ORLANDO, Fla. - The Bulls may have thought they solved some problems by having the players vote an extra game off for rookie center Joakim Noah last weekend.
But their problems are just beginning.
At halftime of the Bulls' lifeless 102-88 loss to the Orlando Magic on Tuesday night, Noah and Ben Wallace had to be separated in the locker room, according to witnesses.
Noah walked into the room loudly complaining about Bulls players laughing on the bench, then Wallace confronted Noah, and Luol Deng had to step in and pull them apart, the witnesses said.
The Bulls finished the first half down 57-52 after trimming a 14-point deficit. When the second half began, the Bulls appeared shell-shocked.
They were outscored 32-10 in the third quarter as the Magic pulled out to a 27-point lead. Some Bulls reserves led a late comeback to make the final score seem respectable.
Immediately following the game, no Bulls mentioned the halftime altercation. But coach Jim Boylan went to an extreme to describe the team's third-quarter performance, when the Bulls hit 3 of 14 shots.
"Our lack of effort in the third quarter was unacceptable, probably the worst third quarter I've seen since I've been with the Chicago Bulls as a head coach or an assistant (since 2004)," Boylan said.
The Bulls (14-22) were missing guard Kirk Hinrich (back spasms), and forward Andres Nocioni was helped off the court in the third quarter with a left-hip bruise after taking a nasty fall. Those injuries can't possibly explain away the Bulls' complete disinterest at times.
"We're just letting teams have their way with us," Boylan continued. "Our defense is soft. Our offense is anemic at times. We just seem to be casual with the ball and we need to do something about that.
"I don't have any magic dust to sprinkle over anyone. We know we can play better. We've done it before. I've seen this group of guys compete at a very high level. For some reason, we're not doing that right now."
Now the Bulls have to turn around and play in Miami tonight. The Heat (8-28) possess the worst record in the Eastern Conference but haven't played in five days and expect to get center Shaquille O'Neal back from a hip injury.
"We've got to get going right now," Boylan said. "There's no way around that."
Wallace didn't move well and grabbed just 3 rebounds in 22 minutes. Ben Gordon was a nonfactor for the second consecutive game, playing just 15 minutes while producing 6 points and 3 turnovers.
Of course, all eyes were on Noah this night. Besides being suspended by vote of his teammates Sunday, this was his first NBA game in the state where he led the Florida Gators to consecutive national championships.
His minutes increased by the extensive garbage time, Noah turned in his first double-double as a pro, finishing with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
It seemed as though every newspaper in the state sent a reporter to track Noah. But the 6-foot-11 center gave only a brief interview near the team bus after exiting the locker room quickly.
If the Bulls were supposed to find togetherness from their actions against Noah, it's not showing. They've lost badly twice since the fateful players-only meeting.
"Everyone assumed that was going to be some sort of great bonding for our team," Boylan said. "I think it was more just laying down the law as to how we were going to conduct ourselves a team.
"It still, to me, didn't address any sort of issues about how we've been playing. We continue, as we have pretty much for the entire season, to play uninspired basketball."
Before the game, the Bulls claimed to be blissfully unaware of the firestorm of criticism back in Chicago for the player-imposed punishment of Noah.
"I haven't heard anything," veteran forward Adrian Griffin said. "All I know is my teammates, we're all together and we're ready to roll."
"We knew people were going to talk," added Wallace. "That's just the nature of the business. That's just how people put spins on things. It doesn't bother me one way or another."