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Bull crack: Was the Nuggets loss an aberration or a reason for concern?

Chicago Bulls Vs AtlantHawks 1 St Half-Action. Bulls No.9 Luol Deng drives under basket scores while AtlantHawks No. 5 Josh

Chicago Bulls Vs Atlanta Hawks 1 St Half-Action. Bulls No.9 Luol Deng drives under the basket and scores while Atlanta Hawks No. 5 Josh Smith defends While Bulls No.13 Joakim Noah holds off Atlanta Hawks No.15 Al Horford. January 18, 2012 I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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bulls at hawks

The facts: 6:30, CSN, 1000-AM

Updated: April 29, 2012 8:19AM

The 40-11 Bulls still have the best record in the NBA and, more important, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. So even though they’re in the throes of a one-game losing streak, it’s too early to overreact. But with Derrick Rose and Richard Hamilton still out indefinitely, it’s getting too late to underreact, too.

The Bulls’ 108-91 loss Monday to the Denver Nuggets was just one game. But heading into the game Wednesday against the Hawks in Atlanta, it remains to be seen if it was just one of those nights when Ty Lawson not only outscored C.J. Watson 27-17 but outrebounded 6-11 Joakim Noah 9-5.

Even coach Tom Thibodeau
acknowledges it was his team’s third consecutive subpar effort. While no one disputes that shooting comes and goes, when the Bulls’ vaunted energy-and-effort fails them in three consecutive games, it might be time to take this thing off automatic pilot and see if there’s a bigger problem.

The Bulls have been ahead of the pack through a challenging post-lockout season. But their injuries and the laser focus that Thibodeau has instilled in his players might be catching up to them. The biggest red flags that bear watching:

1. Derrick Rose

The Bulls’ playoff fate hinges on the return of the reigning MVP. But considering the nature of his latest injury and Rose’s insistence that ‘‘when I feel I’m 100 percent or close to it, I’m going to play no matter who says what,’’ it might be more worrisome that he comes back too soon rather than too late.

For what it’s worth, the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony, struggling since returning from a groin injury, turned it up against the Bucks on Monday night — and tweaked his groin. It’s one of those years.

2. Fatigue

The Bulls lead the NBA in
rebounding but were outrebounded for the second consecutive game Monday night, 45-32. They had a season-low five offensive rebounds (they average 13.6). The Bulls lead the league in mental toughness but faded in the second half. After the Nuggets scored the first 10 points of the third quarter to take a 64-52 lead, the Bulls never got closer than eight points.

The Toronto Raptors and Nuggets threw the Bulls out of whack with an up-tempo game. It’ll be interesting to see if future foes, knowing the Bulls have been going all-out all season, pick up on that.

3. Luol Deng

The Bulls’ second-most valuable player still finds a way to contribute since returning from a left wrist injury, but it seems to be affecting his game more recently. Deng is shooting 34 percent (38-for-113) in his last eight games and is 4-for-26
on three-pointers in his last six — missing badly on many of them. He has had a total of nine rebounds in the Bulls’ last three losses.

4. Joakim Noah

He’s still playing with great
energy, but Noah’s production has declined without Rose creating
opportunities by penetrating the lane. In his last five games, Noah is averaging 5.3 points and 5.3
rebounds and is shooting 36 percent (10-for-28). He has no offensive rebounds in his last 35 minutes over two games.

5. Richard Hamilton

Though Hamilton appears closer to returning than Rose, the Bulls might want to be even more patient with his sprained shoulder. The Bulls are good at acclimating quickly to different players and lineups. They’re not so good at staying healthy.

‘‘The smart teams play to their strengths and cover up their weaknesses,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘I think we have a smart team.’’

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