Bulls battle without Vucevic, suffer defeat to Hawks

The Bulls fell to the Atlanta Hawks 108-97 on Saturday night. Chicago had a 63-54 lead at halftime but followed it up with just 12 points in the third quarter. Nikola Vucevic was a late scratch and replaced by Thad Young in the starting lineup, who nearly recorded a triple double (20 points, seven rebounds, nine assists). Trae Young led the Hawks with 33 points and seven assists. The Bulls (26-38) will look to get back in the win column Monday night against the Philadelphia 76ers (42-21) at home.

The best you could do Saturday night listening to Bulls coach Billy Donovan following the Bulls 108-97 loss to the Atlanta Hawks was to sympathize and at least stifle a smile when Donovan was asked about the defeat.

"We just didn't score," Donovan said initially in dissecting the fatal 28-12 Hawks third quarter. "We didn't make shots. I think we shot 23 percent from three (25 percent overall and zero for six in the third). It was just the scoring. I thought we really worked on the defensive end. It wasn't like they had a huge (third) quarter offensively. It was just we had such a poor quarter offensively. For us, it's been the shooting and scoring part."

Yes, but other than that Mrs. Lincoln...

Billy Donovan reacts to the 108-97 loss to Atlanta with the media.

If they could just do something about having to add up those darned points.

But the Bulls really deserve some credit because, well, they don't seem to be letting all this get them down. At least not as much as the rest of us.

Washington lost, so the Bulls at a season low 12 games under .500 at 26-38 remain three games behind the Wizards for the final play-in spot in the Eastern Conference. There are eight games remaining.

Zach LaVine, Saturday, missed his 10th consecutive game because of Covid issues. And just before tipoff he was joined on the inactive list by 24 or so more points, that being Nikola Vucevic missing his first game as a Bull with what Donovan revealed was a lingering hip issue. Vucevic warmed up, but told the Bulls he couldn't play. Donovan said he doesn't know Vucevic's status. But even with that physical issue and coming off arguably the worst shooting game of his career in Friday's loss to Milwaukee, Vucevic still was averaging 22 points and 15 rebounds the last five games.

So missing LaVine and Vucevic's combined 50-plus points per game proved a bit too much to ask even as much as the Bulls tried.

"It's hard to sustain without your two best scorers in the lineup," Thad Young acknowledged. "When we need a bucket, we go to Vooch. When we need a bucket, we go to Zach. That's the hardest part."

So Al-Farouq Aminu got into the rotation. The Bulls still were missing 50-some points.

There just really weren't enough guys to go to after the Bulls played one of their best halves in weeks. They led Atlanta 63-54 at halftime despite being carved up again by Trae Young hardwood knife work for 22 first half points.

Still, there were Bulls contributions all around.

Young back starting had probably his best overall game of the season with 20 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, two steals and two charges taken. Lauri Markkanen hit the defensive boards for a season high team best 11 rebounds. And rookie Patrick Williams was that guy you know, or at least hope, he can be with 19 points and a pair of threes, driving and drawing a three-point play, cutting back door for a slam dunk, drawing contact to get to the free throw line, dunking and bumping little Hawks bodies out of the way.

Thad Young almost recorded a triple-double in the defeat, tallying 20 points, seven rebounds, and nine assists.

What all that promise of the No. 4 draft pick is about.

"Some of the stuff that he does that we think is spectacular, he doesn't even know is spectacular," marveled Young. "He thinks it's just a regular play that he's done. And we're like, ‘No, that was amazing. Whatever you just did, keep doing more of that.' And he's like, ‘Oh, OK.' That's what's going to make him good because he thinks the things that he can do physically are normal things. It's not to some of us on this team and around the league.

"We just have to continue to teach him, continue to get him to understand he can be a star-type player in this league," said Young. "With a certain mindset, a killer instinct mindset."

Zach's got it; Vucevic has it. It's the elusive IT factor. You can't always describe it, like the famous Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart comment on obscenity that he can't so much describe it, but knows it when he sees it. Similarly in sports, it's really what makes all the great ones, their desire to be stars. And then to let you know it. Even Kawhi Leonard, whom Williams often is compared to, forced his way out of San Antonio, in part, because he didn't believe he was featured enough. and then he explained to the Clippers how to run their franchise.

There were players who could shoot better than Michael Jordan, pass better, rebound better. Most eighth graders could jump higher than Larry Bird. Heck, LeBron wouldn't come close to beating Steve Kerr in a shooting contest. But these guys not only wanted to dominate you, but remind you about it. Williams Saturday as the Bulls season hopes continued to blur demonstrated some of that clarity about why the future may be brighter. Though we'll all continue to watch to determine if he wants to be that star as much as everyone wants it for him.

"The thing that I have to work to kind of be that naturally aggressive player that everybody wants me to be, that everybody sees that I can be," Williams admitted. "It's not natural for me. And that's kind of been a focal point of my progression over this season.

Patrick Williams was aggressive with his shot, scoring 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting in the loss to Atlanta.

"I don't really get riled up out there on the court," Williams said. "I'm more happy in the plays like a drive-and-kick or I'm driving and I have two close to me and I'm able to kick it out and the guy shoots it or he plays drive-and-kick as well. Just making the right play; that's a strength of mine and a strength of this team. We always try to make the right play. So I just try to fit into that. There's so many other ways to impact the game other than just scoring. Scoring is just a small, small, small part of the game. Everybody kind of looks at scoring as a big piece of it, but honestly, every team scores. And if you can't get stops, then you won't be able to win.

"So like I said,' Williams added, "I'm trying to focus on the defensive end. Of course, try to be aggressive offensively and pick my spots and get to my spots and make plays offensively that I know I have to make and the team knows that I can make. But like I said, it's an even game, offense and defense. You can't just focus on offense."

Though perhaps he could have made an exception Saturday.

It was hardly his fault, and the Hawks not being unaware focused more on Williams after he had 15 first half points. So Williams moved the ball, as he's been taught to play. Donovan always says Williams' instinct is to be team-first first. Though wait a second. Just 19, Williams plays like it's the 90s NBA, featuring teamwork and defense. Though in this NBA as appealing and vital as defense is, you have to be able to outscore teams most of the time. The NBA changed the rules to make it so, which is why team scoring averages are as high as they've ever been.

Which gets us to Trae Young, who led the Hawks with 33 points, repeatedly breaking into the lane for 12 free throw attempts and lobs for Clint Capella, who had 20 points and 13 rebounds. Starting Daniel Theis and Young, the Bulls were small, but were only outrebounded 44-39. They outhustled the Hawks for a 17-9 advantage on second chance points and forced 15 turnovers for 21 points, an unusual 12-point margin for them on turnovers and 56-38 in the paint.

It sure would have helped to have Zach and Vooch shooting.

Without Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, the Bulls had a halftime lead until they were outscored 28-12 in the third quarter.

Like Trae, who finished the season averaging 37 points against the Bulls and really should have been a Bull. Which demonstrates how much luck really determines a team's destiny. He would have been a nice addition.

Go back to the 2017-18 season when, let's say, the Bulls weren't taking competing as seriously. They finished the season tied with the Sacramento Kings for the sixth poorest record. The NBA breaks ties for the lottery in a random drawing to give the winning team one extra lottery chance. It was the biggest loss for a Bulls win. The Bulls won the drawing over the Kings. Then in that seventh spot after losing that drawing, the Kings in the lottery jumped to No. 2.

That was the Luka Doncic draft, and the Hawks had No. 3. Phoenix wanted the local big man No. 1 and selected Deandre Ayton. The Kings selected Marvin Bagley next. So Vlade Divac soon was fired. The Hawks were No. 3, but opted to trade down with Dallas for a future No. 1 and No. 5, where they selected Young. The Mavericks selected Doncic No. 3.

No one ever says what they would have done, but I recall all that season Bulls scouts raving about Trae Young. They scouted him more than anyone. I didn't hear as much about Doncic. Of course, no one at draft time tells you what they are doing. Doncic became the star of that draft. Maybe the Bulls liked him better. I don't know. But I know if they had No. 2 from that draft if they'd lost that drawing with the Kings they at least would have had Young. How would he look with LaVine and Vucevic? But maybe the Bulls couldn't have gotten Vucevic without trading Wendell Carter Jr., their selection from that draft.

If ifs and buts were candy and nuts... and if ifs and ands were pots and pans, there'd be no work for tinkers' hands.

Anyone spot a digression?

There wasn't a slow start to the game this time even though the Bulls trailed 31-26 after the first quarter. Thad Young was working the ball around, especially to his partner Tomas Satoransky, the latter with eight first quarter points. Though the highlight was Williams left handed Dawkinsesque teeth-shaking, glass-breaking, rump-roasting, bun-toasting, wham-bam, "I-am-jam."

I'll fill Williams in sometime on what that's all about.

The second quarter was all about the Bulls, Denzel Valentine hustling up seven points, the Bulls beating the Hawks to loose balls and rebounds and causing multiple mistakes. Thad Young had four assists and an 8-0 Bulls close to the half had the Hawks trailing 63-54.

Six and a half minutes into the third quarter with a 26-6 run, Atlanta was ahead 80-69 and there just wasn't enough scoring around for the Bulls to make up the difference.

"Every year isn't going to be the year that you want it to be," said Williams. "No year is going to be perfect, honestly, so just learning from this situation, learning what it takes to win and kind of what we're doing well and what we're not doing well. This season isn't over yet. We still have a few more games to go. Hopefully, we play our way into that play-in bubble and we play in the postseason. I haven't given up on the season. Nobody in the locker room has given up on the season. We're going to compete 'til the end; that's the mentality in the locker room."

It ain't over 'til it's over, of course. And stuff happens. It's always good to retain the optimism of youth.