How’s that old saying go about it being difficult to beat a division rival four straight in a season, especially when they’re 9-41?
Or something like that.
The Bulls Sunday failed to sweep the Cleveland Cavaliers for the season, losing for the first time 104-101 when Alec Burks caught a Robin Lopez block and pushed in a 10 footer with 17 seconds left in the game. Kris Dunn then failed with a driving layup, and after an intentional foul, Zach LaVine got a good look on a 25 footer to tie.
“I got the last shot to send it to overtime and I missed it,” said LaVine, who had 17 points to support Lauri Markkanen with 21. “I pride myself on making tough shots. I’ve made shots to send us to overtime before, won games before. You’re not going to make them all; you always want to have those shots back.”
But at least for the second straight game, the Bulls had a shot in the last seconds after LaVine missed a three to tie Friday against the Clippers with 27 seconds left. It’s progress of a sort as the Bulls dropped to 11-39 with their 13th loss in the last 14. Cleveland is 10-41 in what’s become a race to the draft lottery as well. The Cavaliers benched their leading scorer for the game, Jordan Clarkson, with 5:42 left after he’d made all his fourth quarter attempts. These are ambivalent times for those out of the playoff race.
“This is a process; I don’t mean that cavalierly,” Bulls coach Jim Boylen said, puns aside. “Learning how to win, learning how to grow, learning how to play together. We missed a play at the rim to win the game. We’ll focus on, hopefully, next time making that play at the rim.”
But, again, seeing it at least half full.
“I’m positive about Lauri Markkanen having 21 and 15 (rebounds),” said Boylen when asked about optimism losing at home again to a sub-.500 team. "I’m positive about Zach LaVine having (a career high) 12 rebounds. I’m positive about the fact we were down and fought back. I’m positive about Wayne Selden, filled in well for (injured) Chandler Hutchison (with 15 points on six of eight shooting. So you’re always disappointed when you don’t win, but I am not discouraged about how these guys played. Do we need to play better? Do we need to make more plays? Of course, that’s what you say when you lose a game.”
Obviously, the Bulls have had plenty of opportunities this season to say things like that as they lurch toward the end of a disappointing season.
“Still a work in progress,” said Dunn. "We had a coaching change, the lineup has been changing. We’re just trying to stick with it, figure out what works for us. We’re working on it each and every day. Still trying to improve, still trying to work on our pace. Still trying to work on our spacing and executing our plays.”
It’s too late to change much of substance with two more starters out, rookies Wendell Carter Jr. for the season and Hutchison until after the All-Star break following his best game of the season. The Bulls aren’t getting many breaks this season other than bones.
“I thought we did a lot of good things the last eight minutes,” Boylen said about the comeback from a 91-83 deficit. “I thought we played with poise, I thought we made some big plays. Rolo makes the block, blocks it to them and they made a tough two. Tips it to the wrong guy and he knocks it in. Battled through and had a chance to win the game at the end.”
A play to win the game in the last 17 seconds? The Bulls would sign up for that, especially this season.
But who gets the shot?
Mostly it’s been LaVine, who did miss that equalizer Friday. He’s the best among the (hope they will become the) Big Three at creating a last second shot. But he was six for 16 at that point. Credit LaVine for extending himself the way he was on the boards. Markkanen was the lead scorer, but just six of 15 and not particularly adept at isolation plays. The problem, and it was that way much of the game again, is the Bulls movement on offense has been lacking. Too often Dunn holds the ball too long, resulting in time for just a quick screen and one pass and shot. So Markkanen wasn’t getting many late opportunities. He didn’t get a shot in the last 5:42.
“I always try to make the right plays,” said Markkanen. “If we are running plays for someone else who has a better look, the right basketball play, that’s what I try to do.”
So again, as has often been discussed this season, Markkanen needs to be a little more selfish, and the offense needs to be a little more creative to get him opportunities in the open court and with movement. Markkanen’s a seven footer who is as quick as many guards. There aren’t a lot of matchups for that.
“I feel I am pretty good in the open court and that’s what teams are not that used to,” said Markkanen. “Bringing it up and when Bobby (Portis) is in we have five guys bringing it up, which is a different look we can show the other team. I think I have so many options on that. I can attack and they have to respect my shot.”
Perhaps Selden should have been the choice since he was the only Bull not to miss a shot in the fourth quarter and put the Bulls ahead 101-100 with a three on a nice Dunn pass with 1:07 left.
“KD drove the lane and found me; just made the shot,” said surprise starting small forward Selden. “I felt we were just one stop away.”
Unable to get lucky after that Lopez block, the Bulls opted to go full court after a timeout with 17 seconds. Dunn dribbled out of the backcourt toward the right side with Markkanen in the right corner and LaVine in the left corner. Selden was setting a screen for LaVine and Markkanen began to move toward the ball. Dunn didn’t seem to have it in his mind to pass. He was being defended by forward Rodney Hood, who isn’t quick.
Hood angled toward Markkanen. There was still 12 seconds left and Markkanen was just making his move out of the corner when Dunn did a crossover drive and went left toward the middle of the lane. He went up and got a little bump from Hood. Bulls players seemed surprised Dunn was taking the shot so quickly as no one was even near the lane.
Dunn switched hands and went up off balance with his left hand, a somewhat awkward shot with his back facing the basket as he spun. The ball hit high off the backboard above the rim and came down to the Cavs with 9.2 seconds left. There was no foul call. Cleveland went to the free throw line with 4.7 seconds left and made both as the Bulls had to foul. The Cavs then curiously didn’t foul despite leading by three as LaVine made four dribbles. His shot bounced off the left side of the rim.
“There were multiple options,” explained Dunn. “Lauri in the corner handoff or Zach coming off the stagger screen. Wanted to go look for Lauri. I did an in and up. Rodney Hood dipped that way; so I took it to the hole. They didn’t call nothing, so live with it.
“For sure,” Dunn said when asked about the quality of the play. “Good shot.”
The Bulls got off to a good start this time, a 29-27 first quarter lead with Lopez scoring three straight early and then Selden late with back to back threes. Jabari Parker went back to barely playing, scoring eight points in 11 minutes on four of six shooting. Boylen took out the second unit group Parker was with three minutes into the fourth quarter after Cleveland opened the fourth with an 11-4 run. All five starters came back into the game.
“I didn’t like the defense in that second group, so they all came out,” said Boylen.
The Bulls led 53-51 at halftime and were tied at 79 through three quarters, but it was a mostly sluggish effort until those last nine minutes.
“Start of the third quarter I didn’t like our energy; we didn’t play with enough force,” said Boylen.
But that starting group was more forceful and quickly got the Bulls back into the game as both Lopez and LaVine scored on the offensive boards. Markkanen tied the score at 94 with a three-point play after Dunn knocked the ball away from Collin Sexton and Selden fired to Markkanen running the left side. Markkanen is lethal on those outlets, few of which he gets.
Markkenen took the hit on the run and Finnished, as we also like to say.
The Bulls got a 98-96 lead with 3:52 left on Dunn and Lopez scores, Lopez with 16 points. The Cavs took back the lead in a game with 23 lead changes before Selden’s three, and then it came down to Dunn having to make that play.
“It was Kris’ choice,” said Markkanen. “He can go toss it for me or go to the other side for Zach coming off the stagger or he can make the play for himself. I trust him, he’s a good player. He made what he thought was the right play. That’s his shot; tonight it didn’t go in.”