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Tom Thibodeau steamed after Bulls smacked in back-to-backs

Bulls guard Richard Hamiltbrings ball up court first quarter as Chicago Bulls host HoustRockets Monday April 2 2012 United Center

Bulls guard Richard Hamilton brings the ball up court in the first quarter as the Chicago Bulls host the Houston Rockets Monday April 2, 2012 at the United Center in Chicago. | TOM CRUZE~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 4, 2012 8:14AM

The mission from the beginning of the season is to be healthy and playing your best basketball heading into the playoffs.

The Bulls are so far from accomplishing both goals that not even the long-awaited return of Rip Hamilton was enough to prevent them from losing back-to-back games for the first time in 86 games.

The Bulls are not only battered but looked gassed for the second consecutive game. This team needs an infusion of energy, which made Hamilton’s return for only his 17th game seem opportune, considering Derrick Rose remains out with a groin injury and the Bulls were coming off the embarrassing loss Sunday against the Thunder.

Hamilton played mostly like his old self in limited minutes, but it wasn’t enough to prevent a second-half collapse that resulted in a 99-93 loss Monday against the Rockets at the United Center.

Coach Tom Thibodeau called it the worst consecutive performances since he arrived before last season.

“I felt like we let go of the rope,” Thibodeau said. “Usually, we’re a team that has shown great fight, great resolve. We get down; we fight back. I don’t feel we ever let go of the rope. The last two games, we let go of the rope.”

“I don’t think we let go of the rope, but when you lose two in a row, questions creep in,” Carlos Boozer said.

Hamilton returned wearing his signature facemask. His arm and shoulder were in a sleeve to support the sprained right shoulder that sidelined him for 14 consecutive games. Shin pads protected his legs.

He was a perfect symbol of what the Bulls have been through this season. The only way he could’ve been more protected was if he had been inside a stack of steel-belted radials.

He had six points and three assists in 19 minutes, 49 seconds. Rust came in the form of five turnovers. The Bulls had 19 turnovers overall.

“The first couple of minutes were good,” Hamilton said. “As the game went on, I felt fatigue in my shoulder. It’s to be expected.”

It took awhile for the Bulls to find a rhythm early. They got their offense working late in the first quarter, however, thanks to great passing. The defense was the difference in the second quarter as the Bulls held the Rockets without a field goal for 8:40. Their 11-point halftime lead quickly dissipated as the Rockets outscored them 31-19 in the third quarter.

Houston began the fourth quarter with a 7-0 run and quickly took a 12-point lead on Chase Budinger’s third three-pointer. The Bulls couldn’t recover, thanks in part to another poor performance from the free-throw line, where they made only 8 of 17.

Luol Deng had a game-high 24 points, and Boozer added 16 points and 13 rebounds. Joakim Noah had a career-high six dunks, scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds.

Goran Dragic scored 21 for the Rockets, and Luis Scola added 18 points and 12 rebounds.

“To me, that’s the convenient excuse,” Thibodeau said of Rose’s prolonged absence.

“At this time of year, you could say injuries, the condensed schedule, back-to-backs, four-in-five, three in a row.

‘‘It’s just a matter of we lost two games because of our mistakes, not because of injuries or because Derrick or any of that.”

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