INDIANAPOLIS — Building the 17-point lead was a methodical thing of beauty for the Bulls.
The ball movement was crisp, the defense was staunch and the hustle plays were frequent.
For three-plus quarters Wednesday, age really was just a number.
But with just over seven minutes left at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, an embarrassing meltdown provided yet another reminder of just how ugly rebuilds can be.
A three-pointer from Victor Oladipo with 31 seconds left gave the Pacers their first and only lead at 98-96 and handed the Bulls (3-20) a 10th consecutive loss. There will be some serious soul-searching after this debacle.
It was no wonder that coach Fred Hoiberg cut his postgame media session short, walking off in anger after two questions.
“It’s finding a way to fight through those tough times,’’ Hoiberg said. “This one, it stings a lot. They’re hurt in there. They’re down. It’s a hard one, man. It’s a really, really hard game because we had control for the majority of it and played really good, hard, unselfish basketball.
“The big message to our team is if we continue to play with that type of effort, if we continue to play the right way and play unselfish, we’re going to start winning games. It’s going to take 48 minutes to do it, but that’s the bottom line. You’ve got to play with that type of effort and intensity every time you step on the floor, and we’ll have a chance every time we come out.’’
That “big message’’ from Hoiberg was not delivered softly, however.
“He sees the fight in us,’’ point guard Kris Dunn said. “He sees we went out and competed. That’s the biggest thing he wants us to do. Of course, he’s going to be mad when you build a big lead and the other team comes back. We kind of let our hands loose in the fourth quarter. It’s going to hit you hard. It’s understandable why he’s mad. He should be mad.’’
Especially after watching his young team blow leads of at least 17 points in three games during this skid. And this latest defeat might have been the toughest to stomach.
The Bulls still had a 13-point lead with 7:14 left, then went 1-for-10 from the field with four turnovers down the stretch.
The dagger came on the possession that started with 54.7 seconds left and the Bulls up by two. It ended with Denzel Valentine turning the ball over, which led to Oladipo’s three-pointer.
“I had a move, had [my man] beat, had him with the step-back, but I thought I should go to the rim,’’ Valentine said. “When I went to the rim, I kind of lost it a little bit, and stuff happens.
“Looking back on it, I’m definitely going to take that [step-back] shot next time.’’
The next time the Bulls have a big lead, they have to learn how to protect it.
“That monkey is still on our back,’’ Dunn said. “We were playing great basketball. It’s hard to get a win in this league. It shows. There are some positives coming out of this. But we have to learn from it. We’re doing some good things, but we have to make strides to get better.’’
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