Exactly one year ago Saturday, the Bulls clinched their third straight playoff berth with a pulsating victory over the Pistons.
On Friday night at Philips Arena, the Bulls trudged slowly off the court with slumped shoulders, staring at a four-game playoff deficit with 10 games to play after a 106-103 loss to the Hawks.
A frantic, fourth-quarter comeback had all but erased a 13-point deficit. But when Ben Gordon's 27-foot three-pointer just before the buzzer hit front and back rim before falling out, the Bulls knew only those with advanced degrees in mathematics could figure their playoff chances.
"You prepare yourself for each game and keep battling," interim coach Jim Boylan said. "Nothing great has ever happened to people who quit."
For instance, take the Bulls' starting five.
Spotting the Hawks an astonishing 19-point first-quarter lead and surrendering a 15-4 run to open the second half with a 22-point deficit, four of the five starters saw no fourth-quarter action. Only Joakim Noah played 100 seconds as the training staff attended to blood on Aaron Gray.
"We weren't really ready to play," Kirk Hinrich said in a shocking admission for a game of such significance for them. "They had more energy than us to start. And then we had our moments when we started fighting. But the group out there at the end did a good job of getting stops and executing on offense."
That group consisted of Gray, Andres Nocioni, Thabo Sefolosha, Ben Gordon and, in a major surprise, Chris Duhon. Closing out on shooters on defense and sharing the ball on offense, they pulled to within one on four occasions.
"This wasn't [the starters'] night," Boylan said. "But we had guys ready to come in and respond. That's a good thing for our team. I wish we had been playing with that kind of spirit earlier in the season. We wouldn't be in the situation that we're in."
Gordon missed his first six shots, didn't score until hitting two free throws with 1 minute 13 seconds left in the third quarter and didn't make his first field goal until hitting a three-pointer with 7:15 remaining in the fourth.
But, as is his nature, he heated up to score 16 of his 18 in the fourth.
His quick-rising three-pointer with 19.4 seconds left made it 103-101. After Joe Johnson split a pair of free throws with 17.7 seconds remaining, Gordon found Gray all alone for a dunk with 10.4 seconds left.
But Al Horford leaked out as the Bulls pressed either to get a steal or commit a foul, and his breakaway dunk with 7.4 seconds left set up Gordon's final miss.
Mike Bibby's 30 points led the Hawks, who won in this series for just the second time in 15 games. They're vying for their first playoff berth since 1999.
The Bulls are searching for answers, which made Duhon's entrance with 9:37 left in the first half even more surprising.
The soon-to-be-ex-Bull had played just 3:25 on Wednesday in Philadelphia since March 7, punishment for sleeping through a shootaround and making flip comments about it.
"Things happen in this league," Boylan said. "You can either hold on to something or let it go. I choose to let it go.
"I thought we needed some point-guard play. Kirk was out there for a long time and needed a break. I thought it was time for 'Du' and he responded."
Duhon said it was fun to be playing again.
"Obviously, I was surprised," Duhon said. "But that's how it is in this league. You always have to stay ready and perform at your best when your number is called. I just wanted to bring some energy.
"I'm confident in what I can do and what I bring to the team. I always think it's something positive. If my number is called again, I'll be ready to play at a high level."
The loss also featured another player questioning Boylan's rotation. Pulled midway through the second quarter after questionable shot selection, Larry Hughes openly pleaded his case with Boylan for several seconds to no avail.
Hughes, 1-for-5 at the time, didn't play the rest of the half and played just 17:38 overall. Hughes is 3 of 17 in his last two games.
Asked about the incident afterward, Hughes said he wanted to remain professional.
That's what all the Bulls insisted now that they face 10 games with meaning mostly for the number-crunchers.
"You don't want to spot anybody in this league a 19-point lead," Hinrich said. "But it has been a season where a lot hasn't gone right for us. We just have to keep playing."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times