Bulls hope early-season adversity will pay off down line

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One night, the culprit is turnovers.

Another, fouling too often.

Then, there are the whiplash-inducing closing sequences, like Jalen Suggs draining game-winning 3-pointer after two missed free throws, or AJ Griffin tapping in a buzzer beater with less than one second to play.

One thing is certain: The Chicago Bulls are — seemingly on a nightly basis — finding different and more painstaking ways to lose, particularly in close games.

The latest was a 128-120 overtime defeat to the New York Knicks on Wednesday at the United Center, their third overtime defeat of the season in three tries, and second in the last four days.

"It's disappointing," Alex Caruso said postgame. "We're competitive guys. We wouldn't be here if we weren't. Nobody likes losing. Anytime you don't get the job done, no matter if it's game one or game 82 you're a little disappointed and a little hurt."

Like many of the Bulls' close losses, this game did not come down to a single variable.

The Bulls, despite shooting 54.8 percent, scored three points and missed six of their seven field goal attempts in overtime. They did not stack enough stops against a Knicks team that shot 18-for-34 (52.9 percent) from 3-point range. And, for good measure, they allowed the New York 15 offensive rebounds (six in the fourth quarter), and Julius Randle 15 trips to the free throw line.

But the sum felt all too familiar: A winnable game that slipped away, dropping the Bulls to 11-16 and 1.5 games out of the East's final play-in tournament spot.

"It's a first," DeMar DeRozan said when asked if he had ever experienced such a dynamic before. "But you gotta appreciate it. It comes with the challenge. You can't choose the weather, you can choose what you put on when you go in the weather.

"I think that's just where we're at. We gotta be dressed for whatever and be able to get through whatever it is we gotta go through. And once we do that we'll be fine."

RELATED: 10 observations: Bulls drop another 'clutch' game to Knicks

The Bulls began the season with higher aspirations than this after going 46-36 and snapping a four-year playoff drought in 2021-22. Training camp schematic fixes were geared toward competing better against elite opponents. Sights were set on winning a playoff round.

Head coach Billy Donovan continues to point to the possibility that facing such adversity early in the season will make the Bulls stronger in the long run. That would run counter to last year, when the Bulls ran roughshod through the conference for 60 games before falling flat after the All-Star break.

"Last year, when we were running off games, I was concerned. Because I saw a trend that I was concerned about, that I thought we were dodging bullets and what we were doing wasn't going to be sustainable," Donovan said pregame. "And clearly it wasn't sustainable against the best teams.

"I didn't think that we had enough adversity coming out of the All-Star break (last season), we were not hardened enough as a team. You never want to lose, I'm not saying that. But we've had some really, really difficult losses (this season).

"To me, that's the stuff that you've gotta, as a group, you've gotta become more connected, more determined, more stubborn, more resilient. I think you have to get hardened by that. I like the way we're playing and how we're going and what we're doing, I think there's been some positives. I do see us playing better against some of the better teams. But there's been other issues."

The largest of those issues may be a NBA-worst 3-11 record in "clutch" contests, defined as games within a five-point margin and five minutes or less to play in regulation.

On the positive side, 11 of the Bulls' 16 losses being close means they should, in theory, only require tweaks.

"We right there," DeRozan said. "It's a bittersweet feeling, because you want to get the win. But we right there. We right there. We just gotta keep doing the right thing, keep doing the right thing."

On the negative side? That 3-11 record is a precipitous drop from being 25-16 in such games last season, then the fourth-best record in the league. And it points to a team that has so many flaws, multiple can't help but show themselves on one night or another.

"It only pays off if you make it pay off. That's how I view it. That's how we all view it," Patrick Williams said when presented the idea that the Bulls' early-season adversity could make them better. "It's not just gonna pay off because we want to. We have to look at the film and get better at the things that we see in the game that are causing us to lose these games."

Those things?

"Just gotta do a better job of paying attention to the details earlier in the game," Caruso said, noting the details the Bulls are losing vary depending on matchups. "We've had games this year where we put it all together and we look really good. Problem is, some nights we're just not there for 48 minutes. And that's the difference in professional sports."

This is an all-too-familiar mantra for players and fans alike. It is now up to the Bulls to — as only they can — pull themselves out of the rut that has them 2-5 in their last seven games and on the outside looking in of the playoff picture.

"I know the character of the guys and how competitive we are, how we care about each other," Caruso said when asked if these demoralizing losses will galvanize the group or drop them deeper into a hole. "We don't have guys that just turn it in and fold, that's just not our MO. I think it's gonna be more the first one than the latter."

Time will tell.

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