MILWAUKEE -- Each time this season when it seems as though the Chicago Bulls have turned the corner, that they've made the leap from inconsistent pretenders to solid championship-level contenders, they always offer up a reminder that their best is still a mirage they are unable to grip.
Wednesday's disappointing 95-91 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks was the latest such reminder for a Bulls team that came into the affair having won five of its past six games.
All the old issues came to the forefront for a group that felt as though it was finally hitting its stride. The Bucks outrebounded the Bulls 48-40, outscored them 44-38 in the paint, and had 23 second chance points compared to just 10 from Tom Thibodeau's team. Compounding those numbers was the fact that the Bulls turned the ball over 20 times on the night and couldn't find any consistent rhythm in the second half.
But as the Bulls get set for what they hope is a long postseason run, an intriguing issue reared its head amid a sea of the same old problems. With Derrick Rose out of the lineup, where should Thibodeau turn down the stretch in games when his team is in need of a couple crucial buckets?
In order to take the next step as an elite team, Thibodeau needs to find an answer to this question just as much as he needs to clean up the mental mistakes and defensive lapses that continue to plague his team.
The logical solution for the late-game scoring is to hand the ball to Jimmy Butler and let him operate. The All-Star swingman is having his best professional season. He was 3-for-4 in the fourth quarter on Wednesday night and his teammates trust him with the ball.
The issue is that while Butler has improved dramatically this season, he still hasn't shown the ability to take over games -- not to mention that, aside from some good games in the 2013-14 playoffs, he hasn't proven he can produce at the same high offensive level in the postseason.
"We need everyone," Thibodeau said. "It could be Jimmy one night, it could be Pau [Gasol] one night, it could be Niko [Mirotic] one night. It's whoever has [a] hot hand, good matchup. The ball will find you. But Jimmy's been terrific all year."
Without Rose, the Bulls are going to have to use a closer-by-committee approach, as Thibodeau alluded. Will it work? Maybe, but it didn't look good against the Bucks. Mirotic, who has played extremely well over the past month, was just 1-for-5 from the field in the fourth, and just 3-for-10 for the game. Gasol didn't take a shot in the fourth quarter and played just 3:16 in the final frame. That may explain why he was more frustrated than usual after this loss.
"We're very conditioned by the call of the coach," Gasol said while discussing late-game options. "So it's not about one guy trying to take over or anything."
"We had good looks, too. We had a bunch of looks, missed them. Mike [Dunleavy] had a good look, missed [it]. We had a bunch of good looks, we just shot the ball poorly tonight, turned over the ball too much, and we gave up too many offensive rebounds and we lost the game."
The frustration felt by Gasol and his teammates permeated the visitor's locker room. The Bulls knew they had not played well and they knew they should expect better from themselves. But despite the anger, they still believe better days are ahead.
"We know who's going to take our big shots," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "And we know, at times, we're going to have three different guys that got it going.
"We've got so many guys in a good rhythm right now. So it's really tough, you don't really know who's going to step up because Niko's been playing extremely well on the floor, Pau's been playing well, Jimmy's been playing well. Aaron's been playing well. You never really know who's going to knock down the big shot late -- and I think we got a lot of guys that are willing to take the big shot."
And therein lies another quandary for a Bulls team that had a ill-timed setback against the Bucks. If and when Rose comes back, are the Bulls still confident that he can be the guy they need down the stretch in games? Is it fair to ask Rose -- or any player coming off a knee injury -- to play a few regular-season games and then jump into the postseason pressure cooker and try to take over in the clutch?
The answer to that question is debatable for now, but with Rose's uneven play this season it's fair to wonder if he can still take over games when needed. If he's not that player anymore, the Bulls better find another answer with just seven regular-season games left, and they better find one quick.