Bulls falter yet again in second half, lose to Magic 98-91

ORLANDO, Fla. — A fragile, mercurial, consistently inconsistent Bulls team in dire need of development and chemistry is suffering growing pains of the worst kind — now it’s mental.

For the third time in five days and the fourth time in the last nine, the Bulls, playing without injured guard Dwyane Wade, lost in the most frustrating of ways again: they took a double-digit lead in the first half before faltering in the third quarter and all but collapsing in the fourth in a 98-91 loss to the Orlando Magic on Wednesday night at Amway Center.

Tied after three quarters — just as they were against the Pistons on Monday — the Bulls shot 5-of-23 from the field in the fourth quarter, including 2-of-10 on three-point shots. The Bulls (31-33) have lost four of their last five games — getting outscored by 21, 16, 18 and 17 points in the second half of the four losses. They have scored 18, 16 and 14 points in the fourth quarter of the last three. The Magic (24-41) shot 8-of-28 (30.8 percent) in the fourth quarter and still found a way to win.

“We got off to another slow start in the fourth quarter. Then it gets in our heads a little bit and becomes mental when you have this last week of fourth quarters like we have,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Obviously fourth quarters have been a huge issue for us this last week and if we want to have any chance of playing beyond the regular season, we’re going to have to get better.”

Bulls center Robin Lopez (8) blocks a shot by Magic center Bismack Biyombo (11) during the first half Wednesday night at Amway Center. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

The eventual return of Wade, still recovering from a strained left quad, figures to help — though even he couldn’t stem the tide in similar recent losses to the Clippers and Nuggets. But the Bulls face a huge challenge in getting over this hump. They are tied with the Pistons (31-33) for the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, but only a half-game ahead of the streaking Heat (31-34) and Bucks (30-33) and in danger of falling out of playoff position.

Jimmy Butler led the Bulls with 21 points, but even he was caught in the undertow of the fourth-quarter malaise. Butler was 0-for-5 from the field and had no points, assists, rebounds or steals in the fourth quarter.

“It’s not mental,” Butler said of the team’s fourth-quarter struggles. “A lot of it is on myself. I had the ball — either score a basket or put somebody in position to score the basket. Don’t turn the ball over. There’s not too much they [his teammates] can do about that. They set amazing screens, get to where they’re supposed to be on the floor. It’s my job to make something happen.”

Butler often has stepped up in Wade’s absence, but hasn’t been quite the force he’s been recently and put the blame on himself for the recent late failures.

“I mean, the ball’s in my hand late,” he said. “I’ve got to start making shots, finishing — all that stuff that I’m supposed to do. I’ve got to be better. I will be better. There’s nothing else to say about it.”

The Bulls struggled at both ends of the floor in crunch time. With the Magic leading 91-89, Robin Lopez blocked a shot by Elfrid Payton (22 points, 14 rebounds, 14 assists) and the ball went out of bounds with 0.7 seconds left on the shot clock. The Magic scored the only way they could, with Aaron Gordon scoring on a lob at the rim to give the Magic a 93-89 lead with 3:09 to play.

That’s how things are going for this team.

“We pretty much knew the low-clock play they were going to run,” Hoiberg said. “We had Robin parked down there in the middle and they threw it to the best athlete on the floor and he jumped over the top of our guy and tipped it in.

“It’s the rebounding [that was the problem]. We had 18 turnovers. We gave up 15 offensive rebounds and that led to 17 second-chance points. It’s hard to win when you do that.”

Now it’s up to the Bulls to find a way to snap out of it. Wade can’t come back soon enough, but this team likely will need more than that.

“Mental toughness. Got to find a way,” said guard Rajon Rondo, who had eight points and six assists off the bench. “Got to come in with the right mindset. We can’t pick and choose when we want to turn it on and off. We’ve just got to have a better mental focus.”

If there was one bright spot, it was a surprising performance from newcomer Joffrey Lauvergne, the 6-11 forward acquired from the Thunder in the Taj Gibson/Doug McDermott deal. Lauvergne, who had played six minutes and scored four points in his first six games with the Bulls, gave the Bulls a lift in the first quarter. He hit a three-pointer, scored off a feed from Rondo and turned a rebound into a fast break that earned Butler two free throws to ignite a 19-5 run that gave the Bulls a 34-24 lead early in the second period.

Lauvergne had six points, three rebounds and two assists in 12 minutes in the first half. That earned him crunch-time minutes, with Nikola Mirotic getting a DNP. Lauvergne played the entire fourth quarter but wasn’t as effective as he had been in the first half — one point on 0-for-3 shooting with five rebounds. Like the Bulls as a team, he still needs time to grow.

“We’re playing hard. It’s not an effort thing,” Hoiberg said. “We’re competing. We’ve played very good stretches of basketball. We have to play a full 48 minutes.”