There's no question why the Bulls lost Friday night.
In their 46th game of the season, Tom Thibodeau started a lineup against the Brooklyn Nets that had not spent one second on the floor together previously this season.
By the time Thibodeau figured out that the Nets' quickness made Nazr Mohammed a liability, the Bulls were down 17-8.
The Bulls recovered to take a 67-63 lead into the fourth quarter. But the reliance on a short-handed lineup took its toll. By the fourth quarter, Taj Gibson (36 minutes), Nate Robinson (29) and Jimmy Butler (28) had already played more minutes than their season averages. In the end, Gibson, who averages 21 minutes a game, played all 48. Robinson, who averages 22 minutes, played more than 41. Even Luol Deng, who averages 39.6 minutes per game, played all but four seconds of the game.
Predictably, the Bulls faltered in the final quarter, falling behind 81-74 with 5:30 to play. They rallied to get within 86-84 and 91-89 when Butler tipped a Nets inbounds pass to Deng for a easy basket with 15.9 seconds left. But former Bulls guard C.J. Watson hit two free throws with 11 seconds left as the Nets hung on for a 93-89 victory at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
It's pretty hard to win in the NBA when your entire roster has a salary cap number of less than $29 million -- particularly on the road against a 27-19 team. But the Bulls nearly did that Friday night.
And all the signs pointed to one factor in their demise: the absence of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Kirk Hinrich because of injuries. Noah has a sore right foot. Boozer is nursing a sore hamstring. Hinrich returned to Chicago to have his bothersome elbow examined by team physician Dr. Brian Cole.
The Bulls not only missed their regular starters, but their replacements clearly were taxed by the extra responsiblity. It's not a coincidence that Nate Robinson, who had hit 15-of-27 shots from the field in his previous two games, including 5-of-8 three-pointers, missed 12 of his first 13 shots against the Nets and finished 4-of-16 (0-for-3 on three-pointers) on a night when he had extra playmaking responsibilities and finished with 11 assists and two turnovers.
But Thibodeau wasn't buying it. Asked about Robinson yeoman's work on the night, Thibodeau said, ''It was good'' and then went straight into the litany of things Robinson and his teammates didn't do so well.
''There's a lot of parts to the game,'' Thibodeau continued. ''We didn't play defense the way we should have. Didn't rebound the way we should have. I thought our shots in the first quarter weren't necessarily the right shots. We got on track after that. [But] the way we started the game, we didn't set the tone. It gave them confidence early. When a team gets confidence early it's tough to slow them down.''
Those are legitimate concerns if Boozer and Noah in particular are going to be out for an extended period. But otherwise, there should be at least a little room to acknowledge that as long as the Bulls got another day closer to Derrick Rose's return, what happened Friday night against the Nets was not bad.
The players are conditioned to repeat Thibodeau's mantra. But Gibson at least sensed it wasn't as bad as they were saying it was.
''We felt like we let the game slide away from us,'' Gibson said. ''We had a lot of minor letdowns on defense, including myself. It was a tough time in the fourth quarter.
''But even though it's not a moral victory and we have to move on, guys stepped up a little bit and [will ] have more confidence come late in April and May. So we have to keep pushing it.''