Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau warned his team about the Houston Rockets.
The one thing about them is you have to play for 48 minutes,'' Thibodeau said 90 minutes prior to the Bulls' Christmas night game against the Rockets at the United Center. ''If you let your guard down at all, you can be in trouble because of their ability to score. If you jog back, they push the ball after makes and misses. You've got to take those easy scores away.''
Less than a minute into the game, Bulls guard Marco Belinelli missed jump shot, Omer Asik rebounded and passed to Jeremy Lin, who looped a long pass to James Harden for an emphatic dunk. Five seconds elapsed from Belinelli's miss to Harden's dunk.
''Obviously, we did not understand, and I did not do a good enough job of delivering the message of what we were giong to have to do to be successful,'' Thibodeau said after the Rockets' throttled the Bulls 120-97 before a sellout crowd of 22,310 at the United Center.
Very obviously. After three impressive quarters against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the Bulls have been outscored by 58 points in their last nine quarters (257-199). They were down by 25 points (72-47) in the third quarter against the Hawks in Atlanta on Saturday night. They were down by 35 points (86-51) in the third quarter against the Rockets on Tuesday night.
Thibodeau is bringing along this team like he always does. But with Derrick Rose and Richard Hamilton injured and a reformulated ''Bench Mob'' that looks more like the ''Dead End Kids,'' every hurdle is a little higher, every valley a little deeper.
This is the only the the seventh time in three seasons under Thibodeau that the Bulls have lost consecutive games and only the second time they've lost back-to-back games by double digits.
But the totality of the blowout against the Rockets was alarming. The Bulls not only played passively against the Rockets, they barely resisted when James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons made it clear from the outset they were playing at full speed.
''Atlanta just kicked our butts,'' said guard Nate Robinson, who scored all of his team-high 27 points after the Bulls fell behind 75-47 in the third quarter. ''But [against Houston], coach really had the emphasis on coming out and attacking. Just keeping them on their heels. And we did the total opposite. We just have to bounce back and get ready for this next game.''
It used to be that easy for the Bulls under Thibodeau. But all bets are off with this team. With Rose and Hamilton injured, the Bulls are virtually playing every game with three starters -- Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer.
Belinelli, who scored 15 points against the Rockets, is a niche player at best. Kirk Hinrich is the elephant in the room. Unless he's injured or pacing himself, he's just not good enough on either end of the floor any more. He's averaging 6.6 points, 5.3 assists and shooting 36 percent from the field this season.
And now Deng is hurt again. He suffered a sprained ankle in the first quarter and managed to score 14 points on 5-of-14 shooting with five rebounds, two assists and two steals against the Rockets. But he was unsure of his status for tonight's game against the Indiana Pacers.
''Here's the thing: we had a bad fourth quarter in New York. We had a bad performance in Atlanta. And we followed it up [Tuesday night]. Things can change very quickly in this league. If you are not right and ready and don't have an edge, you are not going to win without playing with the right amount of intensity.
''That part is on me. Having us ready and having us playing hard -- that's my job. We didn't do that. They came out and cored the ball easily -- transition, paint, open shots. We didn't control the ball. We didn't get back. We didn't make multiple effort. They didn't feel us. We played low-energy on offense. We've got to get that corrected.''
The Bulls play the Pacers tonight at 6 p.m. at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
''It's on us. It has nothing to do with coach,'' Robinson said.''Coach does a great job of preparing us and getting us ready for the games. It's all on us. We're not going to let him take the blame. It's all on us. We've got to do better [against the Pacers]. And we will.''