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Bulls become victim No. 12 for the red-hot Hawks

It must be tough for the Bulls right now.

Not just the losing.

They dropped their fifth game in the last seven with the 107-99 loss Saturday to the Atlanta Hawks.

And they lost to a team that makes its living on defense, shares the ball on offense and makes the extra pass for a better shot. Everything the Bulls felt they were during a 13-2 run in December and early January. Everything they are searching to be again.

Therein lies the frustration.

“They’re winning a lot of games, they’re playing ball the right way, they guard, and I think they set the pace [Saturday night],’’ guard Jimmy Butler said after watching the Hawks win their 12th in a row. “We can’t let that happen. We could pick up something from what they do.’’

Asked if it was hard to admit that, Butler said, “I don’t know. It’s the truth. The way they play, that’s the way we should be playing. That’s the way we can play. And we’re going to get to that, so why not pick up a few things from them.’’

Butler wasn’t the only one with that opinion, either.

“They’re playing great basketball,’’ point guard Derrick Rose said. “Anybody would want to be Atlanta right now with the way they’re playing and the way the ball is hopping. We can tell they love playing together. Don’t get me wrong; we love playing together, too. We just didn’t figure things out on the defensive end.’’

And haven’t for a while.

It was the same routine: a slow start followed by a mad scramble to play catch-up. That works against the Boston Celtics, not the 33-8 Hawks.

A low-energy first quarter, in which they were outscored 24-16, left the Bulls (27-15) trying to scratch their way back. Rose finished with 23 points and had a second consecutive game with 10 assists, but it was too little, too late.

“It’s frustrating not winning, period, but we definitely can’t start the way we’ve been starting and expect to do anything great,’’ Butler said. “It’s correctable. Everybody is saying, ‘We know what we have to do.’ But we can’t keep talking about it. At some point, we have to actually get it done.’’

That seems to be the sticking point this month. While coach Tom Thibodeau can keep preaching “the magic is in the work,’’ even the players know it starts with them taking it from the practice floor to the court.

“It’s done with the team,’’ Rose said. “Thibs can say whatever he wants to say. It’s going to have to be done by us as a collective group.

“All five guys have to be tied together. But I think we’re going to figure it out.’’

They might want to do it quickly. Next up is LeBron James in Cleveland on Monday.

“Stop going into things lackadaisical,’’ Butler said of the fix. “Play some defense, cut down on turnovers early. I think that all plays into the gap, the hole that we’re digging for ourselves.

“We can score, so we rely on that a little bit too much instead of doing what we’re known for — and that’s guarding.’’

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com

Twitter: @suntimes_hoops