Believe it or not, the Bulls have made progress this season. Their 20-year-old big men, Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler, the future of the team since they were drafted out of high school before last season, have raised their scoring averages and shown flashes of brilliance. Chandler has amassed eight double doubles–double figures in scoring and, in his case, rebounds–and has actually led the NBA in offensive rebounds since the all-star break. Curry too has come on of late: in the first 14 games after the break he averaged 13 points and 5.5 rebounds a game. When they were teamed last week with 6-foot-9 forward Donyell Marshall, 6-8 swingman Jalen Rose, and 6-5 point guard Jamal Crawford, everyone in this big starting lineup scored in double figures and there were four double doubles–Crawford’s coming in points and assists–as the Bulls beat the Golden State Warriors 119-105. That win gave the Bulls 22 on the season, and though a team with 41 losses has nothing to brag about this was nevertheless the most victories the Bulls had earned in a season since Michael Jordan left five years ago.

The problem is that the Bulls, as a young team, have been maddeningly inconsistent. Though 19-11 at the United Center going into last weekend, they were an abysmal 3-30 on the road, where inexperience and lapses in composure are more likely to derail them. They’d lost all six overtime games they played, and all were away from home.

So I planned to head out to the UC last Saturday and judge the Bulls at their best. The Los Angeles Clippers, in town for the only time this season, featured former local prep stars Corey Maggette of Fenwick and Quentin Richardson of Whitney Young, and their best player is Elton Brand, whom the Bulls traded for Chandler when general manager Jerry Krause decided to press “restart” in the Bulls’ rebuilding program two years ago. Unfortunately, as with so much involving the Bulls, things didn’t work out quite as planned. Brand was put on the injured list a few days before the game with a stress fracture in his lower left leg and didn’t make the trip. Richardson was pulled from the starting lineup in favor of the taller Lamar Odom, as LA set up to confront the Bulls’ new array of starters. The Clippers, a talented team that saw its fortunes go south this season, costing coach Alvin Gentry his job, arrived in town with even fewer wins than the Bulls–they were 19-42 and fresh off a road loss the previous night. New coach Dennis Johnson, the baggy-eyed former Boston Celtics star, was still looking for his first victory. Curry came out and scored the Bulls’ first ten points, and the game looked like easy pickings.

“We came out like this was a game we ought to win,” Rose said later, “and when you’re a team that hasn’t won a lot, that’s a dangerous confidence.”

Curry hasn’t developed the muscle mass of a Shaquille O’Neal, but he’s quick for a big man, with remarkably soft hands, and he made his veteran counterpart, Sean Rooks, look feeble. Curry consistently beat him to a spot under the hoop, where he typically took a pass, spun, and laid the ball in. When he passed out of the low post to Crawford for an open three-point shot, the Bulls led 13-8. But it seemed that for every play Curry made on offense he committed a gaffe on defense. He slipped inside for a tip-in to make it 25-18, but then gave up a hoop at the other end to Melvin Ely, a slighter but quicker center who’d come off the bench to relieve Rooks. Curry made a nice pass to Rose for a three but erased that by fouling Ely to set up a three-point play. He fouled again in the last two seconds of the quarter, sending Maggette–elegantly dressed for his homecoming in black shoes with sparkling Dorothy Gale ruby red trim–to the line and himself to the bench. The Bulls had played well, and Curry had 14 points, but Maggette had 13 to Rose’s 11, and the Bulls led only 30-28.

That was when Richardson came off the Clippers’ bench to celebrate his own Chicago homecoming. He started slowly but when left open hit two straight shots to tie the game at 34, and a disgusted coach Bill Cartwright called a time-out. Richardson and Eric Piatkowski hit back-to-back three-pointers, and suddenly the Clippers were up 49-42. Jay Williams, this year’s top draftee, his playing time dwindling as Crawford improved, came in to spell the starter but was outplayed by Marko Jaric, a Serbian rookie. Jaric, whose greasy hair and grizzled beard make him look like the Eurotrash villain in a Vin Diesel movie, had five or more inches on Williams and muscled him at both ends. Williams’s line for the quarter was an embarrassment: six minutes, one foul, and one turnover, with goose eggs in every other category. The Bulls’ starters came back in with the Clippers up 53-44, but they were cold and the LA bench players were in rhythm. Richardson capped the Clippers’ first-half scoring with a spinning behind-the-back dribble that split Curry and Rose on a double team for a hanging two-handed jam giving him 14 points–all in the second quarter. The Clippers led 59-47 at intermission. Cartwright spent much of the second quarter standing on the sidelines with his arms folded.

His posture didn’t change much in the second half. Every time the Bulls rallied, they gave back the points on defense. Not much of a creator on offense, Chandler relies on his teammates to get him easy dunks and open shots (which is why he tends to disappear from one game to the next), but he finally popped one in to make the score 66-60 Clippers, and Rose followed with a basket, closing the deficit to four. The Bulls promptly gave away two easy hoops. Curry got the foul muscling in a basket and converted to make it 72-65, but he soon picked up his own fourth and had to sit with 24 points. The Clippers went on to an 81-70 lead at the quarter.

The play was often spirited. At one point Richardson hit a three and trotted down the court making a gesture of sticking horns in his head–no doubt the street-ball equivalent of the Elizabethan “I have cuckolded thee.” Rose drove over Richardson moments later and delivered the same gesture right in his face. Yet after Marshall clobbered Maggette going in for a fast-break dunk in the early going, no one really made anyone pay for going to the hoop. I was reminded of how blandly one-dimensional the NBA had become back in the late 70s and early 80s, when defense was a dirty word, before the Detroit Pistons and then the Bulls proved it won championships. I was also reminded of the previous week’s girls’ Class A Illinois basketball championship game. Public League champ Hope gave up a big early lead to downstate Pana, whose two big front-line players seemed unstoppable, but Hope switched to a zone defense and rallied to win. Hope was led by Shuntae Roberison, and her aggressive play–at one point she bounded across the scorer’s table for a loose ball, slipping on a stack of papers and crashing into the front row of seats–didn’t allow for the possibility of losing. She could teach the Bulls a few things.

The Bulls played like a team shoveling its way up a mountain, throwing the dirt uphill all the way. Rose drove on Richardson to pull the Bulls to 85-78, but then Richardson outhustled everyone else downcourt and took a pass for an easy jam. When Maggette followed with an open jumper, Cartwright called another time-out. The Bulls put the ball in Chandler’s hands after the break, only to find he had no idea what to do with it. Chandler stood for several seconds looking for someone to pass to, and the result was a shot-clock violation. Curry, back in, powered for a basket, and Chandler followed with a block, triggering a fast break. Williams dribbled down and cut across the middle, dishing the ball to a trailing Chandler, whose two-handed dunk made the score 89-82. But minutes later Richardson drove and hit a looping lay-in over Chandler, caught between impulses to swat the shot and to take a charge, and it was 95-86.

The Bulls had one rally left. Cartwright showed a sudden confidence in Williams by letting him play through crunch time, with Crawford on the bench. Williams responded with a pair of threes that cut the lead to 97-93 in the final minute, and he hounded Los Angeles point guard Andre Miller into a turnover at the other end. Yet Rose drove into traffic and gave the ball away, and the Clippers held on from there at the free-throw line. With the Bulls needing a pair of threes to tie in the final ten seconds, Rose drove for a layup to give him a game-high 30 points. A couple of final foul shots closed it out for the Clippers at 103-97. Homeboys Maggette and Richardson finished with 25 and 21, Curry with 26. It didn’t matter, of course, that the Bulls’ top two had outscored their top two.

“Guys got their points,” said a dour Cartwright afterward, “but that’s not what we’re all about.” Unfortunately, it all too often is, and Cartwright seemed to recognize that, working himself into a lather when a beat writer tried to put a good spin on things by asking about the offense. “It has nothing to do with our offense–period,” he said. “Our offense has been fine all year. You’ve got to turn around and guard somebody. Turn around and put your body on somebody. Play some defense. Dive on a loose ball. Take a charge. Block a shot.”

As long and hard as Cartwright has drilled that lesson–learned over three championship campaigns as a Bulls player and two others as an assistant to Phil Jackson here–into his players, they don’t seem to have gotten it. I like the Bulls and their promise, and their manner of being playful pups on the court–before the game I saw Curry and Williams side-by-side on the bench trying to hit long-distance shots sitting down–but for young players, losing can too easily become a habit. I’m not sure what can snap some sense into them if Cartwright can’t. With the Bulls slated to make the draft lottery again, albeit at longer odds of the top pick, did anyone say LeBron James?