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Tweaked lineup tripped up
It had been looking more like the stumbling Bulls would need a psychiatrist more than a shooting coach.
"They've been fragile," Bulls coach Scott Skiles was saying before the Bulls met the Phoenix Suns here Thursday. "I don't know how else to say it. We have to not be fragile. We've just got to play. They may have reasons for distractions. I was looking at USA Today and saw where Kirk (Hinrich) said we need to get out of town, there is too much going on in Chicago.
"I guess he was referring to the fans booing, whatever, I don't know," said Skiles also of chants for Kobe Bryant at the last home game. "At some point-and I'm not being harsh by saying it -- we've got to have the maturity for those things to not bother us anymore if we want to really become an elite team.
"This would be a logical time if that is a problem," said Skiles. "We go right to L.A. (Friday) and even though we're playing the Clippers first the questions (about being traded for Bryant) will probably come three straight days. If we put something together, you can once and for all in your own mind put it behind you."
The Bulls began their first session with perhaps their best overall effort of the season, but it was still another loss, 112-102, to drop the Bulls to 1-6 on the season.
The Bulls were led by Ben Gordon with 24 points, Luol Deng with 23 and Kirk Hinrich with 17.
"We had some stretches tonight where we were better," said Skiles. "(But) they made threes (five of seven for higher scorer Leandro Barbosa with 25 points) and Steve (Nash) came in and kind of regained control of the game for them. But at key moments, we fell asleep defensively, we had trouble handling the ball and you just can't do that against a team like this."
The Suns moved to 7-2, though the Bulls had taken their biggest lead of the gamer at 83-81 on a Hinrich jumper with just over eight minutes remaining.
"It's hard to swallow," said Hinrich. "At times we were looking like our old selves, but then we weren't able to finish the game. It's disappointing to fall apart at the end. We got a little bit careless on defense. We made some strides in the right direction. But we started gambling too much. I think we let the significance of the game get to us."
With the Bulls still holding a lead with eight minutes left, Nash finally found open space, hitting Boris Diaw for a jumper, Barbosa for a three and Grant Hill for a fast break layup as the Bulls could only match scores.
The big change was Andres Nocioni starting in place of Tyrus Thomas, but Thomas returned for the mostly ineffective Ben Wallace in the fourth quarter to put up a valiant effort against Suns All Star center Amare Stoudemire. After a slow start, Nocioni was aggressive and opportunistic in ending up with 18 points while Wallace sat the fourth quarter again.
The Nocioni move didn't pay off immediately as the Bulls fell behind 15-6 and it wasn't until Tyrus Thomas replaced Nocioni that the Bulls made a run to pull within one before trailing 26-22 after one quarter. Their shooting remained uneven, but the defense was sharp, particularly against Steve Nash. The guards picked up Nash quickly and closed down Nash's passing angles, frustrating Nash much of the game as the Suns, whose philosophy is to shoot within seven seconds, frequently found themselves forcing up shots as the 24-second clock expired. The Bulls also jumped at Nash as he penetrated, though he, typically, squeezed through for some big plays down the stretch.
The Suns looked like they'd run away late in the second quarter as Ben Gordon had difficulty finding Leandro Barbosa, who hit three straight three pointers to give the Suns a 56-41 lead. But Gordon responded with a three and the Bulls trailed by 10 at halftime.
It was good news for the Bulls as Luol Deng, with 21 after three quarters, found more space against the Suns' lax defense and the Bulls rediscovered their second effort game, collecting loose balls and driving hard at the smaller Suns to finish the third quarter on an 11-1 run to even the score at 75 after three.
Led by an energetic effort by Thomas, the Bulls finally went ahead for the first time since the opening seconds 81-79 on a Nocioni three as Thomas drew two fouls on Amare Stoudemire and threw down a flying slam on a pass from Kirk Hinrich. But the Suns inched back ahead after still another Barbosa three to take a 93-87 lead with just under six minutes remaining. The Suns extended that with slick movement, finally, in the next two minutes to grab a 10-point lead as Nash finally began finding his openings.
"We've got to get them going," Skiles said of the Bulls sort of Big Three of Luol Deng, Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich. "One way possibily is to give them a little more space to operate (with Nocioni's shooting spreading the floor). The other part is Tyrus has played well with Joe Smith, so we're thinking we'd get a lift out of the second unit, too. We'll take a look at it."
"If I am in the starting lineup, (it) is not good," said Nocioni. "I think (it means) we lost too many games and the coach needs to change. It is not good. I want to play coming from the bench."
Skiles played rookie Thomas Gardner briefly while rookie JamesOn Curry was moved to the developmental league.
"These guys have done a hell of a job," said Skiles. "It's relatively unprecedented (with your main players three rookies and a sophmore to win 47 games in 2004-05). The next step is always the hardest. We raised the bar to a certain level. We can't now say the bar is too high."
So is there a fear of success, Skiles was asked, as well as failure?
"Of course," Skiles said. "Then you've got to do it every day."
The doctor will see you now.