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As losses pile up, so do questions about this Bulls team finding its way

On a night when the defense bounced back from an embarrassment in Minnesota, there were moments to build on. But key plays down the stretch still weren’t made, and the Bulls fell in Memphis for their third straight loss.

“These guys really care,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said before Monday’s 101-90 loss to the Grizzlies in Memphis — their third straight defeat. “I think there’s definitely disappointment when we don’t play to the level we want to play at.”
“These guys really care,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said before Monday’s 101-90 loss to the Grizzlies in Memphis — their third straight defeat. “I think there’s definitely disappointment when we don’t play to the level we want to play at.”
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These losses weigh heavily on the Bulls. Coach Billy Donovan swears they do.

“These guys really care,” he said Monday before the Bulls fells 101-90 to the Grizzlies in Memphis — their third straight defeat as the losses of recent weeks continue to pile up. “I think there’s definitely disappointment when we don’t play to the level we want to play at. But the other part of that, too, is you’ve got 48 minutes to not feel that way. So I do think they’ve put a lot into it, I do think they work hard, I do think they care. I’ve never, ever once since I’ve been here seen a group come into the locker room and have a carefree ‘Who cares?’ [attitude]. There’s a genuine heartache when those guys lose.”

And after this loss, it’s obvious where they still need to put more work in. Fouling and turnovers remain issues. And unless the Bulls start defending at a consistently higher level with 19 regular-season games left, they might be able to retain their hold on a play-in game but likely are headed for a one-and-done postseason.

Defensive miscues in Sunday’s loss to the Timberwolves were embarrassing; Donovan called players out on it, and they knew. On Monday, the defense was better overall, but the miscues continued, especially on help defense and in crunch time.

“Working still,” said guard Zach LaVine, whose 21 points led the team. “We’ve got to start figuring it out. We just didn’t close. It’s frustrating. We’re talented enough to win these games, but we’re just not getting the results. It’s just upsetting.’’

On several occasions against the Grizzlies (27-25), the Bulls’ defense — new faces and all — seemed to be in sync. Patrick Williams made a great play in the first quarter, leaving his man in the corner and coming backside on a lob attempt for a tip away. LaVine fought through a screen by Jonas Valanciunas (game-high 26 points) and got a block. And Thad Young did what he does best, drawing another charge.

Now for the bad — and it was bad. With the Bulls (22-31) trailing by seven with 2:40 left, LaVine made two free throws to cut it to five. A key stop was needed but didn’t come as Ja Morant hit the defense with a hesitation dribble and layup. After a miss by LaVine, Kyle Anderson hit a clutch three-pointer, leading to a turnover by LaVine off a double dribble.

The wheels were officially off. Valanciunas scored on a nasty put-back dunk with 1:39 left, and the Bulls were down by 12.

On a night when the Bulls’ offense was struggling (5-for-31 from three-point range), they hurt themselves on defense by chasing guards over screens rather than fighting through them and missing help assignments.

“We were more physical — probably the most physical we’ve been,’’ said center Daniel Theis, who scored 18 points off the bench. “Right now, one category hurts us. We’ve got to put it all together in one game.

“We definitely want to win now. Our goal is to make the playoffs. We’ve got to put a complete game together.”