The Bulls have been in more stretch runs than a thoroughbred racehorse this season, blowing fourth-quarter opportunities more often than not. That trend continued Tuesday night at the United Center when the Bulls faltered in the fourth quarter of a 105-102 loss to the Hawks.
Mike Bibby scored a season-high 31 points, including nine in the final five minutes, as the Bulls followed a familiar script.
"That's the story of our season," guard Ben Gordon said. "We're not very good at closing games out."
For the second straight game, the Bulls wasted a huge rebounding advantage that included 20 offensive boards by kicking away 18 turnovers that led to 22 Atlanta points.
Gordon had five of the miscues and Kirk Hinrich offset his solid 13 points and eight assists with four of his own.
"We have a lot of young players, but our older players are making mistakes when we shouldn't be," Gordon said. "We have to be more careful."
The Bulls last led on Derrick Rose's driving layup with 5 minutes 19 seconds remaining. Bibby then kick-started a quick 7-0 run with a 17-foot fadeaway with 4:58 remaining, followed by a Flip Murray fast-break layup and a Bibby three-pointer.
Gordon's drive cut the Bulls' deficit to 100-96, but Bibby struck again, sinking another jumper with 2:38 to play.
Zaza Pachulia fouled Gordon on a three-point attempt that Gordon still almost made with 69 seconds left. Gordon then missed the middle of three free throws to make it 102-98.
Bibby then came up big defensively, stripping Gordon near midcourt after the Bulls started a fast break from forcing a Joe Johnson miss. Bibby's dagger jumper with 18.9 seconds left sealed the deal and sent the crowd of 20,389 to the exits.
"The turnovers really hurt," coach Vinny Del Negro said. "Bibby had his way with us. But I thought the difference really was Pachulia. His 18 points really, really bothered us because he got easy points, layups."
Del Negro substituted freely after Atlanta ripped off a 15-0, first-quarter run. Even Rose left for Hinrich at the 7:20 mark.
Just more than a minute later, Aaron Gray replaced Noah and, despite sitting the last three games, helped spark a 16-0 run with four points while Luol Deng added six.
Gray had seven points and five rebounds by halftime, at which point the Bulls had shot 51.1 percent and led 53-50 thanks to a huge rebounding edge and efficient zone defense.
The Bulls again were without Drew Gooden, who clearly labored through his limited stint Monday in York.
"His groin is bothering him and we don't play [again] until Friday so, hopefully, he can get healthy," Del Negro said.
The Bulls' late-game execution needs to as well.
"You have to make plays," Del Negro said. "You can't turn the ball over. You have to play smart. You have to know your limitations and know time and score. We're playing hard but not real efficient at times."
Those times, mostly, would be in the fourth quarter.