Then, in the blink of an eye, the wheels fell off.
The Hawks scored 19 points over the game's final 2:46, and the Bulls tumbled to a game below .500 at 23-24 on the year by virtue of the 119-114 loss.
Once it was time to meet with reporters, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler did not hold back in their criticism of a Bulls team that's delicately toed the line of playoff contention all season.
"I don't know if people care enough. ... It just doesn't mean enough to guys around here," Wade said, according to the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson. "And it pisses me off."
He didn't stop there: "I'm 35 years old. I have three championships. It shouldn't hurt me more than it hurts these young guys. They have to want it. I can look at Jimmy and say Jimmy is doing his job. I think Jimmy can look at me and say Dwyane is doing his job. I don't know if we can keep going down the line and be able to say that."
After the game, Wade took to Twitter to further voice his frustrations:
Butler was in lockstep with Wade when discussing accountability, and ESPN.com's Nick Friedell noted that wasn't a coincidence:
"We don't play hard enough," Butler said, per Johnson. "This is your job. I want to play with guys who care."
Wade aimed some sharper criticism at the Bulls supporting cast following a lackluster showing in crunch time: "This just can't be acceptable if you want to do anything besides have an NBA jersey on and make some money. That's all we're doing."
Wade (33 points) and Butler (40 points) accounted for 64 percent of Chicago's offensive output Wednesday, and no other Bulls player had more than 10 points in the loss.
The lopsided distribution again illuminated the team's shortcomings, which have been evident all year, since the team doesn't have another functional scorer on the roster beyond those two.
Nikola Mirotic once filled that void, but he's been in a shooting slump all year. And considering that the Bulls have been forced to deploy a revolving door of pass-first point guards who can't thrive off the ball, it's not hard to see why the offense ranks 21st in efficiency since Jan. 1.
Wade's and Butler's words may serve as a wake-up call for head coach Fred Hoiberg's fledgling club, but if they don't, things could get uglier. Chicago's next two games will come against the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers, two of the Eastern Conference's hottest clubs over the past couple of weeks.
Should they come up empty in pursuit of wins that could restore some semblance of a competitive equilibrium, the Bulls will be left with a slew of questions and few answers as the Feb. 23 trade deadline approaches.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com.