A bad look: Bulls dominated by depleted Hawks 123-105 in game both teams needed

How’s that bland season tasting, Bulls fans? Even less satisfying now.

SHARE A bad look: Bulls dominated by depleted Hawks 123-105 in game both teams needed
Atlanta’s John Collins goes up strong against the Bulls on Tuesday at the United Center.

Atlanta’s John Collins goes up strong against the Bulls on Tuesday at the United Center.

David Banks/AP

There’s backing in, and then there’s backing down.

In a 123-105 loss Tuesday to the depleted Hawks at the United Center, the Bulls did both. And no matter how much it ends up hurting them in the Eastern Conference standings — which might be a lot — it was embarrassing and inexcusable.

‘‘They wanted it more than us, that’s what I think,’’ guard Zach LaVine said.

How’s that bland season tasting, Bulls fans? Even less satisfying now.

In a game they had to win — and despite having every conceivable advantage with Hawks star Trae Young and third-leading scorer De’Andre Hunter out — the Bulls took the floor in lights-out mode. As in, the lights were out and they were ready for a nap.

‘‘We just didn’t have the approach needed tonight, for whatever reason,’’ center Nikola Vucevic said.

What is it with this team?

‘‘We competed,’’ coach Billy Donovan said, ‘‘but we did not compete at the level in a game like this, against that team, that was good enough to win the game. I mean, that’s the bottom line, and that part is disappointing.’’

Is there another part we don’t know about?

The Bulls (38-41) and Hawks (40-39) were eighth and 10th, respectively, in the East standings entering the game, and the Bulls missed a golden opportunity to move up. A victory would have pulled the teams even — just behind the 40-39 Raptors — with a tiebreaker edge to the Bulls for winning the season series.

A 9-vs.-10 rematch in Chicago? That wouldn’t have been so bad. Or perhaps the Bulls, with three games to go, could have snuck up to No. 8? That would’ve been even better.

Instead, the Bulls were left talking about how unprepared to play they were. It deserved to be shouted from the rooftops, though that would’ve taken too much energy.

But, hey, the 11th-place Magic lost Tuesday, locking the Bulls into the play-in. So they’ve almost certainly got a play-in trip to Toronto or Atlanta waiting for them.

By the time the buzzer sounded, though, it almost felt as though it didn’t matter.

Given all the scattered ups and downs of a middling team that has been worse than .500 since it was 6-6 in early November, was it naive to think the Bulls would benefit from a carryover effect after their essentially perfect second half Sunday against the Grizzlies? The Bulls turned a 15-point halftime deficit into a 128-107 rout in that game, fueled primarily by an unheard-of 31-0 edge in points off turnovers. It was beautiful.

That was the opposite of giving away a game, which the Bulls have done too much of in recent seasons. It doesn’t do them any good now to think of the worst examples of that, but this unnecessarily difficult skirmish for play-in positioning could have been a lot easier had they not blown 20-plus-point leads in losses to the Cavaliers and Pacers in January and the Pacers again in February.

Bogdan Bogdanovic started for Young, who has a non-COVID-related illness, and led the Hawks with 26 points. Saddiq Bey, in for the third consecutive game for Hunter, added 18 and Jalen Johnson a career-high 16.

Bogdanovic blitzed the Bulls with 11 quick points as the Hawks went up 13-2. It never got particularly compelling from there. Bogdanovic grinned from ear to ear after threes, pounded his chest and roared loudly enough after a layup to be heard in the cheap seats. The Bulls chucked off-target threes, missed layups and blew defensive assignments.

An 8-0 run to close the first half cut the Bulls’ deficit to 12. Only a matter of time before they seized the moment, right? Nope.

‘‘This idea we’re going to try to regroup at halftime and then we’re going to come out and be able to overcome it, it’s a very difficult recipe,’’ Donovan said.

Tastes awful, too.

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