NEW ORLEANS — The Bulls had Jimmy Butler once. Traded him away.
And it has been a long time since they had a keeper of the culture like a Udonis Haslem. Probably not since Joakim Noah was not only wearing red but bleeding it.
So what did the very public on-the-court schism between Heat teammates on Wednesday have to do with the Bulls losing 126-109 to the Pelicans one night later? A lot.
With only nine regular-season games left and the Bulls (42-31) trending in the wrong direction with five losses in their last six games, coach Billy Donovan was asked about the Butler-Haslem incident, specifically because he coached Haslem in his Florida Gators national-championship days.
“[Haslem] has no problem confronting anything that he feels may be getting in the way of winning or the team doing the very best it can,’’ Donovan said. “For the public, when they see guys going at it like that it’s, ‘OK, they don’t like each other.’ That’s the furthest thing from the truth. That’s just how it is when you have highly competitive guys.’’
So what exactly do the Bulls have?
Where is their Butler-Haslem moment, as this season continues slipping from storybook to horror novel? Who will be their keeper of the culture and do it with the volume turned up?
Those are real concerns.
There’s a toughness issue with this team, and the loaded schedule the Bulls have been playing lately continued to expose it.
Against the Pelicans, the Bulls were without DeMar DeRozan (groin).
“I think there is confrontation,’’ Donovan did say of his team. “I think that has happened behind closed doors. Our guys are professional. I’m not saying Udonis and Jimmy Butler aren’t professional. I’m saying those guys kind of handled it, and it didn’t get out to the public. But the biggest thing for us right now is when you watch the Milwaukee game or the Philly game, Utah game, Memphis game, those teams that are big, strong and physical, you gotta put a body in plays.
“We’re not the biggest, the strongest or tallest, but you know what? We can positionally be in a spot where we’re taking this on the chest right now. That’s where we’ve got to be better. That’s our biggest challenge. That stuff needs to be talked about more; that stuff needs to be confronted more.’’
For three quarters, it seemed to be on Thursday. Then it slipped away quickly in the fourth as the Bulls were outscored 40-24 and more than lost their composure.
Reserve big man Tristan Thompson had a meltdown late in the game, but it wasn’t because of the play of his teammates. It was because of the officials. After he picked up two technicals expressing his displeasure with a review, he dropped a series of expletives before being escorted off the court that likely will cost him a fine with the league office.
Lost in the bad defeat to a 31-42 Pelicans team was a stellar performance by Zach LaVine, who scored a season-high 39 points on 12-for-23 shooting. And as frustrated as he was with the loss, getting in the face of teammates just isn’t in his personality.
“I think everybody is on high alert,’’ LaVine said. “You’re not going to tell somebody to act a different way. I’m not going to try to turn into something I’m not. I think that’s fake. People can see through that. I think everybody knows what’s ahead of us and what we need to do.’’