Much of the discussion Friday after the Bulls 106-101 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers was about that errant three point attempt by Zach LaVine with 27.5 seconds left and the Bulls trailing by three points. The Clippers would go on to get a floater from Patrick Beverley, his only basket of the game, and escape with the victory that saw the Bulls record fall to 11-38.
So wasn't that really just a wonderful game?
Not the loss, though some figuring the draft lottery odds tend to cheer for that despair these days.
"Just missed it," said LaVine, who led the Bulls with 29 points. "It was a good shot for me; hit a lot of them, just missed it. I rose over the top of him (Beverley), I didn't even see him. Just airballed it; wish I could have done that again. I'll take that shot again. I think I could have made it."
I did also since LaVine was basically carrying the Bulls throughout the fourth quarter with a somewhat hesitant group of teammates mostly playing spectator. LaVine scored 13 of the team's 19 fourth-quarter points, all its free throw attempts, tied for the most rebounds and made the only three. And not necessarily because he wouldn't let the other kids play. In the possession before that LaVine attempt, Bobby Portis had a wide open three-point shot at the top of the circle. Six-foot guard Avery Bradley was the closest on a switch. Portis looked, hesitated, and then passed the ball, resulting in a flailing attempt by Chandler Hutchison as the shot clock expired.
It was, however, a compelling last minute because the Bulls finally played a last minute of the game that mattered.
It's not much to boast about, except that since Christmas Day the Bulls had lost all six home games and five by double digits. They'd lost seven of their last 10 games overall by double digits in the current streak of 12 losses in the last 13 games.
Could it be that elusive growth and development?
"We're still trying to learn how to win," agreed LaVine. "I don't know if this game was trying to teach us or what. It was a very winnable game. We should have, we competed, we made the good plays. But they just made more."
Especially reserve Lou Williams, who had the first triple-double of his career with 31 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, and Tobias Harris with 29 points. The Bulls got 18 points and 14 rebounds from Portis, 15 points in a slightly expanded 24 minutes from Jabari Parker on six of nine shooting, 13 points from Lauri Markkanen though on four of 13 shooting, and 12 points and 12 rebounds from Hutchison, who played a career-high 41 minutes and the entire fourth quarter. Hutchison scored all his points in the first half, and missed all his five shots in the fourth quarter.
Which with Kris Dunn typically hesitant to go to the basket with his third game in the last five without a free throw attempt and Markkanen marginally involved in the offense, it was left for LaVine to shoot them in or out in the fourth. He came up a bit short, but he kept the Bulls from another double digit deficit with back to back big-time three pointers when the Clippers were attempting to pull away midway through the quarter.
"I have to step up in the fourth and I thought I did that," said LaVine. "I think I might have gotten a little more aggressive. I knew we needed a little bit of a boost of offense."
Parker might have supplied it, but he was long out of the game before the stretch. The way Parker has been scoring lately, the Bulls perhaps win this game if Parker is playing the last 7:32. But the stated goal is the development of the young players who are moving forward with the team. And that seemed to be the message playing a late game with the struggling Hutchison and relying on LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen. Not that the Bulls want to lose. The message is to use the rest of this season to help those players improve and mature. The best way to do that is keep putting them in positions where they have to make plays when it matters. The Bulls finally had another of those scenarios Friday, and it was those youngsters dominating the game. They weren't quite up to it against a tough, veteran Clippers team just two games out of fourth place in the Western Conference playoff race.
"I thought our commitment to the defensive end of the floor was good," said Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "I thought they made a few more plays that we did. We have to finish possessions better. They had two really difficult matchups for us, Williams and Harris, and they hurt us. I thought our energy was good, our focus was good. We didn't make quite enough plays at the end, but we got a lot from a lot of guys."
The high scoring guard probably has been taking all this losing the hardest. The Bulls made their largest investment in him with a four-year contract, and amidst all the early season injuries he was a lighthouse in stormy seas, keeping hope alive in the team's desperate start. He clambered back from a sprained ankle in December much faster than imagined, and he's been called upon to pull out the few games lately where a shot or two mattered.
"We made good plays, they just made bigger ones," he agreed. "They got the win."
It's not unusual that the most productive player often draws the most criticism on a losing team. Perhaps unstated is the inability of others to even be in that role, so critics demand those who can to do more. So LaVine, at times, gets picked over like a nice T-bone when everyone else has filets. You know, good, but can't we have better? So his defense isn't all that and there are turnovers and is there enough ball movement and why isn't he more like Durant?
But LaVine is getting to the basket and finishing, and making tough threes, and the Bulls could use more of that.
"I'm disappointed we didn't win," said Boylen. "I'm not discouraged in our effort or competitiveness or communication; I saw some signs of growth. Hard fought game against a good team. They made more plays than we did and finished off the fourth better than we did."
After yet another awkward start and falling behind 27-20 after the first quarter, Parker perked up the Bulls with a dominant start to the second quarter, a 20-9 start that gave the Bulls the lead and which they held 56-52 at halftime.
"Happy for my guys," Parker told Bulls TV after the game. "Even though my minutes may be minimized, I'm just happy to see them do well; we were ready to play tonight."
Parker at practice Thursday had lobbied in remarks to reporters for more playing time. He'd been scoring impressively since he came back into the rotation on the Western Conference road trip two weeks ago. He'd been averaging almost a point a minute, but generally in about 15 minutes per game.
"The dude's special," said LaVine about Parker. "He's one of the only dudes on the team that has averaged 20 points a game in the NBA. He's one of the most talented dudes on the team. I'm happy for him. It's a tough situation, but he's handling it well."
Though there's a legitimate dilemma.
It doesn't seem likely Parker will return for another season. Yes, he probably can help the team win a few more games. The team wants the players to be in a winning situation and making plays in competitive circumstances. Though losses, even if it's not the management priority, provide better odds for a greater talent in the college player draft. But most of all, if the goal after the multiple injuries wrecked the season and now Wendell Carter Jr is lost is to continue development and analysis, why do it with Parker? Though winning also helps develop a better attitude and confidence. Catch-22, anyone?
When the 76ers were losing big, they were basically going through it with minor league players not in their plans. Many of these players are in the Bulls future. Lots of pulling from each side. So how do you get somewhere?
"I stay positive," said Dunn. "I know what we are going through; it's adversity. It definitely hit this team and it shows your true character when adversity hits. For me as the point guard, I have to stay positive for the group, keep working hard and keep everyone's spirit up, make sure we come out each and every game trying to improve and work hard."
Dunn, though, is perhaps the biggest mystery.
He had 10 assists and four steals. He scored nine points on four of 14 shooting, and though he was one of five on threes, at least he attempted that many, the most he's attempted in a game this season.
Dunn's steals set up several fast break scores as the Bulls had 21 fast break points to four for the Clippers. Dunn is a bothersome defender with his long arms and plays the lanes well, though he's not often as aggressive straight up. Still, he's a plus defender. But it's on offense where he is a mystery with a balky shot and lately an inability to get to the basket. He primarily shoots short jump shots. Perhaps more concerning is the pace in which he generally lopes into the offense. The Bulls often get more thrust with players like Parker and Hutchison handling the ball, and even LaVine at times. The result too often is the way the Bulls get into possessions late, resulting in forced late shots, and thus an inability to have enough time to rotate the ball side to side. Dunn runs a nice two-man game with several teammates and will get them open shots. But the ball rarely swings for the Bulls to move the defense. It's often why Markkanen ends up with such difficult shots.
"I thought for the most part the threes we took (the Bulls made 10 to eight for for the Clippers) were good threes," said Boylen. "We had open ones, had good ones. We have to make a few more of them (28.6 percent). We were down eight, up four, back and forth (seven fourth-quarter lead changes). But I go back to finishing plays. We had 51 opportunities in the paint and made 23. We have to do a better job of finishing off a play, a drive, a finish."
Especially if you are Finnish, eh?
Markkanen got his three ball going to open the third quarter, making a pair as the Bulls took a 68-57 lead. This was one to get.
The Clippers were closing a long road trip. The late afternoon, surprise snow storm caused the Clippers team buses to get stuck downtown and take more than an hour for the one-mile trip to the United Center. The Clippers third bus arrived just over a half hour before game time with coach Doc Rivers and two starters. I know. They need three city-sized buses for a 15-player basketball team?
The Clippers seemed ripe for peeling. But Williams carried them on an 11-0 late third quarter run, Markkanen wasn't seeing the ball and the Bulls lead was cut to 82-80 after three quarters.
LaVine crashed to the basket for a three-point play and a pair of free throws to open the fourth quarter, Dunn had a great strip and finish to Portis for a slam dunk and there were LaVine's pair of threes. But Williams got a four-point play when Dunn fouled him on a three with 1:44 left for a 100-97 Los Angeles lead. LaVine drove again for a score and then the Bulls had a chance to take a lead after a Williams miss. Dunn walked the ball into the front court and passed back to Hutchison with 13 seconds left on the shot clock. LaVine was held up running through a screen and got the ball with 10 seconds on the clock. The Clippers doubled him and he made the right pass back to Portis wide open. Portis faked and then passed to LaVine with three seconds. He couldn't get a shot and dropped the ball to Hutchison, fired an air ball as the shot clock went off. Again, the Bulls got into offense too slowly.
That was when the Bulls double teamed Williams on the next possession. He passed at the top of the circle to Beverley, who just drove straight to the basket unimpeded for the short shot and 102-99 lead with 37.8 seconds left. Hutchison feared leaving Harris and Beverley thus had an open lane with Markkanen late coming off the double team.
"We'll watch it and we'll learn from it and we'll do what we do, which is teach and coach and explain and walk through," said Boylen. "Work on having a better result the next time when we're in that situation. That's all we can do."
Then came the LaVine three.
"See what Kris Dunn could get," explained Boylen about the strategy. "Zach was a secondary option coming to the top. We'd like to get an open look and layup, but we didn't get that. So we put the ball in his hand and hope you get something. Talked about Kris getting a quick two. If not, we've got to get the best shot we can get."
LaVine can make that shot. He just didn't. But you need the players who aren't hesitant to try. They're trying. Not succeeding quite yet.
"I feel like we fought throughout the whole game and it just sucks that we didn't come out with the win," said Dunn. "We're still trying to figure out us as a team. We can't focus on just us three [Dunn, LaVine, Markkanen], and I think today there was a nice offensive rhythm, especially in transition. We got ourselves some easy looks, and it helped our halfcourt offense. It's definitely disappointing. We've got great fans. They come out and support us even through what we're going through, the tough season that we're having. We're definitely trying our hardest, trying to improve, and we're trying to change this culture."