Rarely is a team's fate sealed in the first quarter of an NBA game, especially when time is running out to snag a playoff berth.

Wednesday night, the Milwaukee Bucks, who typically founder in the first quarter, hit the Bulls with force on the way to a 104-88 victory before 14,879 at the Bradley Center.

The Bulls blew an opportunity to gain a game on the Bucks in the race for the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference and now sit 3½ games behind them. They also trail the 76ers, who hold the eighth and final spot, by three games.

"The game was pretty much done in the first quarter," Bulls guard Ben Gordon said. "The rest of the game we were just trying to get the [deficit] down to a respectable amount. They just came out and dominated us from the beginning."

The Bucks opened by hitting 11 of their first 15 shots and had the Bulls down 24 points before the first quarter ended 32-18. Just one night earlier, the Bulls had limited Portland to just 66 points all game.

"We weren't ready," guard Kirk Hinrich said. "I don't know how to describe it. It's unfortunate. Everybody coming in knows how big a game this is, so to not be ready is unacceptable."

The Bulls' worst deficit was 26 in the third quarter. They launched a late comeback, but the effort was purely in vain.

Luol Deng was the only casualty of the Bucks' assault, unless you count the hurt placed on their egos.

Andres Nocioni accidentally poked Deng in the left eye while both pursued a defensive rebound with a little more than eight minutes left in the game. He suffered a corneal abrasion and his status is day-to-day.

Nocioni came off the bench to lead the Bulls with a career-high 25 points.

"It means nothing," he said. "We lost an important game, one we obviously had to win."

"The hoop can open up for you when you're down 20," Bulls coach Scott Skiles said. "You're trying to fight back and you're just taking threes, hoping they go in. I don't want to short-change what Noce did out there, but we dug way too big a hole."

Before fouling out late in the fourth quarter, Hinrich came through with a double-double by scoring 19 points to go with 12 assists, but many of his baskets were inconsequential because they came too late.

"We need three, four or five guys normally to play well to win," Skiles said. "I was less concerned about how we shot the ball and more concerned about how timid we were on defense. Bobby Simmons is a good player, but we gave him so many open looks all over the place."

The Bucks' Simmons scored 26 to lead all scorers and Michael Redd added 23, including 11 in the first-quarter barrage.

Gordon, the Bulls' leading scorer, could not muster anything on offense. To that end, he was like every other Bull. Collectively, they shot 28.6 percent in the first quarter. Gordon finished 3 of 12 for nine points.

"The whole team, we shot [36.6] percent, so it wasn't just me," Gordon said. "Nobody was in the flow. That was part of the reason we lost. The other part was the way we came out in the beginning—lack of defense and pretty much everything."

mxgarcia@tribune.com