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Chicago Bulls have lost their consistent defense since the All-Star break. Can they get it back?

For the past two seasons, the Chicago Bulls have survived rough patches, poor shooting and injury misfortune with one thing — consistent defense.

But in the five weeks since the NBA All-Star break, the Bulls have lost control of what used to be the most manageable aspect of their game.

The Bulls defense had already slipped this season, dropping to 16th overall (defensive rating of 115.0) before All-Star weekend. This was a steep drop-off from the team’s top-five finish in the 2022-23 season, in which a stalwart defensive effort anchored by guard Alex Caruso allowed the Bulls to maintain a play-in tournament position despite poor shooting and sluggish ball movement.

But since the break, that shaky defense has plummeted to one of the worst in the league. The Bulls fielded the fourth-worst defensive rating (118.4) over the last 16 games, holding only one team (Washington Wizards) under 100 points in that span.

This pattern continued in Monday’s 107-105 loss to the Washington Wizards, in which the Bulls gave up 19 second-chance points and 14 3-pointers to one of the worst offensive teams in the league.

The Bulls have maintained their ninth-seed positioning in the Eastern Conference despite this slippage. But with the play-in tournament looming, players know that returning to their defensive strengths will be key to competing in the postseason.

“We’re having miscommunication at times, sometimes overly trying to look out for one another, overly trying to do too much sometimes instead of just sticking to the script or whatever that coverage is,” forward DeMar DeRozan said. “It’s just us trying to get it all done in one possession defensively. Sometimes that puts us in a position where we’re fouling too much, overly helping, gambling, just doing a little too much. We just need to simplify it, understand our rules and our principles on the defensive end and stick to it.”

Coach Billy Donovan identifies the Bulls’ defensive downturn as stemming from two key areas: rebounding and fouls.

The fouling doesn’t necessarily jump off the stat sheet. The Bulls are in the middle of the league with an average of 17.4 fouls per game and give up 20.6 free throws per game (18th in the league) since the break. But with minimal wiggle room due to injury absences, even being average isn’t enough for the Bulls.

The biggest issue rests on the boards. The Bulls have given up the sixth-highest volume of second-chance points in the league since the All-Star break (15) and sat in the bottom third of the league in defensive rebounds (32.1) over that stretch.

Although rebounding often seems like a big-man assignment, the Bulls identify their guards and wings as the key change-makers for this area.

This feeds directly into another weakness — giving up 3-pointers. The Bulls defense is built around an identity of ceding 3-point attempts to cut off the paint. As a result, the defense ranks in the top 10 of the league in minimizing opponent points in the paint (47.6).

Since the All-Star break, the Bulls have allowed the second-most 3-pointers (15.3) in the league while opponents shot 36.8%, the 11th-highest efficiency in the league.

“Our first-shot defense has been good,” guard Coby White said. “It’s just the offensive rebounds, which lead to the kick-out 3s and wide-open 3s and defensive breakdowns. We’ve just got to limit them to one shot.”

Defense has also been an area hard-hit by the team’s ongoing injury concerns.

On the surface, the Bulls are working with a similar personnel group as last season. But since the All-Star break, the team has been forced to rely more heavily on younger players for wing defense due to the season-ending injuries of Zach LaVine and Patrick Williams.

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Less impactful injuries to key defenders like Alex Caruso and Torrey Craig have pushed second-year Dalen Terry and first-year Onuralp Bitim into a steadier volume of minutes. Terry is averaging 11.6 minutes per game and Bitim is averaging 15.2 minutes per game since the All-Star break. And while both players have shown promise, they are still prone to mistakes such as fouls.

“We’re playing with a smaller group,” Donovan said. “It is what it is. You’re getting guys like (Bitim), like Dalen, that have gotten an opportunity to play and they’re learning from some of those things.”

The Bulls still have an easy escape valve on defense — Caruso, who is on track for another All-Defense selection as he ranks fifth in the league in steals (1.6).

But to slow teams effectively, the Bulls will have to recover their presence on the boards and elevate young players like Terry and Bitim to a higher level of defense.

“You put any young guys out there in the fire, you can’t expect them to be completely right every time,” DeRozan said. “But the effort is there. It’s on us to help those guys so they can feel more comfortable. We can’t rely on one person to cover everything for us. It’s a team effort with all five guys.”