Bulls battle to close defeat, struggle to contain Jokic

Denver's Nikola Jokic scored 29 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, and dished nine assists as the Bulls lost a hard fought game to the Nuggets 118-112 on Monday night at the United Center. Despite Jokic's success, the Bulls had a two-point lead with 2:14 remaining after a Zach LaVine layup. Coby White led the Bulls with 20 points and ten rebounds. LaVine added 23 points, nine rebounds, and five assists as the Bulls dropped to 15-18 with one game remaining before the All-Star break.

You know how the old joke goes, the Bulls are just a player away. Like Kareem or Wilt.

That's right, someone to play against guys like Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid.

"Obviously, we just didn't really have a lot of answers for Jokic tonight," shrugged Bulls coach Billy Donovan after the Denver star led the Nuggets to a 118-112 victory with 17 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter. "We tried to double him some in the first half. They've got five three-point shooters out there that shot over 40 percent from three. We just didn't have the size and strength to really do much. You worry about coming with a lot of people just with the way he passes the ball. They're all All-Stars (with Joel Embiid's 50 points Feb. 19). They're great players. We've doubled them. We've done different things.

"I mean," stammered Donovan, "we put everybody on him. Luke (Kornet) had a shot at him. Wendell (Carter Jr.) had a shot at him. Thad (Young) had a shot at him. At different points in time everybody had their moments where he was scoring. I thought in that third quarter, that was probably the best that we played him with Thad. And then I thought in the fourth quarter everybody had a hard time with him."

Denver's Nikola Jokic being defending by Thad Young.

And so having come back from deficits of 13 points minutes into the game, 15 points in the second quarter and 10 in the third quarter, the Battlin' Bulls once again scratched their way back into another game, taking a six-point lead with about eight minutes left. And then attempting to hold down the seven foot Nuggets MVP candidate with the 6-7 Young at center. 
 "Wendell, I thought, gave everything," said Donovan. "I just thought we needed to try to score and I think Thad's been so good in that pocket for us. Zach gets trapped so much at the end of the game and we can throw the ball to Thad offensively; he's really good making plays."

Young made some wonderful plays once again, five steals as he ranks among the league leaders in that category, another charge as he ranks second in the league in that category and leading the comeback with 12 points off the bench, a 39-17 advantage for the Bulls reserves.

"The second unit did a great job of battling back," said Zach LaVine, who led the Bulls with 23 points, nine rebounds and five assists against relentless Nuggets trapping and double teaming.

It was clear the Nuggets' plan was if they were losing, it wasn't going to be to LaVine's scoring.

Coby White almost did enough with 20 points and a team high 10 rebounds and Patrick Williams and Denzel Valentine each scored 13 points.

Jamal Murray with 24 points made a crucial bad-for-basketball three pointer with 1:39 left that you hated if you were anyone but a Nuggets fan. He pulled up on a three-on-one break for the shot.

That made it 112-108 Denver. Williams and Young missed threes on the same possession, but Young got a gimme-your-lunch stolen rebound from Michael Porter Jr. Young dropped the ball back in to get the Bulls within 112-110 with 1:15 left in the game.

But the Nuggets went back once again to Jokic, and why not with Young acting as ramparts. There just weren't enough fortifications. The ubiquitous Jokic backed Young into the lane. LaVine from the baseline and Garrett Temple from on top came to help. Young slid down and Williams came over. Jokic turned back to his right and flared the ball into the basket. He and the five Bulls in a tight circle watched it drop through the net to make the score 114-110 Nuggets with 47.7 seconds left.

Zach LaVine rises for two of his 23 points vs. the Nuggets.

"We battled back, but we exerted so much energy to get back in the game where you almost have to play perfect basketball coming down the stretch against a team like that," said LaVine. "We're a couple of possessions away from winning those games; that's the difference. We're leading the Suns throughout the game and we led the Nuggets in the fourth quarter, so we're not far off. It's just a couple of possessions. I think we're a playoff team. I just think we make too many mistakes."

That last tenacious Jokic field goal concluded 17 Jokic points among Denver's 25 in seven minutes. And with Jokic never seeming able to defy gravity.

"We clawed our way back and we took a lead and went up to like five or six and it just came down to getting stops," said White.

But what about Jokic? What to do?

"Oh man," hesitated White. "I mean you can't double him because he's such a great passer and their team has a lot of great cutters and one on one he's a monster. So you know, I really don't know. I wish…I don't know. I wish I could tell you, but uh, I mean…."

We know, Coby.

"Every play call from me was to get him the ball, to play through him," admitted Nuggets coach Mike Malone. "When it wasn't a play call, just imploring our guys to make sure he touched it. Obviously, he was having a great game, a great fourth quarter, and good things were happening every time we played through him. In that fourth mostly him scoring the basketball. That's the luxury of having an MVP candidate. I see all these conversations about, ‘Who would you want to start a franchise with?' And I never see Nikola's name mentioned. I'm dumbfounded by that. I'm going to write-in a nominee: Nikola Jokic is a guy that I'd like to build a franchise with. Like we have done here in Denver and have had great success with."

The Nuggets perhaps with less overall talent than the Bulls have that IT guy. It hasn't been good enough for a championship or even the NBA Finals. The Nuggets now are 19-15 and tied for sixth in the Western Conference. The Bulls are 15-18 and tied for ninth in the Eastern Conference with Indiana. The Bulls close the first half of the season before All-Star break Wednesday in New Orleans.

Not that it hasn't been apparent, but size does matter, centers are not extinct in the NBA. And the Bulls need one.

Carter had eight points and three rebounds and played just under four minutes in the fourth quarter without a shot or a rebound. It's not his fault the other kids are taller.

"He's a tough kid in terms of he tries to physically compete," said Donovan. "Certainly on nights against Embiid or (Nikola) Vucevic (43 points but 17 the next time) or even tonight against Jokic; those are hard matchups. Not only for Wendell but for anybody. We've tried to bring some help at different times.

Donovan speaks to the media following Chicago's 112-118 loss to Nuggets.

"Wendell is probably an undersized center," Donovan acknowledged. "I do think with the way the game has drifted to in the front court, that's why I thought one of the things that was important for his development is to shoot some threes. Certainly on some nights it can be challenging for him. But he does give good effort, he does battle, he does fight; he tries to give you everything he has. I said (on the bench), 'Wendell's trying like crazy.' But it's just sometimes those guys play over him."

There aren't many Embiids or Jokics since both are probably top five players and MVP candidates this season. But the Bulls last week also got dissected down the stretch by Chris Paul's point guard play. White is scoring well again, averaging 20.4 points the last five games. But more on catch-and-shoot opportunities, often leaving it to LaVine or Young to do the facilitating down the stretch. Which perhaps isn't ideal.

They almost had one last gasp when the Bulls came out of the timeout with 47.7 seconds left with Young and LaVine in a two-man play. Young got the inbounds pass from LaVine. Young with his now-you-see-it-now-you-don't basketball prestidigitation faked a handoff to LaVine and drove left down the lane. LaVine then circled and came down the lane on the right. Young passed back to LaVine. But Jokic stepped up and forced an extra step and travel call.

It was just the Bulls 10th turnover. The Bulls also had a 28-9 edge in fast break points, 18-9 in second chance points with more assists and threes than the Nuggets. But less Jokic.

The Nuggets made free throws to close out the victory.

"We're getting better," insisted White. "But I'm pretty sure we're all tired of saying we're getting better and we're all tired of saying we need to get over the hump. Some of this has to translate to wins; so we just got to find a way."

Coby White finishes a tough layup over two defenders in the second-half against Denver.

Getting a better start would help.

Once again the Bulls were, as White said, "flat" to begin the game, another Donovan timeout three minutes in (then just 32 seconds into the second half). It was 16-3 Denver before Donovan began going to the bench. And Young, Valentine and Tomas Satoransky began to change the tenor.

It's perhaps immaterial or inconsequential, but the players the Bulls start tend to be unflustered. Which seems good for competitive sports, that not too high, not too low thing. But basketball also is an energy sport. They do tend to play hard and seem certainly to care. But they also have that unusual equanimity about them, particularly Carter and Williams. Perhaps you don't need to be Ray Lewis in the pregame huddle. But maybe some of those LeBron dance steps wouldn't hurt sometimes.

"They're not extremely emotional," Donovan agreed. "Like, Arch (Ryan Arcidiacono) is a very emotional, fiery guy. Sometimes you need that. I don't know if it's necessarily their personalities or what it is, but we've had too much of that (slow starts to halves). It's hard when you play against really good teams. You have to play with really, really great emotion and great energy. I didn't think we did that. I thought we were playing hard, but there wasn't enough energy. I thought once we started to sub and the game started going, I thought our energy really picked up and the competitiveness picked up. But we don't have that margin for error that we can throw away quarters.

"Sometimes," said Donovan, "that fire is good to have, that emotion is good to have. It kind of raises everybody up."

Heck, it was so bad to start that Donovan began thinking about golf.

"I almost liken it to a PGA event," he said. "There's four rounds. You can't throw a round and expect to win. We can't throw away a quarter and expect to win. I'm not saying we threw away the quarter (trailing 37-25 after one and 62-55 at halftime). We played better as the game went on. But we don't have time for that. We've been in a lot of these games. And I think part of the reason we've been in a lot of these games is because these guys battle and fight and compete. But whether it's coming out with not enough energy or whether it's lack of execution or whether it's bad play, we just have too many lapses. We're up in the Phoenix game, we're up in this game. This group has got to find ways to close games out."

Call it a central point.