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Bulls have heart, but just can't close

12/3/2013

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bulls' locker room looked and sounded exactly the way fans would expect it to after a gut-wrenching 131-128 triple overtime loss to the New Orleans Pelicans late Monday night:

Some players sat in their chairs in silence, others spouted expletives and a few others quietly walked back and forth between the shower and the cold tub with looks of depression written all over their faces.

Bulls assistant trainer Jeff Tanaka walked out to pay the ball boys some cash for their night's work and couldn't help but feel sorry for the young men.

"Sorry you don't get paid for the extra sessions," he said.

Monday's game encapsulated the entire Bulls' season to date. This team has plenty of heart and hustle, but it’s missing too much talent to close out games.

Whether it's making a shot down the stretch or finding a way to come up with a big stop, the Bulls are instead finding ways to lose games.

"Obviously it's tough," guard Mike Dunleavy said. "But it's nothing new, unfortunately. Whether it's triple overtime, single overtime, last-second plays, we've kind of gone through it all thus far.

"It's not going to change our approach. We're going to bounce back, and we've got one coming up on Thursday. And we don't know any better. That's the only thing we know is just to get over it and come back and try and get the next one."

The Bulls are not going to stop fighting under coach Tom Thibodeau. They haven't thrown in the towel on the season, despite the fact that so many different things have gone the wrong way.

The problem for the Bulls is that they don't have that one game-changing player who can close games for them like Derrick Rose did.

As solid as Luol Deng is -- and he was great on Monday to the tune of 37 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in almost 56 minutes -- he still doesn't have the type of game that can push his team over the hump late. He admitted he is still getting used to trying to fill the role that Rose played as late-game savior, and that was evidenced by his seven turnovers Monday.

"I'm fine with it," Deng said. "I got to make smart plays. I think I'll get better with it. It's something that lately we've been going down to the wire. We're going to be in that position a lot more. And every time I'm in that situation, I try to make the best out of it but at the same time learn from it. And next time try to really make a better play. And try to be smarter and get us a good look.

"Whether I miss or not or someone else gets the shot, as long as it's the best look out there."

The problem for the Bulls is that they aren't getting the best looks. They don't know where to turn down the stretch -- a problem compounded by the fact that they continue to give up head-scratching baskets in the most inopportune times. Jrue Holiday's driving layup with a couple of seconds left was the latest in some jaw-dropping miscues for a team that prides itself on its defense.

"We definitely have to get better executing down the stretch," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "But it's definitely a different team. We don't have Derrick. We don't have Nate [Robinson]. So other guys have to step up."

For now, Deng knows he must continue to learn how to be the kind of player he has rarely been asked to be during his nine-year tenure in Chicago -- a closer. It's a role he's starting to accept and one he knows he will continue to fill as long as he stays with the Bulls this year.

"I think we just got to expect it," Deng said of all the close games the Bulls have been playing. "You can't go into a game thinking you're going to blow out teams. I think having Derrick and having Jimmy [Butler], we're able to do that. I think when Jimmy comes back ... we'll be a better team.

"But as of right now every game we go to we got to expect that it's going to go to the wire and be mentally ready for that."