Bulls fall to Nuggets

Sometimes I lie awake at night and I ask, ‘Where have I gone wrong?' Then a voice says to me, ‘This is going to take more than one night.' - Charlie Brown

The phrase "good grief" is probably a good one for the Bulls 135-105 Thursday loss to the Denver Nuggets, their ninth straight and all five on this Western Conference road trip.

Late into the night, Zach LaVine sat in the visitor's locker room in the Pepsi Center, a towel wrapped around him, still dripping from a long shower after most of his teammates had slowly filed out. He had that Lucy-pulled-away-the-football-again look. The Bulls' dropped to 10-35 with seven of their last nine losses in fourth quarter double digit deficit mode. Was this really ever going to change?

"We are getting blown out every game," said lead scorer LaVine, who tied a season low with eight points after scoring just 10 in the Tuesday loss in Los Angeles. "I don't know what it is. It's the longest losing streak I've been a part of. We've got to figure out what is going on because it's not going to stop. People licking their chops, looking at us on the schedule and marking this game off."

"Today I sucked," LaVine said. "I have to do a better job; overall, we have to do a better job as a team. You ask me personally how I am? I'm upset with myself and the team. We're between a rock and a hard place right now. I don't know which one is softer. It's tough; we just have to crawl our way out."

It's perhaps the appropriate image since the Bulls have declared this season to be the crawling stage in the quest to stand up and walk like a team.

But that dark cloud continues to follow them around. So perhaps it was the Bulls who brought a rare three days of rain to Los Angeles. The sun isn't taking a chance of shining on this Bulls team.

"We're frustrated, we're upset, we're trying to figure out what's going on," said LaVine. "We come into each game and I feel like we are competitive parts of the game and then a point in the game you look up and you're down by 30 (it got to 40 against the Nuggets). It's demoralizing. It's hard to compete after that, but you can't get to that point."

Bulls coach Jim Boylen, asked after the game about the team's continually deteriorating defense after he'd made it a priority following the dismissal of Fred Hoiberg (almost 120 per game in the losing streak), mentioned the trade of defender Justin Holiday among the usual lack of toughness issues.

LaVine wanted to be respectful about his friend and former teammate.

"Justin is a real good player," said LaVine with some confusion, "but I don't think he's someone you take him off the team and he's like LeBron James."

No, it hasn't been a very good trip.

The Bulls got 27 points and 10 rebounds from Lauri Markkanen, who actually was very good, especially with 15 first quarter points in his best game in a month. Markkanen's national coach and longtime mentor Henrik Dettmann traveled with Markkanen on the trip and his advice seemed to help.

"I was trying to be aggressive and find my spots and when I got the rebound to try to push it, which I did a couple of times," said Markkanen. "We talked about what I am good at and what I can improve at. He is obviously not the coach of our team, so he really can't say anything (about my role). We talked about how can I improve and find my spots. One thing we talked about was the transition thing. I know I have the green light when I get the rebound to push it, and I tried to be more aggressive with it tonight."

Bobby Portis, starting at center for injured Wendell Carter Jr., had 10 points and 13 rebounds, but went awry shooting again with four of 13 after one of 11 against the Lakers. Chandler Hutchison had his third consecutive game scoring in double figures with better moves to the basket. Robin Lopez had 17 points off the bench in 19 minutes and Jabari Parker added 15 points on an efficient five of seven shooting.

It was a fast paced game for 12 minutes with the Bulls matching the high scoring Nuggets for a 30-28 first quarter Bulls lead. Markkanen was exceptional in creating movement and space for himself rebounding and leading the break and often finishing. The Bulls also were challenging defensively to the point in one play a wild wild cross court pass was headed for Boylen, who began to reach for it. In a collision with a Nuggets player flying out of bounds, Boylen hit the ground like Joe Frazier in the third fight with Muhammad Ali.

Down goes Boylen! Down goes Boylen, you could almost hear Howard Cosell chanting.

And soon the Bulls in a flurry of three-point knockout blows, the Nuggets making 20 of 40 three pointers. Denver went on to lead 61-47 at halftime and then with a 42-point third quarter and nine threes, six by Jamal Murray, the Nuggets opened up a 103-73 wound after three quarters and the effective end of the game.

Murray led Denver with 25 points. Center Nikola Jokic had 18 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. The Nuggets shot 52 percent overall and scored 74 second half points.

"I thought we were hanging in that first half," said Boylen. "I thought Lauri was terrific. They made the three at the end of the first half and it goes to 14, but I still thought we were in a decent position. We started the third quarter with a three by Lauri, an and-1, and from that point the game flipped. We weren't tough enough, weren't physical enough and didn't respond very well. They made shots and I felt every shot they made, we got a little bit down and we struggled.

"I think we need to play harder," Boylen added. "I think in spurts we play real hard. At times we are playing real hard. I thought in Utah we played really hard; I thought against the Lakers we played very hard. I thought tonight for 28 to 32 minutes we played really hard. But I thought there were moments we let their shot making affect our energy and effort. I didn't like that."

Boylen said the game plan was to go under screens and challenge the Nuggets to make shots, which they did. But they pretty much made shots from all angles as LaVine and Kris Dunn combined for seven of 23 shooting and little impact and the Bulls enthusiasm waned as the game progressed. It's not uncommon at the end of a road trip, and especially in high altitude Denver. But frustration and confusion seems continually a team companion.

"Everybody has to pick their spirits up, pick their game up. But after every game it gets tough," lamented LaVine. "I'm upset with myself on how I played the last two games. For someone in my role on the team, I am supposed to go out there and provide offense and create for the team. Even against the Lakers I tried to play it the right way. They were doubling me, so I tried to hit the pocket (and again led the team in assists). They are going to keep doubling me. I've been dealing with it all season. It's not like it's anything new. I just have to do better. I played terrible."

You'd have trouble if you had to pick the guy who played terrible out of a lineup. Defense is supposed to be a coordinated effort, and it hasn't been there.

"We couldn't get a rebound and I don't know how many loose balls they got," noted Markkanen. "They beat us on that and that tells a lot on effort; it's all of us. We have to play tougher. They played well and were physical and we didn't match that. I feel like we are not playing as tough as when he (Boylen) started as head coach; we've got to fix that. I still feel everything starts from defense."

But while the Bulls have played more deliberately to presumably emphasize defense, they've continually been outshot by so many teams taking advantage of three-point shooting. The Bulls have prioritized scoring inside more and in the process have been counting twos against threes. It's not good math.

"I thought they had great shot making over the top of us," said Boylen. "We don't have that. We don't have great shotmaking over the top of people, so we have to do it a different way right now. (Another) thing is we traded one of our best defensive players and we are looking for someone to step up. That's an issue. We had a veteran guy who can guard, a lock down defender.

"Looking for our young guys to grow into that role," Boylen added. "We've had moments. What we are trying to do is give those guys an opportunity to play. We are learning about them, they are learning what they need to do better. That's all part of this season, a season of discovering what we have, what they need to do and what we have to work on."

That should at least keep them busy.