The ultimate measure of a man, someone once said, is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
That man, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., wasn't referring to something as insignificant as a basketball game. But his words apply to the Bulls, who on Monday blew another big lead, played passively and unconvincingly down the stretch, allowed opportunities to escape them and lost 97-94 to the Denver Nuggets to fall to 15-22 on the season with their third consecutive loss and 11th in the last 14 games.
"Last year it seemed like we had that killer instinct," said Kirk Hinrich, who led the Bulls with 20 points. "It doesn't seem like we have that right now. It's frustrating. It's been frustrating all year."
The Bulls seem in danger of losing the commitment that symbolized their marvelous effort last season. Their frustration spilled over after Monday's holiday matinee as general manager John Paxson stalked the referees to complain loudly and angrily about Denver's 41-12 edge in free-throw attempts.
Afterward, coach Scott Skiles said never in his two decades in the NBA has he seen an aggressive player like Hinrich get so few foul calls and Carmelo Anthony, who led the Nuggets with 39 points, shoot almost twice as many free throws (21) as the entire Bulls team.
"What are you looking at?" Othella Harrington asked in response to a question about the Nuggets' edge in inside points. "We beat them in every category. The game is over if they don't go to the line 41 times."
Perhaps the United Center was a palace of injustice for the Bulls on Monday. But there still was time for hope and great things even after the Bulls allowed an 18-point lead to evaporate into a 77-76 deficit going into the fourth quarter.
"Being down 10 at the half, we were celebrating," Nuggets coach George Karl said of the Bulls' dominant first half. "We were 1-for-17 on jump shots in the first half and they were 14-for-18. Those are pretty lopsided stats to even think you're in the game.
"Fortunately, we adjusted, they missed some shots, Carmelo got hot and Kenyon [Martin] had his best game of the year."
Martin, who has been injured off and on all season and has the shooting touch of a sumo wrestler, stood around shooting jumpers in the first half while the Bulls ran around for a 53-43 lead, collecting 17 assists on their 20 field goals. Then someoneKarlreminded Martin and his teammates they are bigger than the Bulls.
"The thing happening to us," Skiles said, "is some teams are coasting along with us and then they start turning it up a notch, and they went up a notch at halftime. [Earl] Watson started deflecting balls and made a couple of threes and we didn't have a real good response."
With Anthony getting 15 points in the third quarter and Watson 11, hitting three three-pointers, Denver nudged ahead. But the Bulls, tough as a serpent at times, slithered ahead by seven early in the fourth quarter. It's those dove-like moments that cause their games to drift away.
"They were able to make big plays at the end," Skiles acknowledged. "They're athletic and have length and they're shooting and going and getting it."
The Bulls have been outshot at the free-throw line by an average of almost 12 per game this season. That's the inevitability they face with a small team, guards who shoot floaters and don't finish at the rim and big men who are not leapers or physical.
Still, with two minutes remaining, the Bulls led by five after coming out of a timeout with a Ben Gordon jumper around two sharp screens and a free throw to complete a three-point play for a 91-86 advantage.
"Plays have to be made, it's as simple as that," Skiles said. "You need scores and stops at that point, and we struggle to get both of those in combination."
The Nuggets' parade to the free-throw line continued with Anthony getting two morehe finished 19-for-21. Martin then rebounded an Eduardo Najera miss and was fouled. He hit the first of two free throws. Gordon missed in close on the Bulls' possession and Watson came unguarded for a straightaway three-pointer and a 92-91 Nuggets lead with 48.7 seconds left.
Andres Nocioni missed a layup, and with time running out on the shot clock, Martin drove left and threw in a wild shot from his hip for a 94-91 Nuggets lead.
"We got a little lucky," Karl said. "Kenyon's shot was incredible."
The Bulls got Nocioni, their best three-point shooter, open at the top of the circle with 8.9 seconds left, but his bid for a game-tying three hit the front of the rim, the Bulls' fourth straight possession without a score over 90 seconds.
Anthony then made two more free throws, but the Bulls weren't done. Gordon threw in a three-pointer to get them within two with 3.3 seconds left, and Chris Duhon seemed to get run over on the inbound play. But there was no call.
"That works at Duke," Karl scoffed. "That doesn't work in the NBA. They get that call at Cameron [Indoor Stadium]."
Maybe, unless you're the Bulls. It may be time for the Bulls to begin accepting finite disappointment without losing infinite hope.
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