There's a basketball saying that was once a warning, that you live by the three and you die by the three. Now in the NBA, it often seems you survive because of the three. And once again it killed the Bulls in Saturday's 125-118 loss to the Charlotte Hornets.
"That left corner was hot; hit a lot of threes in that left corner," noted Bobby Portis, who did his part with four of eight threes and 33 points, though 28 in the first half when the Bulls had a 15-point lead. "Obviously, Kemba (Walker with 37 points) is an All Star, and he got it rolling. Kind of hard to stop them when Kemba is rolling, got the crowd involved, feeling good about themselves. Everything was going in. We have to do a better job playing with the lead. There have been over 10 games this year when we have been up and everything just dismantled."
And once again it did, the Bulls 60-51 halftime lead evaporating in the third quarter amidst a pair of what coach Jim Boylen said were crucial breakdowns on a missed free throw box out that led to a four-point play and late fouls that gave Charlotte 10 free throws in a 16-8 close to the third quarter. So the Hornets, 26-26, were leading 88-86 entering the fourth quarter with again the play of the Bulls reserves pivotal.
"The second unit was playing hard and Bobby got it going," noted Cristiano Felicio, who had a rare run and finished with a team best plus-six rating. "But they came back and hit tough shots in the fourth quarter and we could not get the stops needed."
That was in a fatal-for-the-Bulls 15-0 Charlotte fourth quarter charge over three minutes after the Bulls regained a 100-99 lead on two Lauri Markkanen free throws with 7:28 left. Markkanen made all 13 of his free throw attempts in a perfect Bulls 25 for 25 at the line among Markkanen's 30 points.
"I think we are getting better and trying to be on the same page," said Markkanen. "We have to get the balance of guarding and preventing fast breaks and quality possessions on both ends of the floor. We are working every day and hope it's not for nothing and feel we are getting closer as a team; it's a process, for sure."
It was Markkanen who was exposed in that determinate fourth quarter stretch, though the Hornets primarily took advantage of Kris Dunn accepting the switch and handing the speedy Walker off to Markkanen to stop. The seven footer tried, but it was futile as Walker had 15 fourth quarter points, 11 in that run along with an assist on one of those corner threes from Nic Batum that Portis referenced. The Hornets cashed in six fourth quarter threes to one for the Bulls, 14 for the game to nine for the Bulls.
Those 15-point swings in three-point scoring margin have haunted the Bulls all season.
Within three minutes in that sequence, the Hornets had a 14-point lead and the Bulls were on the way home with a 12-41 record to host New Orleans Wednesday.
Zach LaVine pushed through two balky ankles for 18 points, five rebounds and three assists, shooting seven of 12. Shaquille Harrison had 10 points in 17 minutes off the bench. All the Bulls reserves had plus ratings; all the starters had minus ratings.
"I want to give Zach credit for playing," Boylen said as he opened his post game remarks. "He's banged up. That ankle is sore, so I am glad he fought through and played."
Dunn had difficulties again with seven points on three of 11 shooting. The Hornets scored 74 second half points on 62.2 percent shooting as the Bulls have been increasing their playing pace and offensive options. It was the 15th consecutive game the Bulls have scored at least 100 points, the longest such team streak since the early 1990s.
"We are starting to establish a style of play," Boylen had said earlier before the game. "Offensively, we are starting to play the way I hope we can play. I backed us down, slowed it down. We kind of crawled for a couple of weeks and then we started walking and now I think we are starting to run with the multi-ballhandlers we have and with getting some stops recently, getting us out in transition; it's been good for us. The ball has been moving around, we've been getting downhill, starting to establish that style of play offensively."
But it hasn't included the three-point shooting component, and as much as the Bulls tried to blend in aggressive defense, it's difficult in this era to dismiss the effect of the three-point shot. Particularly since it's so protected by the officials, who are quick to call even brush and phantom fouls when defenders get near three-point shooters. It happened early in the game to Ryan Arcidiacono, and there was a crucial one late in the third quarter when Charlotte took a lead. It wasn't so much the official missed the call. It's more that the league is legislating for the three-point shot; and if you don't attempt it, you almost always are being penalized.
The Milwaukee Bucks have a supernova in Giannis Antetokounmpo. But their elevation to the league's best record with marginal, at best, All-Star talent around Antetokounmpo has been the product of being second in the league in three-point attempts. The Rockets, of course, are first and the Celtics are third. Resurgent Brooklyn is fourth. There are high volume outliers where the record doesn't translate, like with Atlanta. And there are exceptions like the 76ers and Spurs, both with All-Star talent at mid range games. And, of course, the three-point avatar Golden State Warriors keep firing away from distance.
The Bulls are starting to score consistency and at a higher rate, but the lack of threes continues to make the difference in so many late game losses. The Bulls, for example, have been outscored on threes in 14 of the last 19 games.
"They had a great second half," acknowledged Boylen of the Hornets. "The ball was moving and they made tough shots. I thought we helped them in the third by fouling the shooter; the missed free throw box out three was a big play. That being said, I thought we did a lot of good things and are improving offensively. We lost some of our grit defensively the second half; give them credit. But Bobby had a big game, Lauri had a big game. Lauri pushing that ball is good for us and the way we started was really good."
It was the Markkanen and Portis show with the forwards running a tag team shooting game that enabled the Bulls to trail 27-26 after the first quarter. Then Portis, who blitzed Miami for 26 points in Wednesday's Bulls win, was king in the Queen City with a scoring barrage to open the second quarter.
"Obviously, my role on this team is to come in and score the basketball, rebound the basketball at a high level, compete," said Portis. "I think I've been doing that the last two games and I have to keep that rolling for the rest of the season."
Portis had a break out 22 second quarter points, including the first 10 Bulls points of the second quarter. Portis was making threes, powering inside and running out for scores after his own defensive plays. The entire Hornets team only outscored him by two the second quarter.
"Being in and out of the rotation (injured three times), I just tried to fight back and find a rhythm, and I think it's coming around. It's tough having to get back in game shape. You can practice and run treadmill and all that, do all those things. But there's nothing like boxing out a big man. That takes a lot out of you. I think my legs are coming back around and confidence is coming back as well. Just trying to stay more consistent. Obviously, I didn't have it going in the second half. But going forward this really helps my confidence a lot and it's fun to see the ball go in for a change."
The Bulls led 60-45 late in the second quarter before the Hornets closed the half on a 6-0 run. It changed quickly in that third quarter as the Hornets adjusted with a double team from the baseline against Portis that he kept missing. Then there were the breakdowns like fouling three-point shooters three times and failing to box out on a free throw that Walker rebounded and stepped back to make a three.
The Bulls moved the ball more swiftly, got some thrust up court, often from Markkanen, shot 52 percent for the game, won the boards and in fast breaks. But the Hornets kept making those "on no" threes.
"There were moments we passed open looks," Boylen acknowledged. "I thought we played 40, 42 minutes of really good basketball. Our offense is growing and developing. I thought overall our effort was good. We are trying to play the right way, our spirit was good and I thought they had a hell of a second half."