It was a loss for the Bulls Friday to the Indiana Pacers that surely Billy Shakespeare would find strange and unnatural. It was the third time this season in just nine games the Bulls lost on what essentially was the last possession of the game, this time missing three chances to tie or win after a Darren Collison 19 footer with 18.5 seconds left gave Indiana the eventual 107-105 final margin.
It was also a loss most foul as the Bulls, and certainly Antonio Blakeney, believed Blakeney shooting a potential game winning three was tripped before Myles Turner blocked his attempt. Though perhaps it never would have come to that if Zach LaVine and Wendell Carter Jr. within two minutes of one another hadn't been called for their fifth fouls with the Bulls riding a LaVine hot streak to a 99-92 lead with six minutes left.
With LaVine and Carter sitting, the Pacers hit the Bulls with an 11-0 run to take a 103-99 lead with 3:20 left before the hot shooting Blakeney, now generally known as Little Ben Gordon, converted a four-point play for a tie with 30.5 second left. The Bulls then tried to trap Victor Oladipo and were left to scramble out of position when the Pacers rotated the ball to the left corner for Collison's winner.
Two Carter offensive rebounds on the final possession wasn't enough to save the Bulls, who fell to 2-7. Indiana is 6-3.
"We were trying to get Zach curling off a screen (on the last play)," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "I thought Zach had a good look, 15 footer on the baseline, kicked out to Justin; had a great look at it and Antonio tried to make a play at the buzzer.
"Came out of the gate with unbelievable energy," Hoiberg noted. "Proud of the guys for stepping up and playing with that type of grit on the defensive end coming out of the locker room (with a 15-point first quarter lead). After that Golden State game, I felt we had a very good performance against a very good Denver team and against Indiana, one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. We just have to find a way to make one more play, a rebound, take away a three, a loose ball. Have to find a way to make that play under two minutes to get the win."
The Bulls were led by Blakeney off the bench with a career high 22 points in a remarkable shooting run in which he's 11 of 15 on threes the last three games. He's second in the league in three point shooting and shooting a rollicking 55 percent overall. LaVine as the primary target on the Pacers' scouting report had a rough seven of 21 shooting for 20 points. Though LaVine had it going in the fourth quarter with nine points in just over two minutes before his fifth foul, and a very questionable one, after doing a good defensive job against Oladipo. LaVine went out for about 90 seconds, but his feel and the Bulls momentum was gone as the Pacers moved ahead and LaVine was zero for four the rest of the game.
"They hit me with some fouls; it was tough," LaVine said diplomatically. "I try to stay in the game regardless, like ‘I'm good.' But it makes sense (to go out with five). You don't want to foul out the next play and I'm not playing for the rest of the game; just sucks. I shouldn't have fouled him."
It seemed a questionable call on LaVine coming around a screen, a pattern which burdened the Bulls all game after Carter got the Bulls off to that exceptional start with seven of the Bulls first 10 points and nine in the quarter. But fighting quick foul calls all game, Carter played just 24 minutes to finish with 11 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
Justin Holiday added 19 points with his second consecutive game with five threes, his 11th attempt also a potential winner that bounced off before Blakeney's attempt.
"When it bounced to me I thought it was cash," said Holiday. "I most definitely was ready for it."
Jabari Parker added 11 points, Cristiano Felicio had nine points and nine rebounds and Robin Lopez even got in the game with the fouls and had two blocks in four minutes. Cameron Payne and Ryan Arcidiacono combined for 14 assists and zero turnovers at point guard, though just two of eight shooting for a combined six points. Oladipo had 25 points and 14 rebounds for the Pacers and Turner had 18 points and six blocks.
"It is a process when you have young guys on the floor," said Hoiberg. "Zach is in a new role, Wendell, too bad he got fouls after how easy it was for him in the first quarter. Guys like Antonio Blakeney stepping up and making big plays for us. Arcidiacono, he's never been in a position like this; Justin was hitting shots, playing a complete, consistent game. We had a seven-point lead with just over six to play. We needed those guys down the stretch and we made the subs and, unfortunately, they claimed the lead right back. I loved the start of the fourth. They had a (seven) point lead and we came out and hit eight out of nine shots and really locked up defensively. Unfortunate that happened; it's part of the game. The fouls it certainly hurt us tonight."
I'm not generally one to blame officials, but it's certainly unusual to see two of one team's top players out so quickly on fouls. Especially for a team not exactly known for physical play, though LaVine was excellent defensively. And then Blakeney sprawling on the floor to end the game after Bojan Bogdanovic seemed to stick his leg out.
"I think I got tripped up," said Blakeney. "Did I get fouled on the three? I don't really know; the play's over. I definitely got tripped up. That's why I fell and tried to throw it up. I think he might have gotten a clean block, but I definitely got tripped."
Perhaps the shot doesn't go in, and players and coaches cannot say much without risking punishment. But it seemed most foul when the Bulls basically outplayed the Pacers.
"We came out and played so well in stretches it's almost like you are deserving of a win," lamented LaVine. "But we give it away or they get back into the game or something like that. Just have to play four quarters. Light handed like we are you can't have that many mistakes; have to play almost flawless basketball."
For the Bulls with four core players out injured—Hoiberg said none are close to a return—it was about as flawless as they might get against a top opponent.
The Bulls shot better than Indiana from the field, from three-point range and almost on free throws, where the Pacers had a curious 22-9 edge in attempts despite being the visiting team without the usual momentum from the home crowd and with the more physical players. The Bulls outrebounded Indiana despite being smaller and had a huge 33-20 edge in assists in a game, especially at the start, when the Bulls played faster and with the ball swinging like it was a Lindy Hop. Talk about swing.
"It's just frustrating knowing you played well," said LaVine.
When Carter rebounded a miss and slammed it in one motion for a 19-7 start that Hoiberg said was as good as the team has had all season, it looked like a special game. It proved exciting and entertaining with 11 lead changes and 10 ties. And any fair minded observer would have to say the players are responding favorably to Hoiberg the way they are competing, improving and bouncing back from devastating losses like against Charlotte and Golden State with some of their best play of the season. Literally with one defensive play, a rebound and a shot, the Bulls easily could be 5-4. Though as we know you are what your record is. So the Bulls face Houston Saturday in the United Center with the return of James Harden from injury.
"The best thing is experience and that's what we're going through right now," said LaVine. "You can see the improvement every game."
Carter drew a second foul seven minutes into the game, though early in the second quarter the Bulls led 42-24 after five straight Blakeney points. Carter quickly got a third and the Pacers evened the game with a late second quarter 12-2 spurt bashing their way to the free throw line with 10 attempts in the quarter to two for the Bulls. It was 60-58 Indiana at half. The Pacers looked liked they'd pull away in the third quarter, but the Bulls hung around with Holiday making a trio of threes.
"You leave me open, I am shooting the ball," Holiday said.
Then the Bulls jumped on the Pacers to start the fourth quarter, stretched out the lead with LaVine on a run and looking like he could carry the Bulls down the stretch until he was technically sidelined. Yet even seemingly demoralized, the Bulls responded impressively with the Blakeney four-point play to tie and then Carter pulling two offensive rebounds away from a pack of Pacers. It all came up one shot short.
"Some fall," reasoned Holiday. "Some don't."