Talk about your old school—maybe even a one room—as the Bulls Sunday mucked their way through a grueling and competitive game with the conference elite Toronto Raptors before losing 95-89.
"I'm really proud of our guys," said Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "I thought we came in (against) maybe the best team in the league right now and I thought we battled. I thought for about 36, 38 minutes we controlled the game, controlled the tempo. We followed the game plan defensively, offensively. They made a few more shots than we did, a few more big plays. That's what happens, that's the NBA. I'm really, really excited about how hard we played and how we played for each other. I thought it was a lot of fun."
Only somewhat as Lauri Markkanen led the Bulls with 18 points and 10 rebounds and Wendell Carter Jr. had his second straight double/double with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Kris Dunn added 14 points with six Bulls scoring in double figures, though Zach LaVine was three of 17 for 13 points. Chandler Hutchison made all five of his shots for 11 points.
"Sometimes the bounces don't go your way," said LaVine. "The main thing that killed us was the second chance points (24) and offensive rebounds (17, along with 21 Toronto points off turnovers). One of those nights. I'm still coming off this ankle, so I am not getting the same lift. But I've got to make them regardless. It bounces that way sometimes; it sucks, but I'll be back at it next game. "We scored 100 points in how many games?" LaVine added in response to a question. "Like three or something like that? But it is how it is. You have to be efficient. Slowed the game down today because they are trying to push. That was the main thing we were trying to do, but it seems like we are doing it every game. It's a bit different, but we are going to adjust to it. "I guess we're different," said LaVine.
It is a counterintuitive strategy in one of the highest scoring seasons in NBA history with every team—yes, the Bulls also, if just barely at No. 30—averaging at least 100 points per game.
Though the Bulls, at least for now, are benefitting. They are 4-4 in their last eight games, though 10-27 on the season. Of course, LaVine, Markannen and Dunn finally are back from injuries, having started just their second game together this season on Sunday.
Still, in these last eight games the Bulls are being outscored by an average of about two points per game compared to about 10 points per game previously. Extending out being outscored by about two per game over a season is about a 38 to 40 win season. Which, of course, is much preferable to the pace the Bulls have been on the last two seasons. Though, of course, hardly a goal.
It's like Boylen is using a rotary phone, but it seems like he is being heard more clearly. Like Boylen is sending rolls of film out to be developed, but it seems there's a clearer picture. Like Boylen has the yellow pages out, yet the Bulls seem to be finding a direction.
"Nobody's saying we don't want to play with pace some day or we don't want to have more possessions in a game," Boylen said before the game. "But right now for this group, I feel this is what we need to do. We're playing the way I think we have to play to have a chance to win."
It is a useful strategy to develop competitiveness habits and when you don't have as much talent.
The Bulls certainly had a talent deficit most of the first few months with the injuries, and Bobby Portis still remains out. But there also comes a point when you have to take off the training wheels.
After all, in their lead players like LaVine, Markkanen and Dunn, the Bulls didn't hire the physical 80s Pistons.
Can these guys play this NBA game?
Or should they?
"Obviously coach Boylen has got them playing a totally different mentality and style," noticed Raptors coach Nick Nurse. "I think their pace is slower and they are defense first. They did a really good job. They came out and really guarded us well and set the tone with the pace and the defense early. It was kind of an uphill fistfight the whole way. But we found a way to get it to the basket eventually and make a few layups and make a few plays."
Though with Toronto missing Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valunciunas and starting Fred VanVLeet, Pascal Siakam and Danny Green, did the Bulls have to play that way? Perhaps because, after all, they were within a few plays of winning on the road against one of the league's best, trailing 81-77 and with the ball with under three minutes left. But Justin Holiday was called for a travel trying to stay in bounds. Kawhi Leonard with 27 points and the Raptors primary offense the last six minutes, drove and scored. LaVine matched the pair of points from the free throw line, but the Bulls were again victimized on the offensive board with Serge Ibaka tipping in a Leonard miss for an 85-79 Toronto lead with 1:36 remaining.
But it was a one long score deficit again after Markkanen made a distance three, the Bulls trailing 85-82 with 1:21 left.
"Gut wrenching, the long rebounds," agreed Boylen. "We got a couple of guys run out after the contest; you have to get back in the scoring area and get the ball. We'll work on that. I think we gave up 24 second chance and 22 turnovers, getting 46 points off things we have to control better. That's what we have to work on."
Now why any Bulls players were running out with a walk-it-up offense also is unclear, but things are being worked out.
"They crawled into us because we had the lead early," noted Boylen. "They are going to turn up the pressure. They played some of their tougher guys in that second unit and we have to handle it. We're on the road and we didn't handle it very well."
The Bulls did play a competitive, if not particularly artistic game, and consistently more competitive than they have been.
But there's a chicken or egg thing also going on. Fast break or stop? Do the Bulls have to become competitive first, thus gain confidence before exploring their athletic abilities? Or by pursuing their personal athletic frontiers, do they become even more competitive and appealing?
It's the balancing act Boylen has taken over, one perhaps even more daunting than that of the Red Panda. It's one thing to get salad bowls to come down in a stack like the remarkable acrobat from China who often performs at NBA hakftimes. What about talented young men each taller than a unicycle?
"It gave us confidence," said Markkanen. "They are a top team in this league that we were able to go down the stretch and compete with. But it's frustrating we weren't able to make the plays to win the game. We were right there."
It does appear the Bulls are catching opponents by surprise with their defensive effort, challenging and chasing shooters off the three-point line, helping inside, playing their hardest nosed like Shaquille Harrison, Ryan Arcidiacono, Robin Lopez and Hutchison as a bench crew. They struggle to score, but so does the opposition when they play. It's also why Jabari Parker doesn't play.
The larger question is what to do with the starters who are more offense savvy.
The Bulls again started deliberately with a stunning defensive first quarter, leading 20-14. It was the fewest points an opponent has scored in the first quarter this season. Hutchison contributed his most offense in almost two months, and perhaps for the first time this season with controlled movements to the basket.
"I thought Chandler had a good game," said Boylen. "Great kid and a hard worker, extremely coachable and teachable and he's reliable, a good young player."
The Raptors slithered ahead 40-39 at halftime and then took a seven-point third quarter lead and nine early in the fourth. But each time the Raptors couldn't shake the Bulls. And this is a 27-11 Raptors team that now considers itself a title contender. With Van Vleet, Siakam, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby? I know, but that's what they keep saying.
The Bulls got back within 68-65 after three quarters and then 81-77 on the play of the game, Dunn's driving dunk over Ibaka. But the Raptors closed the game with 10 consecutive free throws, scoring on their last seven possessions keep the Bulls from having a chance.
"I thought our effort was good and I thought we really competed," said Boylen. "We're going to have a foundation built on toughness, competitiveness, defense and playing for each other."
So perhaps he's letting the dawgs out.
But will they have some offensive bite?
One predicament of playing more slowly to keep the game closer—which has been working, by the way—is your team has to make tougher shots. The opposing defense can set up when you don't push the ball as quickly. So Markkanen ends up having to take a few steps farther outside for those threes, and LaVine is squeezed harder. Dunn remains a hesitant three-point shooter, attempting one Sunday but turning down several that were open. He seems able to snake his way to a 15 footer anytime he wants. But defenders still are dropping under screens against him. Plus Holiday with four aggressive and timely steals Sunday remains in that shooting slump, 22 percent on threes the last eight games. Threes that are more contested when not taken in transition as often.
Boylen when he replaced Fred Hoiberg as coach called these kinds of games a "road dog mentality" for the team. The Bulls have proven adept at the style and seem to have embraced the defense and tenacity.
The question is how long it will play on his VCR recorder.