It was an ugly scene Monday following the Bulls 110-92 loss to the New York Knicks, Bulls leading scorer Cristiano Felicio alternating between Portuguese and English, angrily lecturing his teammates that they cannot keep asking him to bail them out with his offense as he produced yet another career high in scoring.
OK, so it didn’t happen.
But in this bizarre Bizarro Bulls season, where losing is sometimes seen as winning, it could have occurred. After all, the normally offense-challenged Felicio did keep the Bulls in the game with the most consecutive points he’s ever scored as a Bull — and likely as a Brazilian — with 11 straight points to open the third quarter after the Bulls got behind 47-37 in a desultory first half. Consider, in three years with the Bulls, Felicio has scored in double figures 16 times, five times this season. He did it Monday in less than three and a half minutes.
And in a way we’ve never seen before with a rolling hook shot, a driving score putting the ball on the floor, a post up bank shot against a mismatch. You almost expected him to ask that he be called from now on, “the Dream.”
That remarkable and rare sequence with an assist from Denzel Valentine enabled the Bulls to get within 56-52 with 7:45 left in the third quarter, which turned out to be the closest they’d get for the rest of the game. A minute and a half later, the Knicks were ahead by double digits behind a 17-point quarter from Tim Hardaway Jr. and leading by double digits the rest of the game.
Felicio’s scoring was a career high. Felicio, principally a defensive player who rarely even looks to shoot the ball, previously scored more than 11 points in games just seven times in three years with a career scoring average of about four points.
Yet in dropping to 24-46, the Bulls fell a game and a half behind the Knicks, who are 26-45. So the Bulls remained with the eighth poorest record in the race for draft lottery odds. The Bulls also are a game and a half ahead of the Brooklyn Nets, who have the seventh odds. But the Nets pick goes to Cleveland from the Kyrie Irving trade with Boston. So the Nets have nothing to gain by losing as some teams are said to. The Bulls play the Nets twice in April.
The Bulls do appear to try to win these games and until the recent injuries were playing their best players significant minutes unlike many other teams. Yet, these days in some places around the NBA it’s difficult to know up from down, good from bad and whether to root for the Bulls or the Sllub.
“I don’t think we’re going to have to worry about them throwing this on NBA Classic anytime soon,” agreed Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “When that ball doesn’t go in the hoop, it’s ugly out there. We got our young guys some good quality minutes.”
And no one got a bad Falafel from the food truck parked outside the hotel.
See, it always can be worse.
The Bulls also got 16 points each from Bobby Portis and Antonio Blakeney, 10 of Blakeney’s coming in a Rucker Park-like fourth quarter of wild shots, wild drives and Blakeney getting pounded by Kyle O’Quinn, who was assessed a flagrant foul. Portis and Grant yelled at O’Quinn, but no one seemed interested enough in making a mockery of a travesty of a parody of a charade.
The Bulls were three of 30 on three pointers with the starters a combined zero for 19 on threes. Good spacing, though. Only Felicio didn’t attempt one and no other starter scored in double figures. Justin Holiday welcoming himself back to Madison Square Garden was zero for six in 19 minutes and scoreless. Cameron Payne after a nice start shot two of 12, though with six assists, six rebounds and two blocks. Paul Zipser starting added a one for eight. Valentine coming off his career game against Cleveland had eight points and missed his four threes.
“I thought we guarded for the most part, especially in that first half, which is one positive you can take out of this game that had been a problem when the ball is not going in the hoop,” said Hoiberg in also noting no meteors hit the team bus. “Got away from us a little bit in the third. I didn’t think it was due to a lack of competing. I did think the ball movement wasn’t as good as it has been.
“I think we actually did wind up with 21 assists, so we did make some decent plays out there,” said Hoiberg. “For the young guys out there, it was good for Cris Felicio to have the type of night he did. It is hopefully a confidence booster for Cris. It’s a good learning game for Antonio, who got it going for a little stretch. He took some shots (where) we have to keep that ball moving. He showed he has a really good skillset and shown tremendous athleticism on a couple of those plays. We did have some good looks we missed, but I thought we hunted (shots) early.”
It perhaps was somewhat predictable given Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine remained back in Chicago with injuries. Robin Lopez was active, but he did not play. Of course, those main three didn’t play Saturday against the Cavaliers and the Bulls played one of their better games of the season. Well, maybe it’s a little more challenging to get up for Luke Kornet and Isaiah Hicks compared with LeBron. Of course, those two outscored every Bulls starter but Felicio.
The Bulls are listing their three leading scorers day to day, though Hoiberg said Dunn had a setback and was put in a walking boot.
He might still have looked good for the Bulls in that first quarter in which the Knicks took a lead despite shooting less than 30 percent. The teams combined for 11 turnovers and two of 17 on threes, and so let’s skip to the second quarter.
Maybe the third quarter.
Actually, the Bulls got a little second quarter bump from Noah Vonleh with a three pointer and a driving dunk from the left wing, five straight points for a 29-27 Bulls lead. Vonleh was out Saturday and listed as questionable Monday, but he had nine points and a team high 12 rebounds. Vonleh has been a curiosity. He has a nice shooting stroke, but takes some confusing shots and on two straight barely hit the right side of the rim. Though he goes after the ball.
The Bulls were leading 37-36 with five minutes left in the first half after a Portis three. They didn’t score again amidst a head scratching array of plays that included multiple passes for a 24-second violation, the second of the quarter, threes from all over the place and rarely coming close.
The Knicks scored 11 straight points to close the half.
And then it was the Felicio Frenzy, those 11 straight points on moves no one really has seen even attempted before. It’s been a difficult season for the hard working Brazilian after signing a four-year contract. He’d looked like a promising reserve big man his first two seasons, compiling back to back 16-point games to close his rookie season in 2015-16 and then last season showing activity on defense in blitzing pick and roll plays and with force rolling to the rim on offense. There was none of that this season, a player seemingly overwhelmed by, who knows, the responsibility, the competition?
So it was encouraging for the Bulls to at least see the purpose in his game.
But the Knicks were making it their game. Blakeney had an amazing block coming across the baseline to help on O’Quinn. So, yes, probably some retaliation later.
Blakeney makes some impressive athletic plays and is probably the team’s best finisher on the break the way he glides to the basket. But he still takes some of the most egregious shots without rebounders, against double teams, with teammates open. With even opponents yelling, “Noooooooooo.”
The Knicks led 83-67 after three quarters. The Bulls got a bit going to open the fourth quarter with a Blakeney dunk on a fast break and some aggressive drives from David Nwaba and Jerian Grant. But Vonleh interrupted that with his two jumpers that were lucky to graze the right side of the rim and Grant head down getting blocked on a drive. The Knicks got a couple of scores and their lead was back to 17.
The Bulls didn’t give up and did get within 93-83 with 6:59 left after a Blakeney three, Valentine scoring on a nice inside pass from Portis and Blakeney making free throws after the fast break and flagrant from O’Quinn. Blakeney got taken out of the air, but bounced right up. But he, Felicio—shoot it, big man!—and Vonleh missed after dribbling around a bit and the Knicks hung an 11-2 collar on the Bulls to effectively end what little threat there was.
Also now as the Bulls continue to analyze and develop, the standings watch continues for many from the bottom.
Six of the Bulls next seven games are against playoff teams or teams fighting to get into the playoffs with a three-game trip to Houston and Florida. And then it’s the big one, home and home April 7 and 9 against Brooklyn.