Move along, move along. Nothing to see here, which might have been said about the basketball crime scene that was the United Center Saturday night when the Toronto Raptors beat up the Bulls in a 122-83 rout.
The East leading Raptors concluded what was perhaps predictably one of the worst weeks in recent franchise history with losses by 29 points to Boston, 19 points to Milwaukee with a 41-point turnaround during the game and then trailing by 40 points Saturday. It was the second time in the last three games the Bulls failed to score 85 points.
"We didn't have a rhythm," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "We had trouble executing. And just obviously way too many turnovers (22 for 35 Toronto points and 31 for Toronto on fast breaks). We played three of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and we did not do well against any of them. We had one really good stretch in the first half last night (22-point lead in Milwaukee). Other than that it was not good. We've got to find a way to stick together through this time and figure it out and come out and play with great effort on Wednesday."
That would be against the 3-12 Phoenix Suns. The Bulls Saturday dropped to 4-13 while Toronto is 13-4.
The Bulls were led by Antonio Blakeney with 13 points, though he was a minus-30 on plus/minus to tie for team worst. Jabari Parker had 12 points as he and Blakeney battled to shoot. Justin Holiday also had 12 points and a minus-30. Parker was minus-25 as they were the three poorest on plus/minus.
Robin Lopez had his best game of the season with nine points on four of six shooting, though wasn't the recipient of many scoring opportunities. Chandler Hutchison also had nine points and Wendell Carter Jr. had eight points. Reserve point guard Shaquille Harrison was perhaps the brightest spot with five steals and six assists, though his flaw was evident in one of seven shooting. The narrative in such results usually is a team giving up, which wasn't the situation.
Ryan Arcidiacono always plays hard. He started along with Cameron Payne. Carter is a relentless competitor as evidenced by a sequence late in the second quarter when he banged an offensive rebound back off the board to himself so he could get a putback. That was to get within 13 points at halftime, which wasn't too bad considering. Considering? Perhaps considering that the Bulls had a team that could probably make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference on the bench. Unfortunately wearing suits.
With Zach LaVine sitting down with an illness, the Bulls put perhaps their most talented starting five on sick and injury leave with point guard Kris Dunn, LaVine, small forward Denzel Valentine and forward/centers Bobby Portis and Lauri Markkanen. By at least recent counts without their expected improvements into this season, that's conservatively 70 points on the bench. That would represent their scoring averages from last season when LaVine still was recuperating from knee surgery, Dunn was in and out with injuries, Portis was off his fight suspension and Markkanen was a 198-pound weakling seven footer. OK, a few more pounds more, but not the power lifting Schwarzenegger near facsimile we see today.
"I don't care who you're playing, who you have, you've got to go out there and compete and you've got to go out there and play through the tough times and we've got to figure that out," Hoiberg said bravely.
They are trying to win. It's their intent despite what those draft lottery experts might believe. Sometimes the mountain is too high or the wasteland too cold. Human effort has its limits.
"There's obviously not anybody in this league that is going to feel sorry for us right now with the situation we are in," said Hoiberg. "We have to find a way to stay together and I'm seeing that. When you go in after the game you have eye contact, you see guys shaking their heads. I do not see any splintering. We just have to find a way. Have two upbeat practices and hopefully carry that over into the game."
Consider that the Bulls starting lineup was Arcidiacono, Payne, Holiday, Parker and Carter.
None were NBA starters last season except Holiday, and that was his first season of his career starting and on a Bulls team sort of dedicated to losing. Two were in the G-league. One missed half the season recuperating from a second major knee surgery and then was benched to start the playoffs and was barely a ripple in free agency. Holiday's status as even a rotation player was uncertain this season and another is a 19 years old rookie. Yet, Carter again showed his maturity and toughness, his willingness to stand up when all is falling down around him. Post game, Carter answered all the media questions in the limited time frame of a Saturday night game with early deadlines for the reporters. It was perhaps the greatest positive for the Bulls in a mostly negative game. Their rookie didn't run away from responsibility. He belied forcefully the notion that these players are quitters and didn't care. They simply are not good enough or now to sustain through a long NBA game against the league's elite. Because there are five players sitting out who all would be playing ahead of them except perhaps for Carter. And he's not quite as accomplished as either Markanen or Portis.
But they can surprise and produce a success now and then if you keep watching. Sometimes the journey has as many surprises as the destination.
"It's definitely difficult," Carter acknowledged. "I don't want to make an excuse of me being a rookie, but there is a place for rookies. I can't just come in and tell my teammates how I feel or what I think should be done. It should honestly be the other way around, where I should be listening to them, let them tell me what to do. But I'm not using that as an excuse. I feel like I take ownership of what I do on the court.
"All three of these games we lost we got off to a really good start," Carter noted of the Bulls Saturday tied midway through the first quarter and still down just 10 points late in the second quarter. "I feel like we get too comfortable and then things can turn. I feel we kind of go our separate ways. Not in a bad way, but feeling like we've got the game won and they hit a couple of threes and get some stops and then looking at one another. I think people are committed to the team effort. It's more pointing fingers at themselves, people putting their heads down, blaming themselves. I feel like the beauty of this game is there's another play in a matter of seconds, and we've just got move on, try to make better plays the next time down the court."
The disparity was obvious between the teams, and not just in talent. Kawhi Leonard sat out for the Raptors, but they still featured an All-Star like Kyle Lowry, an all-league defender in Serge Ibaka and a former champions like Danny Green. Which made it easier for their former G-league player, Fred VanVleet, to lead them in scoring with 18 points.
But for Toronto with a veteran lineup that has been together it was more how they played. They relentlessly worked the ball around for better shots, the tactic that has exposed the Bulls in these last three games. Early in the game, Parker literally had more shots than total passes to teammates. The Raptors often had more passes per possession than the Bulls might have in half the quarter.
It's a function of missing players like Dunn, Valentine and Markkanen and having shoot first type players like Payne, Blakeney and Parker dominating the ball. These are good role players, but their roles generally are not to be playing 35 minutes while having to score 20 points and defend against a team heading for 60 wins.
When the Bulls went to the bench with their bench players starting, they did they get spirited and aggressive play from Harrison and Hutchison, though both are feeble scorers. Similarly with Cristiano Felicio or even Lopez, neither much of an offensive match for former starter and physical scorer Jonas Valanciunas off the bench for Toronto. Toronto brings off the bench a six-year starter who averaged nearly a double/double for some of the winningest teams in the East the last five years. The Bulls bring in Felicio, Hutchison and Blakeney. But mostly because most of Toronto's best played and most of the Bulls' best spectated.
It was then another third quarter wipeout like in Milwaukee Friday with Toronto scoring nine straight to start the second half and then the Bulls slipping behind 74-49. Toronto had a rebounding margin of 20 and plus 20 points inside. By the end of the third quarter, it was 89-56 Toronto and everyone in the United Center was hoping this wasn't another Biggie Bagel domination in the third quarter break Dunkin' Donut extravaganza.
The Bulls players were responding and playing hard; just not well. The talent deficit was too great with so many injured, and now especially with LaVine added when he'd been one of the top five scorers in the NBA all season. Take a top five scorer off any team…and then four of their next five best and see what happens. Sure, it's an excuse and this is the NBA and next man up and all that. But, seriously, just because someone gets to wear an NBA uniform doesn't mean they can succeed. Because the other guys are trying also, and they're usually pretty good.
"Ain't no feelings," said Carter, who cleverly deflected the how did it feel cliche question. "We've got to do something. Try our hardest, don't quit, play as hard as you can until the last second. I feel like that's what makes you a true basketball player. Not giving up, just playing hard no matter what the score is. Just playing as hard as you can."
It's the best thing the team could have heard on a bad night. They've got players who may lose, but who won't be beaten.