This one looked like a day at the beach in L.A. for the Bulls, a second half 19-point Bulls lead, G-league import Antonio Blakeney blowing by Lakers lottery picks for 15 first half points, Kris Dunn taking over at point guard and playing so close to Lonzo Ball in a one-of-eight shooting first half Ball must have felt like he was in a Chinese prison.
But then someone forgot to tell the Bulls about that tsunami coming ashore that wiped out their lead in a 103-94 Lakers victory.
Talk about falling asleep with the Lake Show just starting.
The Bulls had six players in double figures led by Denzel Valentine with 17 points. Blakeney had 15. Lauri Markkanen had a rare poor shooting game at four of 17 for 13 points, but he led the team with 14 rebounds. Dunn apparently installed as the starting point guard had 12 points, six assists and four turnovers. The Bulls with a 29 percent shooting second half fell to 3-12 and play in Utah Wednesday. The Lakers are 8-10. They were led by rookie Kyle Kuzma with 22. Ball had eight points and 13 rebounds.
"I couldn't have been happier with the way we came out of the gate and got the ball down the floor in a hurry," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "We got some transition baskets, some easy ones, played unselfishly, found the open man. We played the right way those first 24 minutes. Came out with those first six minutes in the third and opened that thing up to (61-42), and then let them back into it. We got (back) up seven with six minutes left, had seven really good open looks we didn't knock down and it really affected us on the other end getting back in transition. We allowed them to get their confidence going."
And their style. After stuffing the Lakers the first half with dashing play, the Lakers stole the game with a shift to a smaller lineup. These relatively inexperienced Bulls players too often fall into traps of doing what worked before when it is no longer working. Hoiberg and various players pointed to that old chestnut about losing enthusiasm on defense with the dissipation on offense.
"Our defensive energy wasn't the same," agreed Valentine, who was five of seven on threes (overall 11 for 36) and had two steals and nine rebounds. "We played on our heels a little bit. When you are up like that against a team like the Lakers they are going to come out in attack mode. We got great looks (but missed). That affected our defense a little; it shouldn't, but it happens. They were the aggressive team the second half.
"It's experience," Valentine acknowledged. "But at the same time we are 15 games in; we should be past that. We have to just keep learning, I guess."
And so the lessons continue.
Yes, when the shots aren't going in, try something else.
The Lakers doing so changed the game.
There were two vital sequences that turned the game toward the Lakers, and the Bulls failed to respond well either time.
The Bulls had pushed that lead to 19 points 90 seconds into the second half with the Lakers already calling timeout. The Bulls still led by 10 with just over two minutes left, but the Lakers regained the edge by going small with Julius Randle at center. He beat Robin Lopez inside for a pair of scores and free throws, and then Cristiano Felicio. But Bulls guards failed to look for Lopez inside when he had the smaller player on him.
"Julius Randle changed the game for them when he went in and played the five," Hoiberg acknowledged. "We missed Robin on multiple occasions when he had small guys on him; they were switching everything, getting guards on Robin and we didn't take enough advantage of that."
Thus the Lakers were able to wipe out just about all of the Bulls lead in the quarter and get within 75-72 after three.
But this has not been a group of Bulls players to give in. Valentine hit a quick three to start the fourth quarter and the Bulls still were ahead 89-83 with 6:17 left after Markkanen finally got a pass after a switch onto him by a smaller wing player.
Markkanen was excellent rebounding and did try, at least late, to get something inside with his shot crooked.
"Lauri had great looks," noted Hoiberg. "He is going to knock down a lot. I have no concerns at all; very confident he'll bounce back tomorrow with a great shooting night. Just the way he can shoot the ball."
It is an unfair second guess with Markkanen because he is such a good shooter. You generally want him to continue shooting. Perhaps not quite with Justin Holiday. Holiday was two for 12 and now is shooting 32 percent on the season. Other than the 10 for 15 game he had coming back from his paternity leave, he's eight for 42 the three games around that, less than 20 percent while leading the team in field goal attempts on the season.
Confidence is good, but sometimes circumstance has to exceed that.
With the Bulls still ahead by six points midway through the fourth quarter, the Lakers hit the Bulls with an 11-0 run and it was pretty much over from there. It was, however, how the Lakers did it. While the Bulls missed three shots of at least 26 feet in that stretch and one of 18 with one Valentine finger roll try, the Lakers scored all their points on layups and free throws and one short hook from Randle.
"If we have open shots, we're going to take them," said Hoiberg. "I thought Antonio was phenomenal in the first half taking advantage of the switch. When we drove it in and they helped on us, we kicked it out, and again had open looks. Didn't knock them down (in the second half)."
Of course, if they had—and most were open enough—then no one would question the lack of inside play. Everyone had been demanding Markkanen get the ball more. He had 11 second half shots; he just happened to pick this time to miss eight. Dunn and Holiday were a combined two of 13 after halftime. Jerian Grant complemented that with a one of five and it was four of 22 overall on threes in the second half.
"They brought more energy in the second half, more fight," agreed Dunn. "They were grabbing offensive rebounds; that was another key. They were more aggressive getting to the free throw line. I think that was the biggest thing. They grabbed the momentum and ran with it. We are supposed to be a shooting team, but we have to change it up a little bit, try to go to the basket and draw some fouls and swing the momentum.
"It's up to us," Dunn added. "When we have them down to keep our feet on their necks."
So it was a disappointing loss after one of the best halves of the season. There was a lot encouraging with Blakeney's emergence. He's on the two-way G-league contract that gives him 45 days with the NBA team. The way he can score in bunches it will be difficult to drop him. After 45 days, he has to stay in the G-league or sign an NBA contract.
He obviously doesn't lack confidence in his offense or an edge. He is adept at finding space for his shot and with a driving dunk in his second quarter run he drew a technical foul for taunting after dunking over Randle. The Bulls could use some of that, anyway.
Though with the $2,000 cost of a technical foul, Blakeney may have lost money playing that game given his G-league status. But he doesn't lack for confidence.
"I forgot what I told Julius," Blakeney insisted. "I did say something. I definitely did. I was surprised by the tech. I didn't curse at him or nothing; just kind of said a little something. Didn't trash talk all the time, but it happens."
The undrafted Blakeney was asked whether he can be one of those sixth man-type offensive stars like Lou Williams or Jamal Crawford.
"Those guys are good," Blakeney acknowledged. "I think I can do some of the things they do, but I also feel I have a higher ceiling for myself. I hold myself to a different standard. Getting better and learning every day and take steps in the direction of where I want to be."
Well, OK then.
A little cocky isn't bad. It was the Bulls seventh loss in their last eight games. But again a strong, competitive effort on the road like in Phoenix, a range of improving offensive options and an entertaining game, if also an unsatisfactory result. It has been worse. Which means it must be getting better.