The Bulls again put up a competitive effort against MVP Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, but fell short down the stretch as the Bulls go final 6:22 without scoring a field goal. Gafford had his first meaningful NBA minutes and enjoyed a big night which, with Kornet out for the time being following his surgical procedure, should reward him with a spot in the rotation.
Lauri Markkanen didn't slump, at least physically, when he met with reporters following the Bulls 115-101 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks Monday. Markkanen's eyes were firm and his answers direct, perhaps in contrast to his recent play as the Bulls bright young seven footer with nine points on two of 12 shooting, zero for three on fours, remained in perhaps the worst shooting and scoring slump of his basketball life.
"It's frustrating," Markkanen acknowledged. "I've never had… how many games is this? I don't know. With this kind of stretch of not hitting threes, but missing layups (too). It's not going to be like this forever. I don't know what else to say."
No one around the Bulls really does, either, as the Finnish native whom the Bulls believed was close to being a finished product as an NBA scoring star mirrors the Bulls disappointing and underachieving start to the season, the team falling to 4-10.
"It's going to be tough when your leading players – me and Lauri – don't perform at our level," admitted Zach LaVine, who had 11 points, though with four assists and tied for the team lead with eight rebounds. "You're missing a lot of points, you're missing a lot of plays. We understand that. We have to pick it up."
The Bulls Monday had a few rays of hope peek through the gloom of a Chicago November inside and outside. Second round draft pick Daniel Gafford getting his first real playing time of the season led the team with 21 points, making 10 of 12 shots on a half dozen mostly lob dunks, the dunk total the most in the NBA this season.
Gafford Scores 21 Points vs the Bucks
Maybe the Bulls did get Zion.
"Whenever I get on the floor, I go all out," Gafford said. "When it comes to dunks, when it comes to rebounds, whatever it comes to, I'm going to go all out. I'm just kind of shell shocked right now because I finally got in (scoreless in 12 mopup minutes this season). And I finally was able to show people what I can do to help this team."
The Bulls had yet another almost, not unlike the plethora of almosts this season that should have the record turned around, blowing sure wins with late game collapses against the Lakers, Knicks and Hornets. And for the second time in less than a week, the Bulls almost had the powerful Milwaukee Antetokounmpos, last Thursday within a basket with two minutes left and Monday leading with six minutes left on Coby White's second straight three.
White had 13 points and Ryan Arcidiacono 12, the latter with four of five three pointers. And two jump balls with Antetokounmpo. Lost them both in something of a symbolic matchup of the teams, though Arcidiacono did at least try to wrestle him to the ground.
"It's something that's going to come with repetition," said White. "We fight hard throughout the game and it sucks we fight so hard and then come up short. We're together, we'll figure it out. You have to be confident, every night we feel we are going to win. We just didn't make enough plays down the stretch and they did. Once everything starts clicking it's going to get real scary."
The Bulls don't resemble a 4-10 team in energy and enthusiasm. They've mostly competed well, if not always efficiently and not effectively. They come back from bad losses and generally address the previous weakness, whether it's rebounding, 50-48 Monday after losing by 13 last time to the Bucks and 50-46 in the paint after losing 70-32 Thursday. But hanging onto an 84-81 lead entering the fourth quarter, the Bucks pressured the Bulls into a woeful closing quarter in which no starter made a field goal and the Bulls didn't make a field goal in the last 6:23.
"I thought their experience and veteran-ness took over," said Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "They have a guy that they can go to that can get them a bucket, which is what good teams have. We're figuring out who that guy is and learning how to play that way. We're not there yet."
Antetokounmpo had 33 points and 10 rebounds, though eight turnovers as the Bulls endlessly harassed him. But he had nine fourth quarter points while the Bulls starters had two in the fourth quarter. And while the Bulls contested on the boards, size got them this time as Brook Lopez had 11 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter.
"We're playing good in stretches, but not putting a full game together," said LaVine. "We've been in a hole. We just have to learn how to flip it around."
Boylen admitted he almost flipped it all upside down as these player rotations continue to change. Gafford finally got some playing time, and he was impressive. It seems he'll move into the rotation now, though perhaps one reason the summer sounded so much better than the regular season has been is that basically none of those veteran players added in the last year are producing.
Center Luke Kornet had sinus surgery Monday from a previously broken nose. But he had been dropped from the rotation and is uncertain now with Gafford playing, especially like he did. Otto Porter Jr. remains out indefinitely with a foot injury. Tomas Satoransky again started aggressively, but played just 18 minutes as Boylen again closed with Arcidiacono. Thad Young had a modest nine points and has scored in double figures in just two of the last seven games.
Once again the Bulls got their boost from the so called energy second team off the bench with Arcidiacono, Kris Dunn, Young, White and this time Gafford. They were responsible for bringing the Bulls back from a 19-11 first quarter deficit and then to take that 99-98 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
The uncertainty for Boylen was clear. He admitted he almost didn't go back to his best. Both LaVine and Markkanen had been out almost the last 12 playing minutes in the second half. Boylen continued to ride the reserves, and then in a timeout with 6:56 left in the game came back out with the reserves yet again when the starters would generally have been back. The Bucks' were. Then when Dunn missed and Arcidiacono committed a turnover, Boylen finally went back to Markkanen and LaVine with 5:04 left trailing 103-99. Neither could get going, though it was White who shot the most after that, missing all four of his attempts. Markkanen and LaVine were each zero for two. The result was a 17-2 Bucks close, Markkanen making two free throws.
"I'm going to support those two guys," said Boylen. "We're going to get them to understand that we believe in them, we value them, and that we need to do better. We're slugging uphill right now and we've got to keep slugging. In a lot of ways we have a young developing group I've put a lot of pressure on. They're learning how to play, how to win, how to play in this system we have now. We did a lot of good things in the game, but when you don't win a lot of those things are lost.
"We're still developing two young guys," Boylen added. "Zach missed a year and a half. Lauri was hurt last year; he's basically played two years. I'm going to keep developing them to come in and win games. I believe in both of them. I believe they are important to what we are doing. I haven't changed my goals. We're still going to fight for the playoffs."
Though the signals continue to be mixed with the offense which doesn't particularly feature certain players and then the continued reliance on younger players at a time the team believed there would be more of a balance with veterans after the off season acquisitions. The Bulls have improved in transition this season, though the transition to the team they've been hoping to be has slowed.
"Second unit did a really good job of keeping us in the game," said LaVine, who for his part was engaged and enthused on the bench as the reserves showed plenty in reserve. "Kris played great (eight points, nine assists and six rebounds), DG was outstanding. But they made more plays. They have the MVP over there; he did his thing; we didn't."
Again, like against the Nets Saturday, it was an indifferent start for the Bulls as they've pushed Satoransky to shoot more. He tried the first three. The Bulls fell behind 19-11 and Boylen took out the last of the five starters earlier than usual. It's been almost painful to watch Markkanen, his effortless shooting stroke gone awry, sometimes flailing into the defense to get something to happen.
"It's really frustrating, but I have to keep my head up knowing I work too hard for this not to turn around," said Markkanen. "I noticed myself kind of thinking too much at the half. I tried to switch it up and just make the plays for the team. After that, you just put the work in. That's how you get out of your own head. Obviously shooters and all players go through slumps. I know I am staying confident and believing every shot will go in."
It seemed easier for the inexperienced Gafford, who immediately got a lob he dunked from fellow rookie White and then dunked three more quickly, trailing a White miss, catching an errant Young lob attempt for a score, energizing the team.
"Just go out there and do me," said Gafford. "Just coming in and being an energy guy, getting rebounds, coming in and putting pressure on the rim to where, 'Hey you can't just come in and get anything easy. You're either going to get hit or I'm going to block the shot or you are going to have to dunk on me.' Nine times out of 10 a dunk is not going to happen. But if you dunk on me, I'll give you your props and then I'll go down and get a bucket on you."
He does have some attitude. Which he'd been showing in practice, but it seemed the Bulls wanted to see what they had in Kornet.
Gafford continued to impress in the second quarter as teammates just began to throw the ball up near the rim.
"That's what he does every day at practice, dominates the boards, get everything that comes off the rim," said White. "If you throw it anywhere near the rim he'll go get it; all of that was no surprise to us as a team because he does it every day. He dunks everything. Tonight he did catch some crazy lobs. The one handed one was off the charts, one of the craziest I've seen."
Gafford finished that one for a 54-48 second quarter lead before the next Bulls possession summarized Markkanen's curious season. He missed a dunk, got the ball back and missed another dunk attempt.
"I thought I saw him grit his teeth a little bit," said Boylen hopefully. "He's trying; he cares."
The Bulls' defense was active again, closing fast on threes and forcing another 15 turnovers for 20 points. It's been a bright spot in the dark times. The Bucks led by just three after three quarters. And when Arcidiacono and White split four three pointers early in the fourth quarter and Antetokounmpo had five fouls, it seemed like maybe this time.
"Just got to get a win," repeated LaVine. "It's tough."