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Derrick Rose: Bulls ‘not moving in the right direction’

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CELTICS AT BULLS

The facts: 7, TNT, 1000-AM.

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



Have the Bulls peaked?

When a team has won 16 of its last 18 games, that’s a question that should be asked delicately. But after another lackluster home victory, it can’t be ignored either.

The Bulls emerged as a championship contender with an eye-opening 15-3 stretch after the West Coast trip in February. They beat the Spurs and Heat at home and the Heat and Magic on the road, then won seven games in an eight-game stretch by an average of 21 points, capped by 30-point blowouts of the Kings and Hawks on the road. They looked unbeatable.

Since then, the Bulls started showing signs of a team that has hit a mental, if not physical, wall. They’ve struggled to put away the Grizzlies, Bucks, Pistons, Raptors and Suns — borderline playoff contenders at best. They lost decisively to the 76ers at home. The only blowout was against the hapless Timberwolves.

The Bulls are 57-20, with the best record in the East heading into tonight’s home game with the Celtics. But even Derrick Rose knows the team is not playing as well as it was.

‘‘A win is a win. But right now we’re not moving in the right direction,’’ Rose said. ‘‘If we’re trying to do something special, playing like this at home, we can’t do that.’’

And the Bulls, who lead the NBA in rebound differential (plus-5.6 per game), were outrebounded for the third time in five games Tuesday night.

The Suns, who rank 29th of 30 NBA teams in rebound differential (minus-4 per game), outrebounded the Bulls 43-41 overall and 13-7 in the fourth quarter. They had more offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter (six) than the Bulls had defensive rebounds (five).

‘‘I’m concerned any time we’re outrebounded,’’ Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. ‘‘But everybody in the league is going through the same thing. So it’s our ability to concentrate and focus, to be ready. We have to get to a point where we can play 48 minutes.’’

The Bulls, who lead the league in field-goal defense (.430), recently held 37 of 39 opponents below 50 percent shooting. But the Pistons (51.4 percent) and Raptors (50.6) were above 50 back-to-back last week.

The Bulls still have gas in the tank when they need it most. After the Suns hit 14 of 21 shots in the second half to cut a 22-point deficit to two, the Bulls held them to 2-for-9 shooting in the final 4:21. But the Suns scored 50 points in the paint. The Pistons scored 52 last week.

Is fatigue setting in?

‘‘What’s fatigue?’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘These guys have been playing a lot of minutes all year. Every team has the same issues. It’s readiness to play.’’

A team on the rise often lives on adrenaline, but usually doesn’t have an unlimited supply. The 1988-89 Bulls were 45-27, but lost eight of their last 10. The 1989-90 Bulls were 53-23, but lost four of their last six.

Those teams found a second wind and reached the conference finals. So with five games left in the regular season, the Celtics might be a good measurement of how well the Bulls can refocus and re-energize. When the Bulls played the Celtics in January, they were coming off a loss to the 76ers, who shot 56.3 percent. The Noah-less Bulls held the Kevin Garnett-less Celtics to 37.8 percent shooting and outrebounded them 48-27 in a 90-79 victory.

There’s plenty of incentive. A victory would eliminate the Celtics from contention for the No. 1 seed in the East and serve as a calling card for a playoff matchup. The question is: Do the Bulls still have it in them to rise to a bigger occasion?

NOTE: Phoenix Suns forward Grant Hill claimed he was spit at by a fan as he left the United Center court after the game Tuesday, but security personnel did a thorough check and ‘‘found nothing to substantiate’’ those charges, said Tim Hallam, Bulls senior director of media relations. Hill did not want to pursue the matter further, Hallam said.



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