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Bulls fading in tough stretch

Associated Press Modified: March 11, 2010 at 3:38 am •  Published: March 10, 2010

DEERFIELD, Ill. (AP) — A year ago, the Chicago Bulls were piling up wins and building momentum that carried them into the playoffs and an epic showdown with the Celtics.

Now? It's losses that are piling up, along with injuries.

If the season ended now, the Bulls would be out of the playoffs. At 31-32 and with five straight losses, the Bulls were ninth in the Eastern Conference and trying to orchestrate another turn in a season that has seen no shortage of them.

From the slow start and speculation about the coach's job status to a mini resurgence to the recent struggles and injuries to key players such as center Joakim Noah and now Luol Deng, it's easy to see why coach Vinny Del Negro used the word "interesting" to describe it all on Wednesday.

Difficult might be appropriate, too.

The Bulls will have a tough time duplicating what they did around this time last season, when they went on a run in mid-March that took them to that thrilling first-round playoff series with Boston. They're in the middle of a brutal nine-game stretch against contenders and are fading after winning eight of 10 against mostly lighter competition.

Help could come in the offseason, when the Bulls will have enough room to offer a maximum contract in a star-studded free agent market, but visions of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh possibly in Chicago probably do little for Del Negro, considering he might not be around to coach them.

"Right now, everybody's thinking about winning games," All-Star point guard Derrick Rose said. "That's the biggest thing — trying to move up and win games and waiting for Joakim and Luol to come back because we need them."

Del Negro's job security, Rose said, is not on the players' minds. For the record, though, the coach has at least one backer.

Rose called the former guard "a good guy" and credited Del Negro for his development, saying, "He's been helping me a lot — letting me watch video with him, talking to him, having a lot meetings, asking me what we should do about our offense, working just to better my game."

A more pressing issue for Del Negro is what to do about the Bulls right now.

They're missing their leading rebounder and inside defender in Noah, who's out with plantar fasciitis in his left foot. Deng, their second-leading scorer, sat out a game last week because of swelling in his left knee and will likely miss the next two at Orlando and Miami because of a strained right calf.

Forward Taj Gibson, a rookie who has emerged as a key contributor, might not play against the Magic because of plantar fasciitis in his left foot, and Brad Miller has a sore thumb.

Otherwise, there's no better time to face Dwight Howard. Right?

"We have our top guys out," Del Negro said. "That's what makes it tough."

Miller said: "You just have to keep your head up and know that there are a lot of games left to play. In this league, you can win five games in a row just as quickly as you can lose five games in a row."

Considering the next five are at Orlando, Miami, Memphis and Dallas before a home game against Cleveland, chances are that streak comes later, if at all.

Losing Noah was a particularly big blow for the Bulls, who shut him down for at least three weeks late last month with no guarantee that the time off will heal his foot. Their emotional leader, Noah is essential to their style — get the stop, get the defensive board and run.

The Bulls have allowed at least 100 points in the past five games, with opponents scoring 116 or more in three of them. And they've been outrebounded by 10 or more in three of the past four, including 63-37 by Atlanta last week.

With Noah out and the rest of the front line dinged up, Del Negro acknowledged the Bulls can't play their style and must adjust. They had to do that early in the year, too, when Rose was slowed by an ankle problem and the since-traded Tyrus Thomas broke his left arm.

"One of the reasons we became a better defensive team when we were healthy was we really had a nice foundation of what we were doing and there was accountability to it and we were demanding that we had these things covered," Del Negro said. "Now, with the lack of bodies and the lack of control in the paint, we've had to make some adjustments and I think we've gotten a little slow on some of our rotations and gotten away from what helped us win games because of the injuries."