Luol Deng said Monday night that the United Center felt like opening night because of the excitement surrounding his return from an ankle injury, Kirk Hinrich's return from thumb surgery and Thabo Sefolosha's return from the flu.
But his statement took on another meaning when the Bulls looked disorganized on defense and as if they needed name tags on offense during a 109-95 loss to the Trail Blazers.
With apologies to the perpetually injured Michael Ruffin, Monday marked the first time all season the Bulls played at full strength. With a brutal overtime loss to Oklahoma City fresh in their minds and a 42-point shellacking in Portland on Nov. 19 frying their long-term memory, it seemed a perfect opportunity to jell.
Instead, the Bulls blew an 11-point second-quarter lead and never achieved any semblance of rhythm as coach Vinny Del Negro adjusted to different rotations and substitution patterns.
"It's not going to be easy," Del Negro said. "But the guys who will play hard and give us the best chance will be out there, as well as trying to develop the younger guys. I'd rather have that problem than the one I've been having."
Larry Hughes might make Del Negro reconsider those words. Having already gone public twice with dissatisfaction over his role, he played merely the final 7 minutes 3 seconds of the second quarter, 20 minutes below his average.
Hughes was on the court as the Trail Blazers erased the Bulls' early lead with an 11-3 run to close the first half. Travis Outlaw scored seven of his game-high 33 points in that span.
After falling behind by 12 in the third, the Bulls clawed back to trail 83-78 early in the fourth. But Portland ripped off an 11-0 run highlighted by three three-pointers overall and five straight points from Brandon Roy, who had gone 1-for-10 to that point.
Countless times, the Trail Blazers swung the ball from strong to weak side for wide-open three-pointers, of which they made 11 of 23.
"We didn't control penetration well," Del Negro said. "They broke us down."
Roy, who averages 22.8 points, finished with 11. Greg Oden (17 points, 13 rebounds) and Steve Blake (16 points, 10 assists) added double-doubles for Portland.
Drew Gooden's 22 points and nine rebounds led the Bulls. A more aggressive Deng added 14, including 8 of 8 free throws, in 22 minutes off the bench.
"We have a lot of improvement to make," said Hinrich, who played 21 minutes in a reserve role as well.
"We let teams back in a lot," Deng said. "But at least having everyone back is a good thing. We have to keep playing together. Obviously, we're not playing well right now. But it's a long season. We have to stay positive."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun