Bulls battle Heat but fall short 107-104

Chicago struggled from the three-point line (28%) and the turnover battle (22 compared to Miami's 10) as the Bulls fell to 13-8
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later
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There's a saying about teams like the Bulls: They're good enough to dream.

Meaning they've probably got enough talent to be elite, but they don't quite understand yet how to get there.

Which was just about the difference Saturday in the Bulls 107-104 loss to the Miami Heat in a game Bulls coach Billy Donovan said prior would be a "great measuring stick" for the team.

The Bulls came up, to paraphrase Bob Uecker's Harry Doyle, "Juuuusssst a bit short."

"Just shows you how grimy and gritty you have to be when you go out and play," said DeMar DeRozan, who led the Bulls with 28 points, half in the third quarter when the Bulls took a two-point lead entering the fourth. "That's a lot of dogs over there experienced in playoff play. That's the type of style and physicality you are going to get in the playoffs, and that's a lesson learned for us.

"We settled for a lot of jump shots," DeRozan admitted. "We still have to be aggressive, get downhill (to the basket) and get to the free throw line and not settle so much. Granted, we hit those shots we win the game. But we cannot rely on jump shot after jump shot. They made the right plays and hit some big shots. We had way too many turnovers in the starting lineup (14 of the team's season high 23) and have to be patient when we see a zone (defense).

DeMar DeRozan shoots a short jumper in the 4th quarter against the Miami Heat.

DeMar DeRozan led the Bulls with 28 points against the Heat.

"You have stretches where it's a bad week," acknowledged DeRozan. "We're playing well, the chemistry is there, we fight for one another. We want to see each other succeed. Adversity sometimes brings you close to understand the goal. Sometimes you need that and I feel with this group of guys we really have that next step to understand that and move forward."

And so now at 13-8 and just a half game behind Miami, it's still that long season to go, and it was the Bulls returning from a game in Orlando Friday while Heat players window shopped on Michigan Avenue. So not exactly a playoff level playing field, if no one was reaching too far for excuses.

"They're a good team, they're going to get better. We're a good team, we're going to get better," declared Alex Caruso, who had 22 points and matched Lonzo Ball for a team high six assists off the bench. "They won the first matchup; we've got a couple more this year. I don't look too deep into it. I'm a game by game type of guy."

And there's another Monday against Charlotte featuring the Ball Brothers, once known for their Ball jars and now much more for jarring the ball.

"I don't think any team right now is perfect in anything they're doing except maybe Golden State or Phoenix because they've lost maybe one or two games and they're playing good," added Caruso. "Every other team at this point in the season is still trying to work out kinks. You've played 20 some games, a quarter of the way through the season. You're kind just starting to play to an identity, create those habits you want to create moving forward and that will hopefully stick for the rest of the year. We have a lot of work to do. We've got a long way to go. I don't think we're in bad shape by any means."

Alex Caruso slams the one-hand jam past Heat forward PJ Tucker in the first quarter against Miami.

Alex Caruso had a season-high 22 points on Saturday night against Miami.

Certainly not just a game and a half out of first in the Eastern Conference even with this mysterious radar blip with three losses in the last four in this just concluded stretch with five games in seven days. But it's not like the Bulls played weary or apathetic. They clobbered the Heat on the boards, 47-36 and 16-7 on second-chance points. They scored more than Miami inside and doubled the Heat in fast break points. The Bulls are at their best in transition, with a dazzling Caruso to Ball fast break score to close the first half among several more Caruso moments that had the United Center fans chanting "MVP" for Caruso despite Jimmy Butler, Zach LaVine and DeRozan in the building.

Butler did have five steals and a pair of crucial running scores late in the game, though didn't shoot well overall with 18 points on six of 15. LaVine, often defended by Butler, was just six of 16 for 16 points, though he dropped in a pair of fourth quarter threes to rally the Bulls after someone named Gabe Vincent basically won the game in the fourth quarter with 16 of his 20 points on four of six three pointers. Kyle Lowry added 11 fourth quarter points with a trio of three pointers, all difficult shots well defended that another good Bulls fourth quarter offensive effort couldn't overcome.

"We lost some people (see, Billy wasn't sure who he was, either) and Lowry made really, really tough ones," said Donovan. "They made some very timely shots. I don't think the shots we got were that much more difficult than theirs. I just thought on a back to back in a game like that you have to have momentum going downhill to make it easier on your shooters, and I thought we were too perimeter oriented.

"It was a grind out kind of game, a game against a really good team you want to be a part of because you can find out a lot more about yourself and where you've got to get better," said Donovan. "We responded. I thought we competed and played well, but it was a lot of things we were having to overcome, our turnovers and a difficult shooting night. I thought our guys hung in there when the game was really hard."

Tap to watch video highlights from Chicago's close battle with the Miami Heat on Saturday night.

Once again an opponent went into a zone defense late in the game to thwart DeRozan's midrange play, and the Bulls became somewhat flummoxed. That would be on the to-do list for working on. The Bulls moved Caruso into the middle of the zone defense as a playmaker and had some success. But they didn't shoot well in that early fourth quarter stretch as Vincent and Lowry were making four consecutive Miami threes. That changed an 80-75 Bulls lead with 10:24 left after Caruso noticed Derrick Jones for a dunk to 89-82 Miami less that four minutes later.

The Bulls wouldn't lead again, though they got within a basket several times down to 25 seconds left when Miami executed a clever play—and the Bulls final chances—with a backdoor cut on the inbounds pass for a layup. Butler then stole a Ball pass to negate later LaVine and Caruso baskets.

The Bulls did score 30 points in the fourth quarter and shoot 46 percent, and with Ball and Caruso basically playing the entire quarter you know they were defending. So Heat players did make some difficult shots. But they also made plays in the half court offense, which is better practice for the playoffs.

The Bulls have been one of the league's best teams in transition and forcing turnovers, which aren't as readily available in playoff settings. Those little guys dashing around are fun to look at, at least now.

"The execution is what we have to sharpen up on," agreed Caruso. "We're elite in transition, we're elite defensively when we rebound. I don't think we're elite in half court offense yet. And that's something we have to improve on."

Which brings the Bulls to their big elephant in the room which may require a step back before they start running forward again, Nikola Vucevic. The Bulls center and tallest player in the game led everyone with 13 rebounds (Ball had his first Bulls double/double with 11 points and 11 rebounds). But Vucecic scored just seven points on three of nine shots.

He also drew a technical foul after one close in miss, flinging his mouthpiece across the floor. This is a frustrated man. Not that he expects anyone else to pick it up for him.

Vucecic only been back from his virus absence three games, and he wasn't able to train during his absence. So patience?

But Vucevic was once again not only was defended by smaller players, this time P.J. Tucker, but doesn't always seem much a part of the Bulls offense. Which has been appealing to watch with its small ball disruption, transition and fast breaks, steals and crowd raising fancy finishes.

But what about feeding the big dog?

Vucevic is a career 50 percent shooter who is about 40 percent this season, by far a career low. His scoring average is his fewest in eight years and about 12 points since his return. Donovan said, and the players have bought in, there would have to be sacrifice. But no one has made more than Vucevic, who with the emergence of Ball's three-point shooting and Caruso's hustle play is almost a fifth option. This from a two-time All-Star and primary option basically his entire career.

Vucevic has been team first from the start, repeating he's content to do want the team needs. And the Heat did force him to pass almost whenever he got the ball with traps, hedges and double teams. But if the Bulls need a better half court offense, they need a better Vucevic. And Donovan seems to understand that better than most.

Tap to watch Billy Donovan's postgame reactions after from Chicago's loss to Miami.

"I've got to find a way as a coach to try to help him a little bit more," Donovan admitted. "They switched a lot on Vooch. When he went into the post they were really bringing a lot of people. I do think he's getting his footing back. I personally thought in the game we did not utilize him well enough. I thought we did it a couple times where we got it to him quickly and he could make a quick move. But we've got to find ways to help him a little bit more."

There's been a lot of debate this season about the Bulls needing size. But they also need to use the size they have.

It wasn't a particularly good start for the Bulls, and not unexpectedly flying back early Saturday morning from Orlando. It was Miami 27-20 after one quarter even despite a Caruso dunk on Bam Adebayo and three-point play on a missed Miami switch. Donovan called a quick timeout early in the second quarter when the languor persisted, and the Bulls got running and pushing the ball and Ball, Lonzo with a couple of threes and 49-46 Miami at halftime. DeRozan's big third quarter with several full court excursions and finishes got the Bulls into a 72-72 tie late in the third. Then Caruso got the "MVP" chant (odds are against him winning, so don't wager) with a driving double pump layup finish to the quarter and 74-72 Bulls.

But the Heat apparently did it again with yet another undrafted player, Vincent from UC Santa Barbara and two years in the G-league. The Bulls were a shot away from the lead several times later in the fourth, but Vucevic fouled DePaul's Max Strus, also undrafted, on a three. And after Caruso stole another jump ball beating Heat players to the spot, Ball missed a three. Again, close enough only to dream.

Or worry?

Nah," advised DeRozan. "No worry at all. We want to win them all, but it happens."

We're all still interested to see what happens as well.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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