Daunting stretch will reveal what these Bulls are made of

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The beauty and the curse of the challenge facing coach these days is he knows exactly what he’s dealing with in the Jerseys.


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You don’t spend a lifetime on the inside of what makes up team culture — 10 years as a NBA player, several more as an NBA front-office executive, a few more as a college coach — and not understand the psychology involved with crafting and cultivating the right environment.

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All of the injuries, adversity, drama, successes and failures of the first two months of a season come with the territory. They always have and always will.

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So Hoiberg understands better than most that his Bulls are sitting at a crossroads of sorts, trying to navigate perhaps the roughest stretch of a season that could trend up in a significant way in the next few weeks … or bottom out before Valentine’s Day.

Wizards vs. Bulls

John Wall notches 17 points & 10 assists as seven Wizards’ players score in the double digits to beat the Bulls 114-100.

The Bulls are toe-deep into a 17-game stretch that will see them play four home games between now and Feb. 8. Play well and they can solidify their position near the top of the Eastern Conference standings behind the . Falter and there may not be time to recover in an improved (and crowded) Eastern Conference playoff chase.

“I think we’re obviously a better basketball team,” Hoiberg said of his team’s transformation from early in the season to now. “We won a few of those games early and they weren’t really pretty. It’s a matter of building trust with each other wholesale china jerseys and I think we’ve done a good job of that as the season has gone on. When adversity hits, it’s just fighting through it, battling through it.

“Fight through the tough times. That’s the key to anybody’s season. Some will face it now. Some have already faced it and have gotten better. Which again, you have to do. We did a good job of that when we fought through some of that and we’ll have to do some of that again.”

They most certainly will.

After six straight wins and showing signs of being the elite team many believe them to be, the Bulls have lost two straight games — on the road in Atlanta on Saturday and against Washington at home last night. They head into tonight’s NBA TV Fan Night matchup against the Bucks in Milwaukee (8 ET, NBA TV) needing to refocus and get back to playing the way that led to their six-game surge.

Bulls vs. Hawks

Al Horford scores a game-high 33 points and grabs 10 rebounds to lift the Hawks over the Bulls 120-105.

But even after showing positive signs recently, the two-game skid shows that the Bulls still have not found a true identity. They are still struggling with slow starts, poor communication and the understanding that it takes an elevated and sustained level of energy to win games consistently, even against a shorthanded team like the Wizards.

“It starts with communication,” Hoiberg said after the loss to Washington, doubling down on one of the main problems his team has struggled with all season. “The guys on the bench talk more than the guys on the floor for whatever reason.”

One of the reasons could be the lack of a team leader capable of reaching all corners of the locker room. Before Christmas, All-Star swingman spoke up about the need for everyone, Hoiberg included, to go harder and to hold each other accountable for lapses.

Fight through the tough times. That’s the key to anybody’s season. Some will face it now. Some have already faced it and have gotten better.

coach Fred Hoiberg

It seemed to light a fire under this bunch, but only temporarily.

has had his moments, showing flashes of his old self, but he hasn’t been consistent. He had just one assist against John Wall and has not recorded a double-digit assist game all season.

Whatever boost the Bulls thought they’d get from ’s return from a nine-game absence (shoulder) didn’t materialize as expected against the Wizards. Noah did grab nine rebounds and dish out four assists, but he was 0-for-7 and couldn’t shore up the Bulls’ defensive communication issues.

Noah often served as the unifying force for these Bulls during the Tom Thibodeau-era, the one player capable of stabilizing things within the group when no one else could. His role has changed, however, under Hoiberg. He’s gone from a starter to a reserve. And his influence on this current bunch doesn’t seem to be nearly as potent as it was before.

He also spoke of the communication issues after the loss to the Wizards, acknowledging the Bulls’ shortcomings in that area and that need for significant improvement.

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“There has to be a level of trust,” he said. “We work on it every day and we definitely have to get better as a team to get to where we want to get to.”

The Bulls will have to do it in short order if they are going to manage this road-heavy stretch. They’ll have to find the toughness and resilience that had become their trademark under Thibodeau.

“Obviously, you have to have a mental toughness if you’re going to compete on the road,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve had a couple of very good road wins, at OKC. Our win in Toronto just last week. Those were huge, but it’s a different mindset when you take your team on the road. You’ve got to have the 12 or 15 that are with you to go out there and find a way to fight through those rough times.”

Sekou Smith is a staff writer for . You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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