With just more than four minutes left, Ben Gordon walked wearily to the Bulls' bench. His 39 points was a career high, his nine three-pointers were a club record.
Behind the bench, fans stood and cheered his remarkable all-around effort. Gordon also had eight rebounds, five assists and three steals.
Too bad it was just six fans wearing Bulls jerseys and the team trailed by 24 points at the time on the way to a 118-101 loss Saturday to the Phoenix Suns.
The defeat was the Bulls' third straight on their seven-game Western Conference trip.
"I wish we could have done more in the second half to stay in the game," Gordon said in a somber postgame locker room. "Points don't really mean that much in a loss.
"A team like Phoenix, you come out flat to start the second half, they capitalize on our defensive mistakes and are hitting dunk shots and lob dunks. A lot of plays they make are demoralizing."
So now the question is whether it's a discouraged Bulls team heading for Utah on Monday for the first of three games in four nights with the team 20-26 and 2 1/2 games out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
"We've come out so many times this year in the third quarter with a lackadaisical attitude," Bulls coach Scott Skiles said. "Against a team like this you're going to get drilled."
For the Bulls, it was like being in the dentist's chair without the Novocaine. And they played defense as if they were sitting in a chair in the second half after trailing at the intermission just 52-50, having held the explosive Suns to 38.3 percent shooting.
But for the Suns, that is one of those exactly-where-we-want-them situations.
"We shot 38 percent in the first half and were up by two," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Sometimes we hit that stretch where we shoot 60 percent like we did in the third quarter."
It was a thing of beauty to watch, and the Bulls may as well have paid admission the way they allowed Suns shooters wide-open looks and seemed like the prop chairs players jump over in dunk contests.
"It seemed like weak-side defensively we were asleep the whole game. It was unexplainable," said Tyson Chandler, who had nine points and 11 rebounds in just more than 18 minutes. "We weren't communicating, people were penetrating and we wouldn't help, we'd [front] the post and nobody was there to help. Their bigs were on the perimeter, and when people realized they were supposed to be helping, it was too late."
The Suns stunned the Bulls with 9-0 and 11-2 runs to open the third quarter to take a 17-point lead less than six minutes into the period.
"We gave them a bunch of open looks in the first half, and fortunately they missed them, and Ben hit some shots that kept us in the game," Skiles said. "In the third quarter they started making them and we had the same defensive breakdowns. They ended it pretty quickly."
Led by Shawn Marion with 26 points and 11 rebounds and Steve Nash with 21 points and seven assists, the Suns hit 17 threes, had 30 assists on 43 baskets and put on a wonderful display of unselfish play and confident shooting to take a 20-point lead after a 38-20 third quarter. They led by 26 points early in the final period.
Suddenly, the Bulls are a tiring team that is giving up an average of 105.3 points per game.
Whether Antonio Davis will come to help remains unclear. Davis met with Toronto officials Saturday after the Raptors acquired him from New York. Sources said he expressed a desire to play elsewhere and the Raptors indicated they would consider accommodating him.
But the Bulls have no idea if it will occur
"He is a member of the Raptors now, and I don't know what their plans for him are," general manager John Paxson responded in an e-mail when asked about the former Bull. "We obviously could use veteran leadership. But we are only in control of the players we currently have on our roster.
"I've learned in this business sometimes doing the right thing, the ethical thing, requires tough decisions.
"Unfortunately, we lost AD (Davis) in making the ethical decision [to trade Eddy Curry to New York]."
Now the bigger issue for the team is to make the commitment to compete honestly.
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