ATLANTA -- Derrick Rose sat on the stool in front of his locker with a towel wrapped around his waist. He was fuming.
On the other side of the locker room, Luol Deng and Ronnie Brewer just shook their heads as they got dressed. They couldn't believe what had just happened, or that they had allowed it to happen in the first place. Deng sought out Scottie Pippen in the back of the locker room to vent about the 17 point lead his team had just blown.
Meanwhile, in the back right corner, Joakim Noah and Brian Scalabrine spoke in hushed tones of their own. They have seen a lot in their respective careers, but neither man has experienced many meltdowns like the Chicago Bulls did on Wednesday night, especially this season. The Bulls were up 17 at the half and cruising. They somehow managed to walk out of Phillips Arena on the wrong end of a 83-80 decision to the Atlanta Hawks.
Everyone in the somber locker room had the same question, the one that nobody could find the right answer for: How did this happen?
"We couldn't get stops and we couldn't score," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of a second-half performance in which the Bulls were outscored 50-30. "Beat ourselves at the end. Fouls 94 feet from the basket. Turning the ball over. But the game was lost long before that. When we got the big lead I thought we got real loose at the end of the second quarter. It carried over to start the third. ... You got to play 48 minutes. You don't do that, you're not winning in this league."
The Bulls' implosion was spectacular in its method mainly due to the fact that they had been so steady all season. With Derrick Rose at the helm, and Thibodeau's defense bringing the heat, the Bulls looked as though they would coast to their fourth victory in a row. But it wasn't meant to be. Rose had arguably his worst game of the season, going 5-for-21 from the field while scoring 12 points and making six turnovers. The offense, which worked with machine-like precision in the first half, simply stalled when Rose couldn't get things going.
"Missing shots that I normally hit, I think," Rose tried to explain. "I made some careless passes where they led to fast breaks. This game was definitely on me, but I think I'm definitely going to learn from it and get better for it."
That was a common refrain from the dejected players. They each took some blame for the loss, but they were convinced that Wednesday's meltdown was more of the exception than the rule.
"I think the effort was there, I just think we came out too loose in the second half," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "This loss stings. It's a tough loss, but our schedule doesn't get any easier. And we can learn a lot from this game. It's a tough way to lose, but it just shows, you've got to play the game for 48 minutes. I take full responsibility for not coming out with the right juice in the beginning of the third. They kind of got whatever they wanted to start that third quarter. And I think we've just got to bounce back quick."
Rose agreed, and even mustered an exasperated chuckle while recounting his awful night.
"We just have to learn from it," he said. "When we're up like that, we just have to put people away. Our defense has to get tougher, and no turnovers. I made some dumb passes, some careless passes, but I guarantee it won't happen again."
As poorly as the Bulls played in the second half, they still had a chance to win. They had the lead with 37 seconds to play, but still couldn't hold on -- a fact that made Thibodeau even angrier than usual after a loss.
"We should be able to count on our defense when we're not making shots, and all we had to do was get a stop at the end of the game there," he said. "We had the lead. You get a stop, it's your game. And we couldn't do that, so ... we lose."
The Bulls know they have no time to mope. They are facing a brutal three-game stretch, consisting of road tilts against the Orlando Magic and the Miami Heat followed up by a home game against the New Orleans Hornets. If they play like this again, against those teams, they know that the odds of securing the top seed in the Eastern Conference will be gone.
"We kind of let our guards down," Deng admitted. "Kind of relaxed, which is natural, but you can't do that. Especially as good as we are and where we're trying to get to, we just let a game that we had get away."
Noah, and the rest of his teammates, felt exactly the same way. They know what happened against the Hawks and they are determined not to have that feeling again.
"It's on us," he said. "It's always tough to lose that way. We lost, but we were up 19 points, and we got loose. We can't play that way. At the end of the day, the positive is we know we're a lot better than that. We'll bounce back because that's what we do. ... You learn from your experiences. We haven't had a loss like this all year. It hurts. But it will make us tougher in the long run."
It better. Or else the Bulls will look back on this one for a long time and wonder what might have been when the playoff seedings are settled and they find themselves one game short of where they wanted to be.