Bulls comeback comes up short, fall to Jazz 113-106

The Bulls fought back from a 17-point deficit to make it a game but ultimately fell to the NBA-leading Utah Jazz 113-106 on the road. Utah was led by Donovan Mitchell, who had 26 points. Thad Young scored a season-high 25 points and Nikola Vucevic knocked down a clutch three to make it a one-possession game with under 30 seconds remaining. The Bulls (19-28) have now lost six straight. They will look to bounce back in a big way against the Eastern Conference leading Brooklyn Nets (34-15) on Sunday afternoon.

You know what they say about these Bulls. They'll go as far as Thad Young can take them. What, huh?

Actually, no one has been saying that. And the Bulls haven't been getting very far with Friday their sixth consecutive loss, 113-106 to the Utah Jazz.

But not only did the wily, 14-year NBA veteran rally the Bulls back from a 17-point fourth quarter deficit to within a basket with his career Bulls scoring game with 25 points. But Bulls coach Billy Donovan continued to signal a paradigm shift by once again relying on Young in the fourth quarter with mostly jumbo big man lineups to counteract the seen-if-mostly-unspoken lack of perimeter ball handling and playmaking.

"Thad just has a really good way about him," said Donovan. "He can really fight through adversity, he can really galvanize the group and get them to fight back. He did that. And then more than anything the group is really playing well. They fought their way back."

Thad Young scored a season-high 25 points on Friday night.

It doesn't suggest development as much as striving for at least that post season play-in tournament. And something of in game auditions as Donovan also continues to go with who happens to be playing well at the moment. Against the Jazz, it was a curious fourth quarter combination of Young with Denzel Valentine, Daniel Theis and Lauri Markkanen. Valentine ostensibly was the point guard with Young taking advantage of Rudy Gobert on offense as Markkanen drifted outside against the guards. Donovan relied on that eclectic group for most of the fourth quarter as the Bulls got within 106-97 when Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic entered for the first time in the fourth quarter with 3:25 left in the game.

LaVine immediately scored on a drive and a three to get the Bulls within 107-102 with 2:54 left. The Bulls had one opportunity when Vucevic made a three with 26.7 seconds left to get the Bulls within three. But they messed up a chance to trap and potentially cause a turnover and the Jazz closed the win with free throws.

Utah won its franchise record 21st straight home game and went to a league best 37-11. The Bulls are 19-28, though still 10th in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls host the Brooklyn Nets Sunday afternoon and then go back on the road for four more games to end this most difficult part of the schedule.

LaVine returned from missing his first game of the season because of a sprained ankle. He scored 23 points. Vucevic had 16 points and a team high eight rebounds and Valentine had 12 points. Valentine is averaging 15.5 points since not getting into the game against Golden State. Coby White came back from missing the last two games with a neck sprain, but was ineffective with four points. Markkanen joined White off the bench with five points as neither played the last few minutes.

Highlights from Chicago's 113-106 Friday night loss to the Utah Jazz.

Which probably doesn't mean a lot the way Donovan has been experimenting. None from among newcomers Al-Farouq Aminu, Troy Brown and Javonte Green played. Patrick Williams had eight points in 33 minutes without a free throw attempt. He's played 213 minutes the last seven games with a total of nine free throw attempts.

And so the Jazz converting 13 more free throws than the Bulls and six more threes (the Bulls were seven of 28 on threes), made up for Bulls advantages of 68-40 in the paint and 12-3 on fast breaks. The Bulls committed just seven turnovers, which may be another reason why Donovan is evolving toward a power (forward) point and point center game. They don't seem to make as many mistakes.

"The biggest part is we have to play through our bigs," Donovan acknowledged. "We have to play through them as playmakers and facilitators. I think we have a very unselfish team, guys who move the basketball and pass the basketball. But we're also not the kind of team that has a lot of creative playmakers off the dribble. It's just not who we are. The guys who generate offense are generally our bigs, so we've had to play through them a little bit more.

"It's going to be interesting to see whether we can play big," admitted Donovan. "I'm anxious to see whether or not we can play with two bigs. I feel that's the strength of our team. Patrick, I liked when he was down at the four spot; probably haven't done it as much. Lauri has been four and five and now he's really been three and four. So those guys have moved around. I do think we have a big team; we have a long team. I do think if we try to utilize our size and our length that's the best way to go. It's a little bit different. Thad is not a conventional big; he's more like a hybrid the way he plays. But Daniel is a big, Vooch is a big, Lau for most of his career has been a front court player. For the most part that is our playmaking group."

Get the point? No one is quite sure, but we'll be watching because there's not a whole lot of this going on in the NBA. So who said the center is extinct? Not the Bulls, it seems. And this was a Bulls team a few months back that didn't seem to have a center.

"We are trying to get the best guys out there," said Donovan. "The best combinations of guys out there."

Make it a your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine for what's coming next in this most unusual of Bulls seasons that has seen the draft selections from three of the last four lotteries either traded or moved to the bench and veterans like Young and lately Valentine playing expanded roles.

"Thad did a nice job of finding guys," Donovan pointed out. "I wish we would have shot the ball better from three. I thought we had some really, really good looks; we just really couldn't make shots. Our team's different. Theis down there is a big strong guy, Vucevic is strong. Thad is a unique player down there. Because what's happening now, Thad was a lot of times being played by other teams' centers. Now he's being played by power forwards. When we can find him and get it to him down there, he's not going against Rudy Gobert. Now we can kind of use him as a post up guy against some of those power forwards."

Coach Donovan following the loss to Utah Jazz on Friday night.

With all the defensive switching that goes on in the NBA, Young is particularly adept at taking advantage of mismatches. Which he did in scoring four times in six possessions early in the fourth quarter when the Bulls made their run, 15-3 to once again get oh so close. But no cigar, as it were, a saying that originated at county fairs and carnivals 100 years ago when cigars were given out as prizes. Before surgeon generals, obviously. Just a digression to take you away from what's coming.

"We didn't shoot the best from the perimeter, but you (media) guys know we fight," said LaVine, who fought his way back quickly from the sprained ankle. "If you had a couple more possessions, it's your game. But I think that's every game. It's gonna come down to a couple possessions."

Like the old 17th century nursery rhyme.

"If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
If turnips were watches, I'd wear one by my side.
If "if's" and "and's" were pots and pans,
There'd be no work for tinkers' hands.
If ifs and buts were candy and nuts
Every day would be Christmas."

Though didn't Dandy Don Meredith make that up on Monday Night Football?

I know, I know, sorry. As Zach was saying.

"I think it's just runs at the end of quarters and dumb mistakes," said LaVine. "Defensive mistakes, offensive mistakes, not hitting the right guy when they're open or not having a timely turnover. I think those things add up against really good teams. I guess you can say it's frustrating. But at the end of the day I don't think anybody cares. They only care about the win or the loss. Obviously, we're trying to get back in the win column and get back on the right track."

Before that speeding light on track at the end of the tunnel...

The latest locomotive to collide with the Bulls hopes was the swingin' and swayin' Jazz, Donovan Mitchell with 26 points, Gobert with 19 points and 13 rebounds, Jordan Clarkson off the bench with 19 points and Bogan Bogdonovic with 18.

With the Bulls using these bigger lineups, there are going to be plenty of mismatches. Identifying them quickly has not been a Bulls strength. It is for the more experienced Jazz, who immediately spotted Williams defending Mitchell. So the bigger Bogdanovic went after LaVine and the Jazz led 17-10 before the Bulls got within 26-25 after one quarter with a late spurt from LaVine and White. Donovan has been pleading for more significant defensive effort from the guards, and it was better. Markkanen had a bit of a run to start the second quarter, though he and White have been losing playing time. The Bulls went ahead 43-38 before a 22-6 Jazz close to the half gave them a 58-49 lead. Donovan even called one of those Boylen timeouts with 23 seconds left in the half after Mitchel tipped in a Bogdanovic three-point miss.

"I thought we were much better defensively tonight," said Donovan. "I thought there was way more physicality. We had a really bad run through that two or three minute period there in the second quarter, but otherwise I felt maybe we could have held them under 50 in that first half. So that part was encouraging."

But then came that inevitable, it seems, three minutes of missing and standing around and watching. And 67-64 Jazz became 78-66 Jazz and it was fighting back again trailing 88-73 going into the fourth quarter. But these Bulls do, as Curtis Mayfield said, keep on keeping on.

This time it was Young with his first game scoring at least 20 points with the Bulls, his highest scoring game in more than two years. After a terrific pass to get Theis an early fourth quarter score, Young showed Utah what real footwork looks like if you really know jazz, pirouettes, turns, leaps (not too high for him), ballet-like chaines and piques. Young scored or assisted on 16 of the Bulls first 18 points of the fourth quarter. Then LaVine came in for White and Vucevic for Theis. Young, Valentine and Williams remained to finish.

Patrick Williams and Zach LaVine.

LaVine and Vucevic did the rest of the Bulls scoring, but if only for a second or two more. Donovan drew up a Vucevic three out of a timeout with 28.7 seconds left trailing by six. Vucevic made it for 106-103 Utah with 26.7 seconds left.

What now?

Let them run down the clock and you have two to three seconds to tie if you get a stop? Foul and see which side misses? Donovan called for a trap. Only LaVine seemed to get the message, pressuring Mike Conley only to find no one there helping. Sort of when you charge up that hill and look behind and…hey, where is everybody? LaVine then fouled. But that left just a second gap between the end of the shot clock and the game. So the Bulls had to foul and Mitchell made the free throws.

"We were trying to get one trap and then we had a foul to give," Donovan explained. "We just never got to the trap and I thought we had an opportunity to do it because they brought the ball up the sideline and we didn't come. It would've been nice to have gotten one trap at least and see what happens. I just think, two to two and a half second deferential, shot goes up, it's a scrum, it's a loose ball. You don't even necessarily get another possession again. The deferential there was tough and maybe we could've fouled a little earlier or trapped a little earlier. But we weren't able to do that."

Close, but no... Right, already went there. Like the Bulls. It just seems like they are right there.