Playing without starters Zach LaVine (healthy and safety protocol) and Tomas Satoransky (illness), the Chicago Bulls couldn't hang with the Memphis Grizzlies in the second-half as they fell 126-115. Coby White got the start and led the Bulls with 27 points, five rebounds, and seven assists. Dillon Brooks' 32 points led the Grizzlies, who knocked down 17 three-pointers on 42.5% shooting on the night. The Bulls (22-33) will look to break a five-game losing streak when they host the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night (20-35).
The Bulls haven't given up the quest for the playoffs and at least the NBA's new play-in tournament. But with Zach LaVine now out perhaps an extended time in the Covid protocols and the Bulls being caught in the standings by both Toronto and Washington for that last play-in spot with the Bulls 126-115 loss Friday to the Memphis Grizzlies, Bulls coach Billy Donovan sounded like he may be starting to take a longer view.
Perhaps even some moon gazing.
"For me, it's how much better we can be going forward," Donovan said as the Bulls fell to a season low 11 games below .500 at 22-33. "If we're unable to finish strong or win enough games, then we will not be playing after May 16. Now that we've fallen out (of sole possession of 10th), we're no longer in control of our destiny. And for a good portion of the season, we have been.
"I'm more interested in finding out what guys are about under the most adverse circumstances there can possibly be," said Donovan. "Because if you really want to do anything meaningful, it never comes without a cost or a price. I don't know anybody that has ever achieved anything that said, ‘Boy, that was a really smooth, easy, comfortable ride and we didn't deal with any adversity.' I think adversity is the greatest growing and teaching tool you could possibly have because you get challenged and find out more about yourself.
"I think we'll find out more about ourselves," Donovan insisted. "We have put a major premium and focus on winning (with the trade for Nikola Vucevic). I think that's a healthy, good thing. We want to develop all of our guys. But it's not like, ‘Hey, we're just development focused. Or, ‘Hey, we're going to be in this mode.' No, we're trying to get these guys to learn and understand what really goes into winning. That's why they're going to have to go through a lot of these emotions. As things get more difficult, you find out how committed you need to be. So I think this is great for our team."
Billy Donovan responds to questions after Chicago's 126-115 loss to the Grizzlies on Friday night.
Not so great for the fans, however, as the Bulls lost a fifth straight game to fall into a tie for 10th with the Wizards and Raptors, both of whom are healthier and playing better. Tomas Satoransky was ill Friday and also didn't play for the Bulls. And Saturday the Bulls host the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are just two games behind the Bulls, 13th in the East. And what seemed like an exceptionally positive season just a few weeks ago with the acquisition of All-Star Vucevic and tough guy Daniel Theis could be coming apart like Apollo 13 with a ninth loss in 12 games since the trade.
The damaged spacecraft did survive, and perhaps so will would be astronaut Donovan and the Bulls.
"I'd love to go to the moon," Donovan told media post game. "But I have no interest in doing what it takes to be an astronaut."
We believe he was making a point.
SpaceX, Blue Origin, Dynetics. And Billy D?
"Like I'm sure every one of those guys in that room wants to win," explained Donovan of a favorite analogy. "But you're finding out very, very clearly how hard it is. And now you get to a place of, ‘OK, you say you want to do it.' Adversity shows you the way. And then it forces you to make a decision: Are you willing to step through and deal with the difficulties and challenges of doing it? These guys are working," Donovan insisted. "I don't mean to say that they're not. But I'm just saying we've got to dig deeper. Like tonight, the effort was good, we did some good things. But the defense wasn't good enough. It's got to be better. There's gotta be a better standard. And I wouldn't say that, ‘Hey, they don't care, they're not working.' There's none of that at all. But they're gonna have to understand they have to do more."
So if they don't improve does that mean Billy is applying for astronaut training?
I may be missing the point.
And the Bulls are missing just too many points these days, though Coby White rejoined the team.
He'd been with the team, but you know not actually that Coby White.
Coby White led the Bulls with 27 points and seven assists in the loss to Memphis.
White starting for Satoransky, White's first start after being benched a month ago apparently to get more movement and stability in the offense, had perhaps his best game as a pro. White led the Bulls with 27 points and seven assists with just one turnover. He made four of eight threes and was seven of seven on free throws.
"Obviously, it hurts not having Zach out there because he's such a force, especially on the offensive end," said White. "But it's the league. It's the NBA. Things happen. We've just got to figure out ways to compete and win games without him being in the starting lineup. I was just trying to get the team organized and try to get the best shot available. My mindset didn't really change. Just trying to move the ball and get the best shot for the offense and the team."
With 11 points in the first quarter to match his career best for any quarter, White helped the Bulls get past a quick six point deficit and be tied at 33 after one and 57 at halftime.
Coby White is guarded my Memphis' Dillon Brooks, who had 32 points for the Grizzlies.
But there was that defensive component that's been so much discussed lately, and Donovan attempted to address it with another starting lineup change, inserting Theis for Thad Young to play alongside Vucevic with Patrick Williams at small forward and the defensive oriented Garrett Temple at shooting guard.
It didn't much work even as Vucevic had his usual 24 points, 14 rebounds and six assists. Though Young's move back to the bench did reinvigorate his game as he was able to control the inside again playing with a smaller group. Young finished with 17 points, six rebounds and four assists and likely will remain with the bench group. The Bulls bench tied Memphis 46-46. But Memphis' Dillon Brooks had 32 points giving Patrick Williams difficulties. The Grizzlies had a staggering 26-3 advantage on fast break points turning a dozen Bulls turnovers into 16 points. The Bulls didn't score off any of Memphis' six turnovers.
I'll admit I liked Theis with Vucevic to also give Young an opportunity with the reserves. The bigger Bulls front court is slower. But they were unable to slow the game and take advantage of their size. The Grizzlies were speedier and made 17 of 40 threes with the starters unable to react quickly enough.
Donovan called early timeouts to substitute. But the Grizzlies ran away in the third quarter behind a huge Brooks quarter with 15 points as Williams didn't attempt a shot. Memphis wet ahead by 15 and led 94-85 after three. Memphis kicked that up to 114-94 midway through the fourth quarter and there was no LaVine to at least shoot the Bulls back close.
"With Zach being out I was encouraged to see some of the things we did offensively because I was very concerned about how that would go," Donovan admitted. "We did have our periods where we missed some shots and had some droughts, but overall I thought 34 assists, the ball was spread out pretty well. I thought everybody was involved. That was encouraging to see (along with 18-12 in second chance points). But we're gonna have to figure out ways to try to slow teams down."
Maybe Markkanen back to "small" forward for Williams for the jumbo effect? More Vooch more of the time?
Nikola Vucevic scores two of his 24 points against Memphis.
Especially without LaVine and with Vucevic and Theis, the Bulls aren't athletic enough to chase the quicker teams. Ja Morant had 15 points and Jonas Valanciunas 16 as the Grizzlies shot 52 percent. Donovan said the Bulls perimeter players overhelped inside. When the Bulls did win those three straight games after the trade with interior strength, it did seem they may have found something. Vucevic says it's not too late to reclaim it.
"Sometimes on paper it may look one way, but when we step on the court it could be another way," said Vucevic. "Obviously, our goal is to stay within the top 10 and be in the play-in. So if we can do that and we get Zach back then we'll have a chance; we all have to do our part. Stay focused and I think we will; these guys are competitors.
"Obviously, we all thought, including myself, we were going to be able to play better and have more success sooner," Vucevic admitted. "But we also understand it takes time sometimes. There were a lot of changes not just for the guys who came here but for the guys who have been here. A lot of guys had to change their roles, some guys had their minutes cut or went from starting to coming off the bench. For us who came here, it's a whole new system, a whole new everything. So it's just a process. We have to stick with it and we also have to understand these moves were just not made for this season; it's also for the future. But we all understand this season is important. It is frustrating, of course, but we really have to try to not let that affect us and stay motivated and continue to believe and work on it because things can really turn quickly in this league."
Better start Saturday.