Heading into Saturday's game against the Atlanta Hawks, the Chicago Bulls had won six in a row. It seemed like they had turned the corner and were emerging as the second best team in the Eastern Conference -- a team that just might be able to challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Hawks hung 120 points on them and won by 15.
And instead of bouncing back and proving their mettle against the Washington Wizards on Monday, the Bulls were duds again. The Wizards ran them out of the gym en route to a 114-100 win. The loss dropped the Bulls from the second seed in the East, a spot no team seems to want.
The conference's new No. 2 is the Raptors, who at 24-15 have won three in a row and own a half-game lead over the Bulls in the standings. There are currently six teams -- the Bulls, Raptors, Hawks, Heat, Pacers and Pistons -- within two games for the second best record in the East. No one is creating any separation.
The Bulls were the prime candidate after going on a huge run following their Christmas Day win over the Thunder. Their offense was peaking under new coach Fred Hoiberg while the defense was similar to the Tom Thibodeau-led teams of the past. The defense has crumpled the past two games, however, giving up 120 and 114 points -- it was even worse against the Wizards, who have the 18th-rated offense in NBA.
And at times it was from a lack of effort and not getting back on defense after a missed shot.
The Bulls don't need to panic. They've already hit a few roadblocks this season. They can, and likely will, rebound from this. But the Bulls have to be disappointed they didn't take advantage of the run they were on. They could have created some separation from the rest of the East.
The East looks similar to the top of last year's Western Conference with so many teams with similar records. Remember what happened to the Spurs, who ended up with the sixth seed and didn't have home court advantage? It's going to be important for teams to stay in the second and third spots. That way, you can avoid the Cavaliers until the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Wizards, meanwhile, are doing their best to enter the playoff race. They had wins against the Spurs and on the road against the Cavaliers and Heat, but were three games under .500 heading into their win over the Bulls on Monday. Against the Bulls, the Wizards looked like a team that should be in the playoffs -- not one that would be two games out of the hunt if the season ended today.
Washington beat the Bulls by lighting up their defense and controlling Jimmy Butler. Seven Wizards scored in double figures and two more had eight points apiece, as they shot 48.5 percent from the floor as a team. John Wall hit only 7-of-19 of his shots, but he did have 17 points, 10 assists and three steals. Without Marcin Gortat and Bradley Beal, the Wizards' bench and role players showed up in a big way. Ramon Sessions had 16 points, five rebounds and four assists in 24 minutes and Gary Neal added 11 points in 15 minutes.
With Wall running the show and the weapons on offense, the Wizards are finding their groove. They locked the Bulls down at times and forced 15 turnovers. It was a complete game, something the Wizards have struggled to put together consistently this season. But they're climbing the rankings -- at full strength, they're a dangerous team to face as the playoff race heats up.
2 things we learned
The Golden State Warriors don't need to hit threes to win.
The Warriors only had five made threes with five minutes remaining against the Heat. They were still up by 10 points. They went on to make 7-of-23 -- just topping their season low of six -- but they held on to win, 111-103, behind 31 points from Stephen Curry and another phenomenal game by Draymond Green, who had 22 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. The Heat tried to run with the Warriors and were able to stick around thanks in part to the misses from behind the arc. But as so many other teams have learned this season, it's nearly impossible to keep up with the Warriors. They have too many weapons and can score in too many ways. That was the case again on Monday -- especially when Green is playing at such a high level.
There isn't a quick fix for the Brooklyn Nets.
It's not fair that the Nets' first game after the firing of head coach Lionel Hollins came against the Spurs, but they sure didn't do a good job of getting their fan base excited about the rest of the season. Brooklyn was blown out in Tony Brown's debut as coach, 106-79. It was a two-point lead for the Spurs after one quarter and they led by only seven at the half, but this one was never really in question. The Nets have no answer for a team as talented as the Spurs. LaMarcus Aldridge had 25 points and 11 rebounds and Kawhi Leonard added 17 points and eight boards, plus a nice alley-oop with Tim Duncan.
The Spurs were making plays like this all night. They found holes in the Nets' defense again and again. Hollins might not have been the right guy for the job, but with the current roster, there isn't much to do.
Play of the night
Once around the back isn't good enough for Stephen Curry, he has to do it twice.