Bulls drop first game of road trip

To a man, the Bulls swear this seven-game trip will be better.

No more six-game losing streaks, no more embarrassing headband incidents.

The team that took the Staples Center court Wednesday night without Ben Wallace is more confident and cohesive than the one that stumbled and bumbled its way to a 1-6 trip in November.

But that didn't stop the Bulls from fading down the stretch and starting with a clunker in a 110-98 loss to the Clippers.

Clawing back from a 16-point deficit, the Bulls pulled even at 94-94 only to surrender a 12-0 run amid poor shot selection, bad defense and a flagrant foul by Kirk Hinrich.

"Anytime we got close, we had tremendous difficulty coming up with anything," coach Scott Skiles said. "If you want to win on the road and you're trying to come back, you have to make plays in those moments."

Hinrich, who led the Bulls with 25 points and 10 assists, scored with 3 minutes, 51 seconds remaining to create the game's sixth and final tie.

Elton Brand, who led the Clippers with 26 points, followed with two free throws. Then came a Ben Gordon turnover, a wild shot by P.J. Brown, a Hinrich miss, a shot clock violation, another Gordon turnover, a Malik Allen miss, a Chris Duhon miss, another Hinrich miss and, finally, an Andres Nocioni miss.

Meanwhile, Shaun Livingston scored on a layup and started a four-point possession with a steal from Gordon and two free throws after Hinrich got called for a flagrant with 2:05 remaining. Brand took advantage of the extra possession by draining a 12-foot baseline jumper.

The Bulls went scoreless for 3:09 at the game's most critical time.

"We were very careless with the ball again," Skiles said of the team's 18 turnovers. "We didn't play very well."

Former Bull Tim Thomas added 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Clippers, who enjoyed a 39-19 edge in free-throw attempts.

Gordon, who has been so dominant this month, scored 17 points on 5-of-15 shooting with five turnovers.

"I probably left him out there too long," Skiles said. "I just kept going to him because we do that. But it was a poor defensive game on his part and he had trouble handling and shooting the ball. It was just one of those games. He was due. He had been on an unbelievable streak."

Said Gordon: "You're going to have nights like that. You just have to fight through. We had a lot of chances. I had some terrible turnovers down the stretch that really hurt us."

Like the infamous Nov. 25 night at Madison Square Garden, Wallace again didn't wear the proper uniform. But this time it was because he succumbed to the bruised tendon in his left knee and wore street clothes rather than flaunting team rules by accessorizing with cotton fabric around his head.

Team chemistry isn't the only area where the Bulls have made progress. The team that lost its first six games on the November trip then floundered in the mid-20s in opponents' field-goal percentage. Entering the Clippers' game, the Bulls ranked second.

This defensive prowess is why the Bulls believe they better can weather the hardships of a seven-game trip against just two teams with winning records entering Wednesday night. With their victory, the Clippers moved one game above .500.

"I definitely feel like we're a better team than what we were in November," Brown said. "We're more comfortable with each other. We understand each others' games better. We understand our system, both offensively and defensively.

"Offense is going to come and go. But if our defense can be our driving force on this trip, I think we're going to be pretty successful."

That defense didn't show up Wednesday, allowing 46.3 percent shooting and several uncontested drives.

The Bulls 79-71 after three quarters as Hinrich failed to score until the fourth after 11 first-quarter- points.

Hinrich and Sam Cassell were in a first-quarter shootout, after which the Bulls trailed 31-23. Cassell scored 14 of his 18 in the opening stanza and had four assists and Thomas drained a three-pointer at the buzzer.

Quiet for the first 21 minutes, Brand then awoke in a big way. He scored 14 straight points on six possessions, including two traditional three-point plays. He victimized Michael Sweetney for most of this stretch, backing him down and either hitting a turnaround jumper or drawing a foul.

"That was a torture chamber down there," Skiles said. "And that got Elton going. I probably made a mistake by putting Mike on him because Mike clearly wasn't ready to come in the game right then. Elton burned him bad."

The Clippers led 57-45 at halftime and scored 11 points off 10 Bulls turnovers.

This is a critical stretch for the Bulls, who own a glaring discrepancy with the most home and fewest road victories in the Eastern Conference. Eight of their next nine games before the All-Star break are away from the United Center.

With Wallace out, coach Scott Skiles opted for size up front against Chris Kaman and Elton Brand and started Brown at center and Malik Allen at power forward for the first time this season. It marked the Bulls' sixth different lineup.

Allen recently missed three games with a strained left calf and also had rarely cracked the rotation. He knocked down three of four shots in the third and finished with 12 points.

"One thing I know about Malik is he's dependable," Skiles said.

Earlier Wednesday, the Clippers signed guard Doug Christie to a 10-day contract. The Bulls won't even be home when that expires.

"This is a long, long trip," Nocioni said, "But we'll play better on it."

That's what they say anyway.