Bulls come up short as Hawks spoil LaVine's 50-point outing

The Bulls scored only 42 points in the second-half and were unable to come up with defensive stops down the stretch.
by Sam Smith
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Zach LaVine dropped a career-high 50 points (39 in the first-half) but the Bulls were unable to get stops down the stretch, falling to the Atlanta Hawks 120-108 on Friday night. Nikola Vucevic added 25 points and ten rebounds. Atlanta's Trae Young also had a big night, scoring 42 points. The Bulls (22-29) will stay on the road and aim to bounce back on Sunday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves (13-40).

What a waste of a lovely night.

The sun was gone and the lights turned on, and no one shined brighter Friday than Zach LaVine, scoring a career-high 50 points that included a franchise record 39 in the first half with a Jordanesque mythical 25 consecutive second quarter Bulls points.

It was such a beautiful view;
Lost in a sea of defensive miscues.

Atlanta Hawks 120 to Bulls 108.

"This was a great opportunity," lamented LaVine. "We've been playing really good. We played a really, really good half. It just sucks, man, when you have an opportunity like that to win. Obviously, I'd much rather take the win right now. I just got in a rhythm. My three finally started falling and after that, I can get to my mid-range, get to the hoop. Just got it going. We have the opportunity to go out there and establish ourselves and make our run. We had a big lead. We gave it up. That's been our MO. We'll lead teams and we'll give up the lead.

"It was a very, very good opportunity we had that we let slip through our hands," LaVine added. "We can't have a whole half where we don't defend anybody's shots."

Every bucket from Zach LaVine's career-high 50 point performance.

And therein lies the rub. The Bulls going for a fourth consecutive victory for the first time in almost four years perchanced to dream. Once again the nightmare was the elephant in the room—too many metaphors, I know, but oooh, somebody stop me!—with a defense that essentially was indefensible.

Perhaps so much so that Bulls coach Billy Donovan, though he didn't quite say it, seemed to give in to the inevitable.

"We're just gonna have to outscore ‘em, guys," Donovan appeared to indicate.

The Hawks overcame a 13-point third quarter deficit to lead by a basket going into the fourth quarter. Still, the Bulls rallied behind some Coby White shooting and still led 101-96 with seven minutes left on a LaVine driving score. But even as the Hawks tortured the Bulls repeatedly inside with Trae Young lobs for scores and 66 inside points on 78 percent interior shooting, Donovan went with offense down the stretch with mostly White, Lauri Markkanen, Thad Young or Patrick Williams, Nikola Vucevic and LaVine.

And a 21-4 run later, the Bulls not only missed a chance to make a statement to another low level Eastern Conference playoff contender. But despite the disadvantage of being on the second of a back to back, the close of the game perhaps exposed less the frustration of losing late leads, but whether there's enough defense to maintain them. Or does this Bulls team led by offensive-oriented All-Stars like LaVine and Vucevic have to win with its offense? Is their austerity plan defensive?

"They've got explosive offensive players (Young with 42 points)," noted Donovan. "At points, we did a pretty good job. I thought in the first half defensively we were pretty good. In the second half, we had a much more difficult time. We gave up 68 points. We had a hard time on both ends in the second half."

Postgame reaction from Billy Donovan following Chicago's loss to Atlanta

The Bulls remained in 10th in the East at 22-29. But just three games ahead of 13th place. Still they need to keep looking ahead because as Satchell Paige warned, don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.

Vucevic was effective again, especially on offense with 25 points and 10 rebounds and three of five threes. Though Vucevic scored 43 points against the Bulls earlier this season with Orlando, he marveled at LaVine's play.

"It was special," said Vucevic. "I don't think I've ever been a part of something like that. It looked so easy. He wasn't forcing; it just came so naturally to him. And it was so efficient. It was beautiful to see. Everything he does just looks so effortless. Even the way he runs, the way he moves, the way he jumps. He's so athletic and yet so skilled. I wish that we could've done better and helped win the game and make this night even more special for him."

It might have been if it weren't just LaVine and Vucevic.

The other three Bulls starters combined for eight points in a total of 83 minutes playing. Tomas Satoransky was scoreless with 10 assists, his passing earlier in the game helping account for the Bulls—and LaVine's—fast start and 66 first half points. Young was uncharacteristically ineffective with four points, five rebounds, three assists and three turnovers. Patrick Williams had four points and two rebounds in 26 minutes.

Highlights from Chicago's 120-108 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

White had 11 points all in the fourth quarter, but Markkanen just five with four shots, none in 12 fourth quarter minutes. The Hawks frequently ran him off screens in the fourth to free Danilo Gallinari, whose 15 fourth quarter points were crucial in that decisive 21-4 run that put the Hawks ahead 113-103 with 2:42 left. Gallinari added another three to make sure there'd be no life left for the Bulls. Donovan went with offense the last six minutes without much success. He might have said, "We haven't stopped ‘em yet." And it would be difficult to argue. The Bulls couldn't keep Trae Young out of the paint and had difficultly getting over screens. Though it's not something you see many doing these days in the NBA, anyway.

"I wanted to try to put some size on those guys," explained Donovan. "I wanted to keep Lauri out there because I thought we needed some shooting alongside Coby in terms of trying to post up Vooch and trying to post up Thad some. Just went a little bit bigger. Put some size on Trae Young and having Lauri out there to stretch the floor when they went to double team Vooch in the post, which they were doing quite a bit. I wanted to give Vooch a littler bit more space to operate."

Vucevic did get a late three, but White and Markkanen were shut out. And there was no shutting down the Hawks.

It was unfortunate not only because it stopped the Bulls' positive momentum. But LaVine's feat also became more peculiarity than jubilee even if in the moment it was non pareil; well, almost. LaVine became the fifth Bulls player to score at least 50 points in a game after Michael Jordan with about 150,000 of them, Chet Walker and Jamal Crawford with one each and Jimmy Butler with two.

LaVine's 39 first half points was a franchise record and one short of Butler's record for points in a half (no one tell him or he'll come back again). In the last quarter century—or pre-Wilt—in the NBA, only Kobe Bryant and Klay Thompson scored more points in the first half of a game.

Zach LaVine

Zach LaVine finishes a layup in traffic against the Hawks.

After being box-and-oned, trapped and basically having his shadow double teamed in recent games, LaVine came out firing against an Atlanta team not known for much defense. LaVine had all 10 in a 10-4 Bulls start, 14 in an efficient first quarter as the Bulls shot 60 percent. Vucevic had nine points and six rebounds as the Bulls led 33-25.

"I'm starting to feel a little bit better coming off my ankles," LaVine confirmed. "Even yesterday against Toronto we got started off slow and I wanted to pick us up. And today it was the back-to-back. I was going to look to come out aggressively and lead the way. Once you get it going, it's hard to turn it off unless you start getting double teamed. I think you guys know I can get going pretty quick."

Zach's got a lot of band width. High frequency drives, giga byte threes and all sorts of output. Apparently the Hawks didn't believe it, though they had witnessed LaVine's 47 points in that four overtime Bulls win three years ago. So they left LaVine open on some threes. There was the occasional trap, but LaVine wiggled around and through making eight of 12 second quarter shots, four of five threes with four of four free throws and a team high five rebounds. That's a whole really good game in 12 minutes.

So it only took the Hawks a half to figure it out, basically sending everyone including some of the caddies from the Master's at LaVine after halftime.

"They made a business call, 'OK, we're not going to let this guy beat us.' We still have to find to pull that game out," said LaVine.

LaVine assuaged the critics. He played the right way the rest of the way, passing and moving the ball, even if it turned out wrong for the Bulls.

"Obviously, he was unbelievable and did a lot of it on his own, probably most of it on his own," said Donovan. "I thought when they started trapping him we just didn't make enough plays. We had plenty of plays to make. They were leaving the floor wide open. I thought Zach, to be honest with you, read the game pretty well in the second half. Because they were trying to double him and get the ball out of his hands. I did think that third period we did get a little bit stagnant and a lot of it was we had to make some plays. We weren't able to make ‘em."

Atlanta eased ahead 86-84 led by Young's 17 third quarter points. LaVine passed to White for scores several times to start the fourth quarter. But there would not be enough and no defense for it. Such heights, so bright, but no spark otherwise in sight. What a waste of a lovely night.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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