The pain just won't stop for the Chicago Bulls.
Saturday night's loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers was a roller coaster of wretchedness: 30 minutes of bad basketball followed by 16 minutes of stirring comeback followed by two minutes of ghastly clutch play, leading to a disheartening 97-93 defeat.
To make matters worse, the loss came against Cleveland, the Bulls' favorite interdivisional whipping boy. Chicago has made a habit of beating Cleveland, regardless of who is in the lineup. Coming into Saturday, the Bulls had won 11 of their last 12 meetings with the Cavaliers.
The Bulls seem to be nearing rock bottom. That's good, because hitting rock bottom means there's no place to go but up.
Believe it or not, these banged-up, demoralized Bulls just might be in for better days ahead.
The Circus Trip from Hell
Nobody would blame the 2013-14 Bulls for developing a severe case of coulrophobia ("an abnormal fear of clowns," per Dictionary.com) themselves. Perhaps no group in history has had more of a reason to fear the circus.
From November 21 to 30, the Bulls played six games during their annual "circus trip," as the circus invaded the United Center. Before the circus trip, the Bulls were riding high on a five-game winning streak. Chicago had put aside concerns over their shaky start to the season, and star point guard Derrick Rose was looking better with each passing game.
But then the Bulls hit the road...and the road hit back.
First, it was shooting guard Jimmy Butler, who missed all six games with a turf-toe injury. Then, in the second game of the trip, it was Derrick Rose, lost for the season with a knee injury.
Without their top two guards, the Bulls went 0-4 against the West, with the nadir coming during a overtime loss to the Utah Jazz. They rebounded with a win at the Detroit Pistons before blowing a winnable game in Cleveland.
The circus trip ended up being not just a long road trip, but a season-defining setback.
Three Silver Linings for Chicago
According to Herb Gould of the Chicago Sun-Times, the Bulls are seeing progress in Jimmy Butler's rehab but aren't expecting him back anytime soon:
"He says he's feeling a lot better," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "He hasn't done anything [strenuous] on the court, so he has to practice first. The swelling's down, not close to 100 percent, but we feel good about his improvement. He didn't do a whole lot, but he'll travel."
Leaving Butler's return aside for the moment, the Bulls still have three reasons to feel good going into December.
The first bright spot, obviously, is the generally sad state of the Eastern Conference. Even if they never catch the Indiana Pacers for the Central Division crown, the 6-7 Bulls can still compete with the likes of the Atlanta Hawks (9-9), Washington Wizards and Charlotte Bobcats (both 8-9) for home-court advantage. The East is just that bad.
The second bright spot is the Bulls' schedule for the first half of December.
The third bright spot is the play of rookie guard Tony Snell in the second half of Saturday's loss. The Bulls have missed the late-game scoring of Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli early in the season, but Snell showed Chicago fans a glimpse of the future on Saturday with 13 second-half points against Cleveland. Butler's injury has given Snell a chance to shine, and he has been solid thus far.
Perhaps, with experience, he can give the Bulls even more.
Make no mistake, the Bulls are in bad shape. Assuming Rose doesn't come back, they don't have a chance at the title. But they can still treat their fans to a thrilling playoff run along the lines of what they did last year.