Bulls come out flat against Sixers, Markkanen's return a bright spot

Lauri Markkanen scored 23 points on 8-for-11 shooting in his first game back but the Bulls struggled defensively, falling to the Sixers 127-105 on Thursday night. Philadelphia played without starters Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The Bulls (16-19) have an opportunity to bounce back with a Friday night game against the Miami Heat (19-18) at the United Center.

This second half of the Bulls season is going to be exciting when it begins Friday.

Sure, there are a lot of games, and perhaps it's even more difficult for the Bulls with the makeups. But it's time to make a run at...

What, the second half started Thursday?

Didn't anybody tell the Bulls?

"Just quite honest and direct and as clear as I can be, we didn't deserve to win the game," Bulls coach Billy Donovan recited evenly and candidly in the wake of the Bulls not being much awake in a 127-105 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. "We didn't deserve to be in the game. Just sitting over there watching it, we just didn't. We didn't do anything that was of a high enough standard in terms of what winning requires. There was nothing. We didn't do anything tonight to even think about deserving to want to win or be in a position to win. Philadelphia was by far the superior team."

So, sure, why not. After all, the 76ers have the best record in the Eastern Conference, third best in the NBA and the leading contender for league MVP.

Except he was home in Philadelphia, Joel Embiid in virus protocol along with the 76ers' other All-Star, Ben Simmons. So the 76ers regular reserves outplayed the Bulls starters with third string center Tony Bradley—OK Charles, guess what team he's on?—running Wendell Carter Jr. out of the game. And the 76ers reserves of the reserves ran up a 55-33 margin on the Bulls bench. This was a beatdown not seen since, well…the first two games of Bulls season when the Bulls were humiliated by the Hawks and Pacers.

The Bulls seemed past that. Perhaps not yet.

"I was really, really disappointed just from the standpoint that, I think I've said this before, we've got a long way to go," Donovan acknowledged. "I didn't think that we played at all tonight to our identity or how we want to play or what we need to do in order to be a good basketball team. We were really careless with the ball. I didn't think we cut or moved very well. I think you can make a lot of excuses if you want to, All-Star break, time off, everything else. It didn't seem to bother Philly too much.

Donovan speaks to the media following Chicago's 127-105 loss to Philly.

"We have to own this one," said Donovan, "because it was really, in my opinion, a huge step backwards for our basketball team."

So having fun in that second half yet?

It's certainly a disappointment for these Bulls, who had an encouraging finish to the first half last week. Zach LaVine was on the way to his first All-Star game, the Bulls had closed with four of six wins, six in nine games to inch two games within .500 and tied for eighth in the Eastern Conference. The questions were whether the team should make a mild personnel tweak for a play-off run or ride the wave of momentum.

Keep repeating, It's just one game, it's just one game, it's just one game.

After all, Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. were returning from month long injury absences, and Markkanen was sharp offensively Thursday with a team high 23 points and seven of seven three pointers. LaVine had 19 points to end his league best run of 21 consecutive games scoring at least 20 points, Coby White had 18 points and Thad Young had 14. Heck, if Young had not almost single handedly kept the Bulls in the game with eight opportunity points midway through the third quarter, the 76ers with a 15-point lead might have broken open the game then.

It wasn't much later, however, as the 76ers opened the fourth quarter with a 17-3 run for a 26-point lead led by Tobias Harris with 24 points. And Dwight Howard—yes, him—with 18 points and 12 rebounds and tossing Bulls players around like he was digging through a basket of old clothes for his old Superman costume. Starters like Bradley averaging 3.9 points had 14 and Matisse Thybulle averaging 3.1 points had 13 and five steals (the Bulls made 19 turnovers for 24 points). Furkan Korkmaz doubled his eight-point season scoring average.

And this in a game the Bulls were excellent on threes, making 14 of 29. But the 76ers devoured the Bulls inside with a staggering 78 points going over, around and through the Bulls front court.

Donovan said there was plenty of blame to go around. And, of course, there always is with a game like this.

"I thought we really had made some really positive strides... we took, I think, some major steps backwards tonight," Donovan said. "I felt like our defense was getting better from where it was at the start of the season as we progressed. I didn't think our guards did a very good job of getting into the ball and I didn't think our bigs protected the rim very well. It wasn't all like Wendell's fault or (Daniel) Gafford's fault or Luke's (Kornet) fault. There are going to be times where our guards are going to get screened. But there has to be communication when the guard can't get back on the ball and the ball gets deeper to the paint and closer to the basket. You have to break those plays off. And our big needs to rim protect. And our guard needs to take the big. We didn't do any of that."

Perhaps it's just working two injured big minute regulars back into the rotation, the timing, the communication. It's not fair to expect it to be seamless. And Porter certainly didn't look swift, one of six for three points. But Markkanen moving back into the starting lineup also alters the defensive look. Rookie Patrick Williams, who is more physical and a better rebounder, moves back to the perimeter and Garrett Temple, one of the team's best defenders, goes to the bench. It's an apparent exchange of more offense for less defense. Which should work out, and Markkanen shot brilliantly.

Lauri Markkanen shot 7-for-7 from downtown in his return.

But it also raises the issues again for the Bulls of interior resistance.

Carter picked up a third foul early in the second quarter, which Donovan said contributed with the game getting away to Carter playing just 15 minutes. But the Bulls already were trailing by a dozen points in what was supposed to be a gift after Embiid dominated the Bulls centers for 50 points last month.

Despite the opportunity of playing at home against a team without its two best players and the Bulls as healthy as they've been all season, the team yet again eased into the game with more curiosity than commitment.

"It just seemed like we walked into the game," agreed LaVine about a 17-12 Philadelphia start. "We tried to not have that happen, but it just….We can't take those guys lightly. They're still a really, really good team and it showed."

Zach LaVine finishes a backdoor slam against Philadelphia.

They're not really, at least not those guys as Harris missed all five of his first quarter shots. But the Bulls did seem to act like they were the first place team. They threw the ball around like the sun was in their eyes. Some of the turnovers were almost comical, like when Porter threw a full court pass toward the Bulls basket after a 76ers turnover. Only LaVine and Tomas Satoransky were down court, and each looked at the other as the ball trickled out of bounds.

The Bulls also repeatedly gave up offensive rebounds, the 76ers with seven second chance points in the first quarter. The 76ers came to show they could win without their guys. The Bulls didn't much show up

"I think I got some good shots early," said LaVine, who led the team with seven assists. "I missed a couple off threes I thought I should have made. I missed a couple of layups I thought I should have hit. I was trying to continue to go out there and give us a fast start. I think we had some guys shooting the ball well. Coby and Lauri shot the ball well in the first quarter. I know I'll pick it up and find my way. I just didn't get it going fast enough. It's unfortunate, but we've got to find a way to still win regardless."

But it also showed how much the Bulls still need LaVine to be that 30-point scorer to remain competitive. LaVine has acted as the facilitator several times early in games and then came on scoring in the second half. Unfortunately, it had to be sooner this time the way the Bulls were unable to hold off the 76ers subs.

There were some encouraging times, Markkanen in the second quarter making back to back threes in a run of five Bulls threes in seven possessions with White also making a pair. That had the Bulls tied at 52 with about three minutes left in the first half when Porter and Young connected on a nifty layup.

Markkanen shoots over two 76ers defenders in the first-half on Thursday night.

"Those guys are good players," said Donovan. "I'd rather have them healthy and playing than not. Lauri made some shots. I think OP is still working on getting his legs under him. There were just so many things besides the chemistry piece, the 78 points in the paint, the things that we did, the turnovers. That was a real major problem. Defensively we just didn't do the things that were necessary to put ourselves in a position to win."

The 76ers led 64-57 at halftime, so it really still was the Bulls game.

But 26 percent three-point shooter Thybulle made three consecutive threes in the third, a three jamboree, as it were. Harris motored around to pretty much anywhere he wanted to go, making short jump shots as it almost looked like Bulls players were handing him towels to wipe off his sweat. The 76ers led 84-69 before another of those hard-to-describe (or believe) sequences from Young when he knocked a deflection into the basket, pushed in a Porter miss, picked up another deflection for a score and got himself a few free throws. Still, the 76ers kept exploiting the Bulls lack of size and, well, forceful personalities to lead 97-85 after three quarters. Mercifully, it was over pretty quickly thereafter.

"We were all out of sorts on both ends of the floor, but particularly defensively," said Donovan. "I just didn't think that we had any level of physicality."

And now Friday the Bulls in a four-way tie for eighth at 16-19 host the surging Miami Heat before a Sunday home game with Toronto. It won't take long the way the games are coming fast now to show who you are as a team.