles said. "My concern is the amount of games, not the opponent. We're still behind teams, some who only have 18 to go. We have a lot of games in a short amount of time."
That includes four games in five nights starting Tuesday. The race is on.