The Bulls were supposed to be chasing 50 victories, not moral ones.
Yet such is the state of this bedraggled bunch, which returned home Sunday on the wrong side of a 93-78 score against the Raptors. They're towing a four-game losing streak, a 1-5 record on their extended November trip and an identity crisis.
For the second straight matinee, the Bulls pointed to more consistent effort as often as they detailed their failure to make plays when it counted. Scoreboards care only about results, though.
And so it goes with the Bulls (2-10), who somehow followed up Saturday's fourth-quarter drought against the Knicks with an even drier stretch against the Raptors.
After failing to make a basket the final 4 minutes 10 seconds against New York, the Bulls missed seven straight shots and committed three turnovers in a 7:03 fourth-quarter stretch without a field goal Sunday.
The Raptors, led by Jose Calderon's 19 points and 14 assists, responded with a 12-2 run to put the game out of reach.
The Bulls' core players have been in so many big games that such late-game ineptitude is shocking. It's also repetitive, which would suggest a here-it-comes-again doubt is creeping into players' minds.
"I don't know what you would call it," guard Kirk Hinrich said. "I don't know if it's because we haven't made shots or aren't confident down the stretch. I don't know if we need to do something different down the stretch offensively.
"In the past, when we were playing our best, it seemed we got every stop we needed. And it's something we haven't been able to do this year. That puts that much more pressure on us to execute on the other end."
Nine straight scoreless possessions between Joe Smith's 11-foot jumper with 9:39 to play and Luol Deng's two free throws with 3:59 remaining featured yet another brutal turnover, a scene that is becoming all too common.
Eight seconds after a timeout, Ben Gordon threw a pass to Hinrich on the wing to initiate a play. One small problem: Hinrich had already cut, and the ball flew straight out of bounds.
Deng's three-pointer with 2:36 left finally ended the field-goal drought. The Bulls scored 14 fourth-quarter points, a season low.
"In critical moments, we're flat-footed out there," coach Scott Skiles said. "We haven't had the thrust of energy we need at those moments to either take one to the hole and get fouled or hit a seam and kick it to a wide-open player. And when we do, the pass is a little iffy.
"Talking to the guys individually, I don't know if there's a lack of confidence. But mentally at those key moments, we've struggled. I'd like them to have some success. I'm standing there as their coach, and it's my responsibility to win games. But also I like these guys a lot, and it hurts me to see this going on."
A league-worst 38.5 percent shooting percentage is painful. So is a league-worst scoring average of 86.5 points.
The Bulls thought their breakthrough game had arrived after scoring on their final 12 first-quarter possessions and shooting a torrid 59 percent. But just three second-quarter baskets and none in the final 4:32 of the first half merely presaged the Bulls ultimately sinking to their shooting level.
They finished at 38 percent.
"Just stick together, that's the main thing," veteran forward Joe Smith said. "The last couple of games have been a little bit better. We've played more consistent for longer periods of time."
Smith owns an interesting perspective, since he watched this Bulls team claw its way into the Eastern Conference playoff picture as an opponent the last few seasons. The Bulls' scrappy style is one reason he signed as a free agent last summer.
What does Smith see?
"It's not just one thing that we can put our finger on that can turn this thing around," he said. "We've made lineup adjustments. We've made play adjustments during the course of the game. We have to shoot better. Defensively, we have to find ways to come up with stops."
Skiles even shortened his rotation Sunday, playing all starters but Tyrus Thomas more than 35 minutes. That didn't work either.
With 40 seconds left, Hinrich chased Carlos Delfino a good 50 feet before finally intentionally fouling him. Hinrich's momentum carried him to the scorer's table, where he stopped, stared down for several seconds and then smacked his palm atop the padding.
"We're frustrated," Hinrich said. "The beginning of this season, there's been a lot of stuff that's been surprising. I don't know exactly where we're at right now."
Shockingly, that would be last place in the Eastern Conference.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times