The Bulls’ offense remains a work-in-progress under first-year coach Fred Hoiberg. Even in winning four of five games heading into the final game of the circus trip, the up-tempo game that’s supposed to mark the biggest difference from the Tom Thibodeau era is spotty.
“We have to continue to try and get better offensively,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve had flashes where we’ve looked really good in the last few games — especially in the first quarters we’ve gotten off to a very good start and then we’ve gotten a little stagnant.”
It was a completely different story in the season finale of the circus trip against the Pacers on Friday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Bulls, who had established 10-point first-quarter leads in their previous four games, instead came out flat, fell behind by 12 points in the first quarter and couldn’t recover in a 104-92 loss to the Pacers.
Nikola Mirotic led the Bulls with 25 points on 8-of-14 shooting. Jimmy Butler added 16 on 4-of-10 shooting. Derrick Rose scored 10 points on 4-of-15 shooting. Pau Gasol made 4-of-16 shots from the field and scored nine points, with 11 rebounds. The Bulls shot 35 percent from the field (32-of-92).
Paul George, who came into the game averaging 29.6 points and shooting 53 percent from three-point range (28-of-52) in his previous 10 games, scored 33 points to lead the Pacers, but shot 11-of-24 from the field, including 4-of-10 on three-point attempts. Four other Pacers scored in double figures, led by forward C.J. Miles, who scored 16 points.
The Bulls’ early burst this time lasted less than three minutes — Miles sparked an 11-0 run that turned a 7-2 Bulls lead into a 13-7 deficit en route to a 30-18 lead after the first quarter. The energy that carried them against the Suns, Warriors and Trailblazers in the first three games of the road trip was missing. In the first half, the Bulls committed nine turnovers, shot 36 percent from the field (16-of-44) and gave up 14 fast-break points and 12 second-chance points in falling behind 51-42.
The Bulls struggled to get into a rhythm at either end of the floor. Rose was a non-factor, shooting 1-for-7 in the first half. Butler, whose defense against red-hot Paul George down the stretch helped the Bulls beat the Pacers 96-94 at the United Center on Nov. 16, was 1-for-5 from the field in the first half with three turnovers.
Miles hit a three-pointer and converted a four-point play off another three-point shot as the Pacers opened a 45-28 lead with 3:40 to play in the second quarter. The Bulls finally responded, hitting four three-pointers in the final 3:25 of the first half —two each by Nikola Mirotic and Kirk Hinrich — to cut the deficit to 51-42 at halftime.
The Bulls made their biggest push in the third quarter. Trailing 65-53, they hit 7-of-9 free throws after Mirotich hit a fadeaway, to outscore the Pacers 9-1 and get within 66-62 with 1:46 left in the third quarter.
But George hit a tough drive against Butler and Taj Gibson and Monta Ellis scored on a fast break to give the Pacers a 72-63 lead after three. George opened the fourth quareter with a basket and Rodney Stuckey scored on a fast break after a Bulls turnover to give the Pacers a 76-63 lead with 11:05 left in the game. The Bulls never got closer than seven points in the fourth quarter.
The Bulls return to the United Center on Monday against the San Antonio Spurs.