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Bulls choke on the Big Apple and are once again in must-win mode

NEW YORK — The Bulls were due for a slipup.

But an all-out, turn-blue-in-the-face, embarrassing gag job?

That wasn’t in the plans, not after four consecutive wins and not against a 48-loss Knicks team that started Ron Baker, Courtney Lee, Willy Hernangomez and Maurice Ndour.

But the Bulls reminded all of us that nothing comes easy for them.

Even worse, the 100-91 loss came on a night in which the Pacers battled back to beat the Raptors. At 38-40, the Pacers and Bulls have the same record with four games left, but the Bulls own the tiebreaker and held on to the No. 7 spot in the East. They’re only a half-game in front of the idle Heat, however, and again in danger of missing out on the postseason.

“You just look at the numbers on the glass,’’ coach Fred Hoiberg said. “That tells you everything you need to know. They just had their way with us. One guy beating three guys to the ball, [outrebounded] 53-36 overall, we were careless with the ball, 15 turnovers. That’s not how you win games.’’

It had that look of bad February basketball right from the start, as defense seemed to be an option, not a requirement, especially in the first half.

New York scored 29 in the first quarter, and the Bulls had problems on offense in the second, shooting 5-for-20 from the field and getting outscored 25-16.

“We let our lack of shot-making affect our defense,’’ Hoiberg said. “We weren’t playing as a unit on that defensive side of the floor. You’re going to go through droughts, and obviously we went through several, and we let it affect us on the other end. More important, we let it affect us on loose balls and toughness plays, physical plays.

“We just got our [butts] kicked on the boards.’’

And everywhere around the boards, as well.

Jimmy Butler again led the Bulls, scoring 26 points, and Nikola Mirotic chipped in 21 points and 10 rebounds, but the youngsters who had been so good lately really shrunk with the heat turned up a notch.

Rookie Denzel Valentine went 1-for-7 from the field, and Paul Zipser was 0-for-5.

A loss was the last thing Butler wanted to see at this point on the schedule, but he wasn’t exactly shocked by it, either. Not when he has seen it happen far too often this season.

“Nah,’’ Butler said when asked if he was surprised with the stumble. “We didn’t come out with the fire that we needed to. They came out like they were playing for something, and we didn’t. They whipped our tail in every aspect of the game.’’

Now it’s about making sure that doesn’t happen again.

The Bulls play in Philadelphia, then in Brooklyn before coming home for games against the Magic and Nets.

“Effort,’’ Butler said. “That’s what it comes down to. Guarding, rebounding, myself, everybody in here included. It’s happened before, but we can’t let it happen again in these last four. We need these. There’s nothing we can do about this one now. Next one up.’’

Follow me on Twitter @suntimes_hoops.

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com

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