Bulls can't keep up in fourth quarter, fall to Knicks

Nikola Vucevic finished with 26 points and 18 rebounds but the New York Knicks pulled away in the fourth quarter to defeat the Chicago Bulls 113-94. Julius Randle led the Knicks with 34 points and seven rebounds. The Bulls (26-36) will look to get back in the win column on Friday against the Milwaukee Bucks (38-23).

Getting punched in the face, at least metaphorically, is often used in the NBA to describe an uncompetitive effort. And then there was Wednesday in the Bulls 113-94 loss to the New York Knicks when several Bulls literally were staggered—and drawing technical fouls—after being smacked, albeit accidentally apparently, in the face, head and eye.

There was Coby White trying to blink away an elbow to face, Daniel Theis dripping some blood from a shot in the head. It felt like 90s Knicks/Bulls.Though this time only the Bulls ached, though mostly over their fading play-in/playoff chances.

"We let our emotions get the best of us and we overreacted on certain things, so we just have to do a better job of not letting those type of things affect us and take our focus away from the game plan and the game itself," said Nikola Vucevic, who stood against the onslaught as long as he could with 26 points and 18 rebounds. "We're aware of our situation and know what we need to do. I think we're competing out there. We're trying to do our best; a lot of things that we can. Tonight we just came up short."

Nikola Vucevic finished with 26 points and 18 rebounds in the loss against the Knicks.

The Bulls dropped back to 10 games under .500 at 26-36 with now just 10 games left in the regular season. With Washington's Wednesday win over the Lakers, the Bulls tied for 11th with Toronto are two games behind the Wizards for that last play-in spot.

"Obviously, I came here to help the team win and try to get us into the playoffs this year," said Vucevic. "So I'm going to try to do whatever I can."

Vucevic's play can't be faulted. He's been Atlas trying to hold up the Bulls world almost on his own with Zach LaVine missing an eighth game with Covid protocols. Vucevic is averaging 26.3 points and 13.1 rebounds in those eight games with games of at least five assists four times. But there was little contribution from the other starters, the Bulls once again falling deep into a deficit early and trailing by 18 points midway through the first quarter.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan in pregame comments guessed LaVine might be out another week. Though LaVine sounded ready to return with the Bulls back home this weekend. He posted on his Twitter: "These protocols are for the BIRDS. I'm good."

Perhaps Zach encountered a returning Tree Swallow foreshadowing his season being swallowed up.

The Bulls host Milwaukee Friday in the United Center, still without fans as the only big city in the nation not allowing fans to NBA games. The Knicks Wednesday, where the pandemic often was at its worst, had a hearty home group that seemed to give the Knicks energy in a fourth quarter rout of the Bulls that decided the game.

The Knicks, leading 76-75 going into the fourth quarter as the Bulls erased that huge deficit by midday through the second quarter, opened the fourth quarter with nine straight points and a 15-2 run for a 91-77 lead with 7:39 left that effectively decided the game. Donovan said the Bulls were unable to control Immanuel Quickley as the determining factor.

Julius Randle led the Knicks with 34 points and R.J. Barrett added 22. But it seemed like it was a particularly discouraging loss for the Bulls to a Knicks team that starts journeymen Nerlens Noel, Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton.

But the Knicks outhustled the Bulls, who reacted to their frustration with technical fouls for Donovan, Vucevic and Daniel Theis, the latter with just six points and four rebounds.

Theis was coming off his career game in Monday's win in Miami. But Donovan seemingly faces a dilemma as long as LaVine remains out. Theis, Garrett Temple and Patrick Williams are routinely scoring challenged, though Temple did add a dozen points. White also had 12 points.

It seems without LaVine it's a burden for Vucevic to try to offset so many limited offensive players, which probably accounts for the series of poor starts. Lauri Markkanen had 14 points and Thad Young 10 off the bench.

Thad Young dishes off a great pass to Nikola Vucevic in the fourth quarter against the Knicks.

Markkanen playing small forward for several stretches had some success going inside against the smaller Barrett. But then when Markkanen failed to switch to help on a driving Payton who beat White off the dribble, Donovan quickly replaced him.

Which is perhaps why Donovan after the game sounded more developmental than urgent.

"I think this is really good for our team," Donovan insisted. "When you get down to this time of the year, you look at guys like Taj Gibson and you look at guys like Derrick Rose. They've (Knicks) got some veteran guys who have been through a lot of wars throughout their careers who are probably great leaders in that locker room. And obviously Thibs (Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau) has been around for a long time as well. So these are the experiences we have to go through with a guy like Lauri, with a Patrick Williams, with a Coby White. They've got to see some of this stuff and they've got to learn to play under that kind of physical duress and pressure. Even though we're trying to get to a place where we're playing when the (regular) season's over with, we're in these games right now in reality, which is great. And they're fighting for their seeding within their playoff spot. So this is really good because even though it's not the playoffs, every game feels like that.

"I think it's a great learning experience for our guys to be thrusted into these situations," Donovan continued. "You think about last year for them with the pandemic hitting and the season just being cut short. These guys weren't even given the opportunity to go into a bubble. So they need this, I think, to learn and grow and get better. Sometimes those seeds get planted. Unfortunately, it takes a while for the flower to kind of bloom. It's going to take these kinds of situations for us to grow. I hope that we can really grow from them."

Billy Donovan speaks to the media following Chicago's 113-94 loss to New York on Wednesday night.

As Chance the Gardener said, "In the garden, growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again."

For the Bulls, it may feel like a winter of discontent. Which perhaps is worth enduring for the blooming gifts of talent. As Donovan noted, "He's (Julius Randle) blossomed into an All-Star player. But he wasn't this player six years ago."

Talk about your seedlings flowering.

Unfortunately being from the Midwest, we know you cannot afford to plant before Memorial Day. There are always those surprise freezes.

Hey, Donovan started this digression; it wasn't me this time!

And so the Bulls were cold again to start the game, missing all eight of their three-point attempts in the first quarter. Finally seeing one go in early in the second quarter, Temple accidentally banked in one. But then the Bulls seemed to remember who they were, the bigger team, and began to light up the scoreboard from inside. After trailing 32-19 after one quarter with Randle scoring 14, the Bulls got right back within 34-32 five minutes into the second quarter. With his size, Markkanen was effective thwarting Barrett, who was playing a lot of small forward. After missing his first three three pointers, Vucevic made three straight and the Bulls trailed just 52-48 at halftime.

Nikola Vucevic finishes a layup in the second-half against New York.

But Thibodeau already had drawn a technical foul, and the Knicks took some shots as well.

Theis failed to get a foul call on a dunk attempt in the third quarter and gave up defending to yell at the officials. He received a technical foul. White got hammered on a drive later in the quarter, prompting an outburst from Donovan. Players and coaches are fined heavily by the NBA for complaining about officiating. So Donovan channeled a little Thibs and said the Bulls needed to do their jobs.

"We can sit there and talk about all the calls that maybe were missed," said Donovan. "And New York can maybe talk about all the calls that were missed from their side. But are we going to look at what our jobs were and responsibilities? It's easy to nitpick an official on three or four calls. But what about the 25 pick-and-roll coverages you were in? What about the 25 times you had a chance to block out? What about the 25 times you had a chance to run back in transition? What about the 25 times you had a chance to close out and guard the ball? There are things you have to do."

Mostly what about the 36 losses?

The Knicks mostly did those game things better with some obvious Bulls weeds choking the Bulls garden of youth. OK, that's me.

Mainly it was the absence of LaVine and his scoring. The Bulls aren't particularly athletic without LaVine. These kinds of game also scream for organization and ball handling from a point guard as Bulls players repeatedly were stripped of the ball when driving to the basket. The Bulls had 14 turnovers to four for the Knicks.

Rose had just six points on two of 11 shooting, but he steadied their second unit and was plus-four overall. Fellow former Bull Gibson had four points, but tied Noel for Knicks high of eight rebounds. And Gibson excelled down the stretch with defense and offensive rebounds. In one stretch during that early fourth quarter decisive run, Gibson forced Vucevic into an off balanced miss. Then the 35-year-old Gibson sprinted downcourt to retrieve a Rose miss and set up Quickley for a score and 91-77 Knicks lead. It was Quickley's 11th point in that decisive 15-2 start. Rookie Quickley was selected 25th in the first round. He is averaging 11.6 points and shooting 39 percent on threes.

The Bulls had one last gasp with a Markkanen three to get the Bulls within 93-84 with 5:36 left. Knicks timeout.

Rose immediately scored on a layup and stole the ball from Vucevic. White got tied up and lost the ball and Noel was fouled and made two free throws. And back to a 13-point New York lead.

I still cannot believe that roster is fourth in the East and seven games over .500.

Temple threw a pass out of bounds and then Barrett scored on a Rose pass. Markkanen made another three, but then Young made a bad pass. Though I almost forgot Theis' shot. Denzel Valentine took a lot of heat—against the Heat—when on the TV broadcast he was harshly critiqued for a late quick three-point shot attempt. Valentine, who only played in the mop up last minute Wednesday, took responsibility, though he did note he'd just made three straight threes. Theis, who is not a good shooter, had airballed a 15 footer earlier in the game. Then after the 9-0 New York fourth quarter start, he finished a lob dunk from Temple to get the Bulls within 85-77. OK, plenty of time.

Quickly then missed a long, rookie wild three. OK, here's a chance. Theis with 17 seconds on the shot clock missed a long three. Rose then lobbed a transition dunk to Obi Toppin to start a 6-0 New York run and get the audience—no crowds yet—going again.

Those quick threes happen all the time, especially in this NBA.

You just hope to make more of them.

The Bulls made 10 on Wednesday and the Knicks made 12. And the Bulls did plenty of good things, outrebounding the Knicks and getting 29 assists. Though without LaVine the Bulls were back to just 10 free throw attempts. Plenty of if onlies and couldas and shouldas. Like Donovan has said so often this season, the Bulls have little margin for error. Losing LaVine at this crucial time when it just seemed like Vucevic was fitting in may prove fatal. Like Donovan said, play ‘em now like playoff games.

"We were in a better situation and we lost some games," noted Vucevic. "We put ourselves in a more difficult position than we were. But there's no point in us looking back at it and thinking about what could've been or what we could've done differently. I think we just have to move on and try to improve every game and try to win as many games as we can and obviously hope some teams in front of us drop some games and we can catch them. We did have a difficult schedule. We've played a lot of games on the road. There's been some good things, there's been some bad things. It's not over. A lot of things happen in sports, especially in the NBA. We'll continue to fight until the end and hopefully we make it. If we don't, we'll have to learn from that."

As painful as they would be. Not so metaphorically.