Effort not enough to improve Bulls’ sinking playoff hopes

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CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 28: Paul Millsap #4 of the Atlanta Hawks goes for the lay up against the Chicago Bulls during the game on March 28, 2016 at United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

CHICAGO – Maybe it was a play that made perfect sense for a season that, with all good intentions, appears closer to an end sooner than later.

At the conclusion of a disappointing campaign it’s natural to look for symbolism in its likely few remaining contests. Perhaps the final ten seconds of Monday’s game in the United Center had just that moment

Down by three with around ten seconds left the Bulls made a decision to extend their chance to tie or win the game by going for two instead. The decision seemed to work out as Mike Dunleavy got down the lane relatively quickly and got a clean path to the hoop.

But something went wrong. The layup that seemed easily able to go in didn’t. The ball rolled off the rim and went out and into the hands of Paul Millsap. Dunleavy fouled, two free throws were made that pushed the lead to five and the game was gone.

“We had a play drawn up to give us two looks at the 3, but they took them away,” said Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg of that play. “Mike made a great cut to the basket, unfortunately it didn’t go in.”

It very well describes the 48 minutes for the Bulls in a 102-100 defeat made slightly closer by Derrick Rose’s three-pointer at the buzzer. Hope at the start, sluggishness in the middle then lack of execution at the finish that leaves a bitter taste but not one that’s unfamiliar.

Effort can be there, sure, but something continues to be missing. That little oomph on that final shot, the scoring touch in the second quarter, the push to get the lead. All are missing from a Bulls team that, in a statement, are rolling off the cylendar in the final month of the season.

“We just fell a little bit short,” said Rose. “There are going to be games like this. When you play hard, compete, and still end up with a loss.”

Actually there are a lot of them, but Derrick is right when it comes to the effort. The “Players Only” meeting following the beating by the lowly Magic on Saturday triggered it on Sunday and seemed to inspire the club. Shooting 56 percent from the floor and holding the Hawks to 32, the Bulls managed to grab a nine-point lead after one quarter.

“I think today a lot of things were happening that worked a lot better. The feeling out there, working together, working as a unit, scrambling, hustling more than we have the last three games.”

But it wasn’t enough. That effort fizzled a lot in a second quarter where they were outscored by 16 and went 6:18 seconds without scoring a single point. It returned again during a fourth quarter run which they erased a 13-point fourth quarter deficit and tied it on a flying layup by Aaron Brooks.

Then came three-straight offensive possessions without a hoop, five-straight Hawks points that put the game nearly out of reach. It was finished off on that missed layup that Dunleavy, a well-meant play that like a season just can’t seem to come to fruition.

“We went down swinging and that is something we talked about. Stick together and keep fighting,” said Hoiberg of the team’s fourth-straight loss that dropped them 2 1/2 games back of the Pistons for the last playoff spot. “I’m proud of how we went down swinging.”

That’s a nice statement for November or January. As March moves to April it fails to ring true just as the most routine of layups fails to go through.