A tense finish against Phoenix on Tuesday night at the United Center provided an illustration of the increasingly small margin of error the Bulls face in their quest to make the playoffs.
The ultimate result was a 111-105 loss to the Suns after the score was tied with less than a minute remaining. The defeat left the Bulls 11/2 games behind Toronto in the East with eight left to play.
Here are some of the little things that went wrong for the Bulls:
• Kirk Hinrich didn't play after turning his left ankle with about four minutes left in the second quarter when he stepped on Joakim Noah's foot. Hinrich came out after halftime and ran up and down the court a few times during warmups, then retreated to the locker room.
Having Hinrich available to guard Steve Nash down the stretch might have made a difference. Even Suns coach Alvin Gentry called Hinrich the NBA's best on-ball defender.
• Bulls reserve Chris Richard was called for a flagrant foul with 1.2 seconds left in the first half. It wasn't a big deal, since Phoenix didn't score again after hitting the 2 free throws.
But Noah couldn't help himself. As the teams headed to the locker room, he went out to midcourt to question the call and eventually was given a technical foul by referee Derrick Stafford. Nash's free throw gave Phoenix a free point.
"I asked him why (Richard) got a flagrant and he said I wasn't the captain, so I couldn't ask," Noah said. "I don't understand. I didn't curse, I didn't say nothing like that. I just kept talking, asking for an explanation, and he wouldn't give it to me and he gave me the tech."
At the time, the Bulls technically had no captains. Hinrich and Luol Deng were hurt, and Lindsey Hunter has retired.
• At the end of the third quarter, Flip Murray (23 points) tossed in an amazing hook shot from beyond midcourt. Naturally, he released the ball a split-second after the clock hit zero, so it didn't count.
• With the Bulls clinging to a 1-point lead, center Brad Miller switched on a screen-and-roll and found himself 1-on-1 against Nash. The two-time MVP went to the hoop and scored, then tacked on a 3-point play.
Miller was called for a foul, even though nothing more than his fingertips made contact with Nash. That play sent Phoenix up 103-101 with 1:14 left.
Derrick Rose (23 points, 10 assists) tied it with a pair of free throws before Channing Frye knocked down the biggest shot of the game - a 3-pointer from the top of the key that sent the visitors ahead 106-103 with 41.6 seconds remaining.
"It's a tough loss," Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said. "I thought our guys really battled. We weren't able to execute down the stretch and Steve made some big plays."
Rose scored on a quick drive to the basket to bring the Bulls within 1 point with 37 seconds on the clock. But Jannero Pargo, filling in for Hinrich, couldn't stay in front of Nash on the other end, allowing the Suns guard to break down the Bulls' defense and find Grant Hill for an easy dunk.
Now trailing by 3, Rose thought he had an open look at a 3, but he ended up shooting the ball from his left side when Hill reached over to alter the shot. It was well off-target.
"You have to learn from your mistakes," Rose said. "I guess in the future when that play comes around again I'll know what to do."
Phoenix (48-26) won its eighth straight game, hitting 14 of 28 shots from 3-point range in the process.
Despite the loss, Rose isn't ready to give in on the playoff chase.
"Still to me, we're in the playoffs," he said. "We're still trying to make this push and win some games."
Mike McGraw's game tracker
Suns 111, Bulls 105
Not so sunny: The Bulls did plenty of things well, but they didn't guard the 3-point line tightly enough and let Phoenix guard Steve Nash out-execute them down the stretch. The Suns went 14-for-28 from 3-point land, while Nash had 9 points and 4 assists in the final seven minutes.
Noah noteworthy: Center Joakim Noah finally started looking like his old self. He finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks in 27 minutes. Suns forward Amare Stoudemire (21 points) did most of his damage when Noah was not in the game.
Slipping away: The loss left the Bulls 1 1/2 games behind Toronto for eighth place in the East. The Raptors have a home game against the Clippers on Wednesday.