Coach Fred Hoiberg is winning.
Even when his team doesn’t — the Bulls lost to the Trail Blazers 124-120 in overtime Monday, dropping them to 13-24 — he still can get the most satisfaction out of this season.
Since a Dec. 4 blowout loss to the Cavaliers, there hasn’t been a more difficult team in the Eastern Conference for opposing teams to deal with than his Bulls.
Even in their losses during that span, only one — last week’s 117-92 setback in Boston — falls in the stinker category.
At some point, Hoiberg has to start receiving some credit from outside the building. Inside the building? Not a problem.
“He just stuck with us through all the ups and downs,’’ guard Denzel Valentine said. “Even when we were 3-17, he was still believing in us, still putting us in positions to be successful. He’s stuck with us, been patient and kept us motivated.’’
It’s that “kept us motivated’’ part that might be the most telling.
This was a roster built by the front office to fail this season. That’s what a tanking franchise is supposed to do. Pick up losses, collect more lottery balls, draft high.
All vice president of basketball operations John Paxson required was a team that played with high effort and the development of young players such as rookie forward Lauri Markkanen and second-year point guard Kris Dunn.
Check and check.
Learning how to win games was supposed to come later in the process. Back-to-back last-minute losses to the Wizards and Trail Blazers were a reminder of the inconsistency that persists.
“We’re competitors,’’ Valentine said. “Any competitor is not just going to come into the season, like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m just going to tank this year. We might lose, this and that.’ No. Like, it doesn’t work like that. I think we always want to win.
‘‘We always want to compete. We knew at some point, things were going to change. Like I said, we just didn’t know when. But our chemistry is pretty good right now. We’ve just got to keep growing.’’
A little luck along the way helps.
The 10 victories in December were nice, but they were also a bit misleading.
The Bulls are still 29th in offensive efficiency and only 12th in pace. They also haven’t faced Kyrie Irving, Victor Oladipo and Joel Embiid because of injury or a rest night.
Heck, even the Trail Blazers were without high-powered guard Damian Lillard.
That didn’t seem to hamper them, however, as CJ McCollum made a clutch floater with 56 seconds left in overtime for a two-point lead.
After Dunn missed a questionable contested jumper with eight seconds to go, McCollum iced the game with two free throws to finish with a game-high 32 points.
The Bulls were led by Dunn, who had 22 points, and Markkanen chipped in 19.
“That’s the thing about it — we’ve had some success closing out games, but the last two nights we haven’t done it,’’ Hoiberg said. “We have not gotten the job done. It hurts, it stings, especially after having the seven in a row when we did close out a lot of those close games. We’ll get back in the film room and try to learn something from it. We’ve got to learn throughout the season, throughout these close games.’’
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