There's a famous Irish novel, Finnegans Wake, by author James Joyce, that is something like this Bulls season lately. It's intriguing as it carries on through so many interesting, unusual and experimental developments. But it not only never reaches a satisfactory conclusion, it has no ending.
Just like the Bulls second consecutive one-point loss in two nights, Friday 107-106 to the Sacramento Kings.
"We're right there, two games in a row," said Jerian Grant, who led six Bulls in double figures with 17 points. "Could be two wins with one basket, one change. So it's tough. But we're hanging in there because we see that we are right there. When you can say that you were in the game and gave yourself a chance to win, it is taking a step forward. It's coming down to one stop or one little basket here or there. We have confidence we can win games, but we have to get it done."
And once again, painfully, the Bulls could not, though not as dramatically and sickeningly as in Denver Thursday when the Bulls gave up a full court drive with about three seconds left for the winning basket. This time the Bulls last led 95-94 on a Robin Lopez score with 5:20 left in the game. But with three minutes left trailing by two points after a Grant scoring drive, the Bulls missed a pair of threes and a Lauri Markkanen drive for three chances to tie before Zach Randolph grabbed an air ball miss and put it back with 51.5 seconds for a 103-99 Kings lead. Lopez scored on a jumper with 43 seconds left to get the Bulls back within 103-101. But the Bulls couldn't get that lead back and Grant's three at the buzzer just got them within the one point.
They keep getting to the last page and it's blank.
"The biggest thing is to keep taking positive steps," said hopeful Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "I thought we really competed, especially last night, go into Denver and a tough back to back. I thought the guys went out with the right mentality, especially offensively in that first half, did some really good things (to trail 61-60). It's all about getting stops, all about our team learning. The biggest thing moving forward is keeping it positive with them and trying to make winning plays down the stretch, which we have not done the last two nights."
The Bulls dropped to 3-18 with their eighth consecutive loss; the Kings are 7-15.
The Bulls got 55 points from the reserves and season highs from Paul Zipser with 14 points and Cristiano Felicio with 12 points. Markkanen and Lopez added 14 points and Justin Holiday had 11. David Nwaba back from his sprained ankle a month ago contributed an energetic nine points, nine rebounds and five assists. Bobby Portis sat out with a sore right arm. Kris Dunn wasn't as involved with a scoreless second half and just two shots as Grant did more of the ball handling after halftime. Dunn had six points, eight assists and three steals, all but the one assist in the first half when the Bulls were playing well.
But the Bulls were out rebounded 43-38 with Zach Randolph getting 25 points and 13 rebounds. More significantly, the Kings had 64 inside points. Though the Bulls had a 15-5 edge in fast break points and made 13 threes to six for the Kings. Which usually would have been good enough for an impressive win in the unusual West/East overnight back to back with the team plane landing back in Chicago after 2 a.m. the morning of the game. But again the Bulls simply did not have that big time, go to scorer to make the needed plays at the close. Often, the Bulls still are trying to find rookie Markkanen for bail out scores to close games.
"The last few games we found a little bit of a rhythm on the offensive end, especially in first halves with 68 against Denver and 60 tonight," noted Hoiberg. "Assists, 30 tonight, 19 assists first half last night. We're finding a little bit of a rhythm on that end. Our guys are going out there and making reads and making plays when teams are taking us out of certain things. But we've got to find a way to come out with more of an edge on the defensive end. Teams are just way too physical with us now, taking us out of anything and getting easy baskets with our defensive coverages."
There's obvious growth and improvement, the Bulls in recent weeks suffering huge 30-point type losses in routinely falling behind with weak starts. For the last three games, the Bulls are averaging more than 30 points in the first quarters, averaging close to 110 points per game, trading leads back and forth and refusing to yield.
Which is discouraging, as well, since it hasn't produced the reward.
"It's pretty tough, 3-18 right now, the worst team in the league right now, so it's pretty tough," admitted Denzel Valentine. "If you're putting up numbers and you win that stands out, but nobody cares about a losing team. Tonight we didn't play with the same edge as we did last night. So that's what we get; we have to find a way to win the game. It's definitely tough because you are playing so well and losing. At the end of the day, we played OK, we got better, but we still lost. It's going to take us one win; once we get the confidence. I think we can get a run."
The encouraging element appears to be the continuing desire to break through.
The team is expected to get Nikola Mirotic back playing sometime next week and then Zach LaVine perhaps in a month. They would be the team's best three-point shooters along with Markkanen and presumably take off some of the offensive pressure. The Bulls have no one averaging 15 points.
"It was two games that we had a really good chance to pull out and win and we didn't," observed Holiday, the Bulls leading scorer at 14.7 per game. "But we've got to go into the next one--yes, the Kings and then The King Monday--like we're going to win it again. Hopefully somehow, some way, we can get that done. But again, I'm proud of how the team's playing. Those guys have fought. We've improved in areas we need to improve in, and we don't really have the problem right now of not coming to play. That shows in the energy and effort, and we're doing that right now, and that's great for us. Sometimes we came out in games in the first quarter and we didn't have energy. Or we played well in the first, and the second quarter we didn't have energy. We're answering well to things that happened to us, which we didn't do earlier in the year. We're in the game right here at the end. So we're doing a good job with that; we just want to win."
The Bulls rolled again to start, a 31-28 lead after one quarter as Dunn sparkled with six assists and a steal he turned into a Markkanen dunk. Nwaba was bursting with aggression in his return and should help the way he attacked the backboard and rebounds immediately. Zipser even emerged from a season long funk with his second straight double digit scoring game. The Bulls looked in control after a Holiday three in the second quarter gave them a 57-48 lead with 4:16 left in the half. But the Bulls went cold from there with Dunn's three-point play the only score in a 13-3 Kings close to the half.
There were 22 lead changes and eight ties in another entertaining and competitive game. Nwaba's hustle on multiple possessions appeared to energize the Bulls after they fell behind 77-71 in the third. They closed the quarter trailing 82-81 after a Felicio score on a lob as he beat the Kings downcourt.
"I loved what I saw from David," said Hoiberg. "It's great to have his energy back out there on the floor. We knew he could give us a lift, especially with the starters playing a lot of minutes in Denver, the altitude and getting back late. We wanted him to give us a burst, and he provided that."
And then down the stretch they came, the teams trading threes. Though again the Bulls passed on some seeming layups, one by Grant late, to fan out to a shooter in the short corner. That play looks good when the shot goes in. Again, it didn't. If one more goes in during a three for 12 shooting fourth quarter on threes, the Bulls win. Shoot just 33 percent. They shot 25. Many were open.
Both Holiday and Markkanen missed threes in the last two minutes with the Bulls trailing 101-99, and Markkanen missed a tough drive to drive the left side. Then Randolph edged out Lopez for that air ball and put back. Lopez matched that with a 23-foot two pointer, but a defensive error again cost the Bulls. Justin Holiday got caught inside on seven footer Willie Cauley-Stein on a switch. Two Bulls came to help, leaving De'Aaron Fox. He cut in from the right side for a layup and 105-101 Kings lead with 24.2 seconds left. The Bulls out of the time out went to Markkanen, who eschewed the three and then took a difficult fading baseline jumper that he air balled. The Kings made just enough free throws to avoid making Grant a hero.
"It was a play to get him at the top of the key to try and get him a three," said Hoiberg. "Obviously, he drove it into a tough spot."
Just like where the Bulls are. Trying to avoid their own wake.