Zach LaVine scored 30 points and the bench contributed 48 points but turnovers (19) and lack of free throw attempts (10) didn't do the Bulls any favors as they fell to the Boston Celtics 119-103 at the United Center on Monday night. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum led the Bulls with 26 and 24 points respectively.
Billy Donovan is facing a riddle.
Not the one about what has keys but is unable to open a lock. Yes, a piano. Nor the one about Coby White if he were working in a butcher shop at his height of 6-5 with size 12 shoes and a 16-inch shirt collar. What does he weigh? Yes, meat. And if two's company and three's a crowd, what's four and five? Well, other than nine, what to do about his lineup and starting five.
Play the key guys giving the team the best chance to win more often, who lately have been veterans like Thad Young, Otto Porter Jr. and Garrett Temple? Though their futures with the franchise remain unclear. Or weigh the prospects of the young elite lottery picks whom management hopes will form a winning core, but have often been, let's say, not so fulfilling lately.
"I probably need to look at that," Donovan acknowledged after the young starters, several slumping though Zach LaVine added another 30 points and made six of 10 threes, came out dazed and confused in what became a 119-103 loss to the Boston Celtics.
The Bulls fell behind quickly again, trailing 21-12 a few minutes into a game in which their last lead was 8-7. They were still within sight trailing 60-50 at halftime when the Celtics opened the third quarter with an 11-0 run to eventually take a 22-point lead. The Bulls never got closer than trailing by 10 the rest of the game.
It was not unlike the early lack of competitiveness against the Lakers Saturday following three straight impressive wins. The Bulls' record dropped to 7-10 with the next game Saturday against Portland. Wednesday's scheduled game at Memphis was postponed for Covid virus reasons.
The Bulls, and especially Donovan, could use some contemplative time given the knottiness of the problem.
The Bulls want to win. It makes everyone feel better, and it creates the right habits. Yet, this is not a season in which the team in playing for a championship coming off losing seasons with a new coach and management. So the priority is to develop the young talent and analyze who fits with whom and how for the future. With some ifs thrown in.
But lately it's been a chore for rookie Patrick Williams, who had two points playing just 10 minutes as he couldn't contain Jaylen Brown and his 26 points. Jayson Tatum returning from a Covid absence added 24 points. Williams is averaging about six points and shooting 36 percent the last four games.
"Patrick, it's been a lot for him at 19 years old," said Donovan. "The other night it was LeBron, now it's Tatum and Brown. It's been Giannis. It's been Kawhi. "It's a lot for him personally. It's part of being a rookie."
Coby White is sloughing through an equally difficult period, trying to become the point guard the organization hopes he can become. He's averaging about nine points the last six games on 33 percent shooting. "It's a lot for him, too," said Donovan.
Lauri Markanen's numbers are adequate, averaging about 17 points the last four games, though reverting to more perimeter play.
But then the veterans, like Porter not playing back to backs, are not generally equipped for long, sustained stretches of play without perhaps bringing on their diminishing returns.
Where is that drawing board again?
Zach LaVine scored 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting in Chicago's loss to the Celtics on Monday.
"Zach's been in the league awhile, but the rest of that group is very, very young," Donovan noted. "The hard part is you start those (veteran) guys, the game becomes a lot longer for them. I don't want to put them in a situation, certainly for as long as they've been in the league, where the minutes night in and night out are out of control for them and then they become less productive or effective. It is good, the fact that we know we can go to our bench and generally kind of right the ship for us. We need them, but at the same point, too, I think it's really hard to start playing some of those guys in the mid to high 30s on a nightly basis.
"I think my responsibility is to do what I can for this group to put them in the best position to win," Donovan acknowledged. "You also have to look at the dynamics of moving people around. Does it disrupt that (starting) group? Is it not good for Coby? I think that group has to function better and I don't want to keep putting it on experience because I think it's beyond that at this point. But there has to be a point where we sit there and say, ‘What are the things we are doing better? There are five guys out there playing. They've all got to contribute. I feel like I have to evaluate everything and look at everything to try to help the group as best as I can."
Which further exacerbates the issues.
The coaching mantra that every coach generally repeats and is charged with is to put players in the best position to succeed. Though as Donovan noted, "It's not like we have a lot of point guards on our roster."
So the Bulls are trying to turn White, who's been a scoring player for his career, into a point guard. But can you ever make a point guard? Like can you ever make a quarterback? Generally either they see the floor and the movements of teammates or they don't. White never complains and is an avid learner. He repeatedly says all he wants is to be a point guard for the Bulls.
"I'm just trying to figure out my way," said White with five points, one assist and two turnovers with six shots. "I'm trying to pick and choose my spots. It's a learning process, a learning curve. I just feel like staying the course, keep doing what I'm doing, keep getting better. And keep playing. I try to still run the team and do what I do. I can't control if the shots fall or not. But I can control running the team and how hard I play, so that's what I'm going to focus on."
Though it's difficult to fight your tendencies.
Late in the game, reserve guard Jeff Teague went at White and scored. White immediately ran straight back down court to go back at Teague. White hasn't looked like a very happy player lately.
LaVine scored 30 points again somewhat efficiently and seemingly effortlessly and had a pair of blocks. But he had six turnovers as he often also had to be the point guard. He tries because he cares and wants to help, but that's not who he is, either. He's probably the closest the Bulls have to that guy in the rotation, but that also takes away from what he does best. That he still can score 30 is remarkable.
Markkanen is trying, but just can't seem to get through the physical force teams like the Lakers and Celtics apply. One time early in the game was revealing when Markkanen got in the post against guard Marcus Smart, a tough guy who had 13 points and 11 assists. Markkanen passed out to a shooter. Again, half Markkanen's shots were threes.
Lauri Markkanen scored 18 points but was the only other starter to score (along with Zach LaVine) in double-figures on Monday night.
"We came out and we weren't as energetic," said Markkanen, who had 18 points and six rebounds. "We need more energy from our starters. The bench did a good job of bringing that. We've got to be ready to go when the game starts, so that's on us. We've got to fix that. I'm trying to read the defense, what they give me, and I've got to finish better around the rim."
Other than LaVine with his scoring, Thad Young probably had the greatest impact with almost the first triple double of his career. He had 16 points, nine rebounds and nine assists and drew two more charges to pad his team lead. He led a 48-37 Bulls bench advantage in game the Bulls lost by 16. Every starter was at least a minus 15 in plus/minus. All the reserves were plus except Porter with a minus one as he had 13 points. But all are on expiring contracts or without full guarantees for next season. The Bulls are most invested in the players who haven't contributed as much lately.
What to do?
"The difference is they're younger," said Young. "They don't have as much experience. The most experienced guy in that starters lineup is Zach, and we know what Zach can do. We have to get them playing a little bit better as a unit. The veteran group, we understand how to move the basketball, how to cut, where to get certain reads from, who to go to, how to execute through a full play as opposed to breaking it off and going to something else. And that unit, defensively, plays in tandem. We cover for each other, we guard for each other and we're always there for one another.
"It's a veteran group coming off the bench that understands how to play with lots of experience, lots of playoff experience, and the first unit doesn't have it," Young noted. "We're just teaching those guys along the way and trying to get those guys brought up to speed."
Thad Young had a near triple-double off the bench, with 16 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists in the loss.
There was some of the Bulls usual with 19 turnovers for a whopping 35 Boston points and just 10 Bulls free throw attempts, eight in the first quarter, indicating the lack of aggression. After the first quarter, the Bulls didn't attempt a free throw until LaVine's pair with 32.7 seconds left. The starters combined for seven assists; Young had nine and Satoransky six. The Bulls didn't give in, however. They had 19 second chance points and 19 fast break points, and when they made three consecutive three pointers—LaVine, Markkanen and Tomas Satoransky— they cut a 21-point fourth quarter deficit to 108-98 with 3:54 left. At least they forced the Celtics to bring back Brown and Smart.
Boston then got a three and LaVine missed one. Then Brown was fouled after Markkanen missed one and by the time LaVine made another three the Celtics were leading by 11 with under two minutes left and there would be no miracle.
"That's a litany of different things that we've got to clean up and get better at," said Donovan. "We foul at times jump shooters. We leave our feet too often. I listed turnovers as an issue. I thought we didn't do a great job defensively of controlling the ball. I think when we were behind the ball, we left our feet (fouling for two four-point plays). The bench came in and at least gave us some momentum, but I think if you look at the plus/minus our starting group, it's very, very drastic."
Donovan went to the reserves quickly as Daniel Gafford also struggled in his third straight start with Wendell Carter Jr, out. Gafford was scoreless in 10 minutes. Carter is expected back Saturday. Boston was without Kemba Walker.
Donovan stayed with the reserves well into the second quarter as Boston led 33-25 after one quarter and 37-33 four minutes into the second. Donovan has been playing Young at center, but he's small and not particularly athletic. So the Celtics were able to get to the basket without much interference. The Bulls also play that "drop" style defense, which is something of an interior zone to try to protect the basket. But it also gives opponents an easier path to a mid range jump shot, which the Celtics exploited.
"There are going to be ups and downs throughout a 72-game season," reasoned White. Goes up and not down? Other than your age? The baby Bulls?
There's one word in the dictionary that is spelled incorrectly. Of course, it's incorrectly. This thing with the Bulls also is tricky.