Scott Skiles tried to contemplate the entirety of this Bulls season, which continued on a downward death spiral at Conseco Fieldhouse on Wednesday night in a 95-85 loss to the Indiana Pacers that left the Bulls 10 games below .500 for the first time this season.
Once again the Bulls blew a big lead, this time 15 points early, against a team playing the second of a back-to-back set.
Once again the fourth quarter produced more heartaches than highlights with a run of 14 misses in 16 shots,.
"This is a different team than last year's team," Skiles said. "It's obvious. We haven't had the same amount of fight that we had. Unfortunately, too many times when things have gotten a little bit tough we've rolled over and it happened again tonight."
It's difficult for Skiles to accept because of his demanding and competitive ways, and disappointing for a Bulls team that produced so much hope and promise last season.
Against the Pacers, Ben Gordon continued to struggle, shooting 3 of 15 and scoring in single digits for the fifth time in the last seven games. Kirk Hinrich, with 14 points, was the only starter in double figures while Andres Nocioni led the team off the bench with 17 points and 10 rebounds. The Bulls missed 13 of 15 three-pointers and had assists on fewer than half their baskets.
After the game someone wondered about taking that "next step."
Skiles paused, looking askance.
"The next step for us is to get out of last place," he said. "We're a long way from being a team in contention."
It's a bitter reality the Bulls are beginning to face with 14 games remaining in their season.
Their schedule isn't particularly difficult, but falling 3½ games behind the 76ers for the final playoff spot, and with Boston pulling within a half game of Chicago, leaves the Bulls running out of games, if not hope.
"It is difficult now, but we can do it, " Nocioni said, wearing a new four-stitch cut under his chin. "We need to keep thinking playoffs. Philadelphia is not playing well. We have the opportunity, but we need to be ready and work."
The Pacers were ripe for the picking. They were coming off a 30-point loss in Memphis on Tuesday and behind every play early with the Bulls attacking as they swiftly jumped ahead 27-12. The Bulls carried a double-digit lead late into the second quarter and if free agent-to-be Peja Stojakovic was auditioning, he wouldn't get an invitation.
The Bulls snuffed him on offense and ran by him on defense as they took a 43-33 lead near halftime when Stephen Jackson, who led the Pacers with 24 points, got on a run to pull the Pacers within six.
The Pacers muscled up in the third quarter, as Jeff Foster controlled the backboards, and pulled ahead 57-56 midway through the quarter on an Anthony Johnson layup after a Jackson steal from Michael Sweetney.
"We were a little dazed and confused in the third quarter, which has been a habitual thing for us for part of this year," Skiles said.
Indiana did pull away eventually, but this is an uncertain Pacers team that almost seems to feel sorry for itself with the two years of injuries and Ron Artest drama. They play merely in spurts and even after the Bulls went 1 of 13 with a turnover after leading 72-70 early in the fourth quarter, the Pacers only led 84-80.
The Bulls, however, were deep in the penalty by then. The Pacers attacked the basket and got one field goal from Jermaine O'Neal and free throws on their next six possessions to pull away and send the Bulls to their fourth consecutive loss and sixth in the last eight.
O'Neal was back for the first time in two months from a groin injury, and Sweetney even blocked two of his shots, but O'Neal finished with 16 points.
"Having Jermaine back gave us a spiritual lift," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said.
Yes, it seems everything and everyone is working against the Bulls.