Three inches. That’s about the length of a toilet paper holder. And the distance between what could have been the Bulls first three-game winning streak in almost a year and the queasy feeling when Zach LaVine’s three-point attempt bounced just long with two seconds left and the Bulls Friday lost 100-98 to the Golden State Warriors.
“I thought it was a good shot and I’ll take it again next time. I think I’ll make it, too,” said LaVine, who led the Bulls with 22 points, six rebounds and a team high six assists. "I had a good look. Hit the back of the rim; I thought it was good.”
It’s just that much sometimes in basketball that separates celebration from nausea. It was a noxious moment for the Bulls, who seeming were ready to turn another corner and instead found that it led smack into a brick wall.
“We had the momentum,” LaVine lamented. “I think we played a pretty good game, but we let them back into the game. They started making plays in the fourth quarter. They played that alley oop play they do all the time. They got some stops and made some shots. Give them credit for that. But we beat ourselves. We have to make more plays down the stretch to where we don’t have to have it on a last second shot.”
True, Zach can’t do it all the time.
Lauri Markkanen added 20 points, though just three after halftime and Coby White had 14 points in one of his hot streaks, making four of five threes. He sat out the last eight minutes, which was one among many debatable points about the game’s close that became significant only because the last shot was fractions long.
Bulls coach Jim Boylen brought back his starters to close the game, which was appropriate and often called for earlier in the season. Plus, White had the poorest plus/minus for the game at minus-10. All the starters were even or plus and all the regular reserves were minus. Denzel Valentine had another good scoring game after being rescued from his purgatory with 11 points in 13 minutes. He was curiously enmeshed in verbal histrionics all game with Warriors players, eventually ejected with a second technical foul in the fourth quarter. Valentine said it was his first ejection in his sporting life including little league and high school.
The Bulls fell to 8-15 while the Warriors salvaged one win on their five-game road trip, moving to 5-19. Two of the wins have been against the Bulls. The Warriors had lost the previous four road games by an average of 15 points per game.
“We talked about getting the last spurt and controlling the end of the game,” said Boylen. “We just didn’t quite get to the free throw line enough (five attempts for the game) and didn’t make enough shots. It was a very physical game and they made a couple of more plays than we did. We’re disappointed we lost this game, all of us. We don’t like losing. But my job is to keep this going in the right direction. I feel we’re growing and we’re developing.”
That would be the growing pains part.
This one, as too many already have, hurt as the vastly depleted Warriors with pretty much no one you probably have heard of other than Draymond Green came into the game with the poorest record in the NBA. The Knicks Friday fired their coach having a slightly better record. Steve Kerr appears safe for now.
It also was a game the Bulls pretty much controlled, seemingly cruising along and just waiting to hit the gas. Until the engine quit. The Bulls led 28-23 after one quarter with White finding the range to score eight straight to close the first.
“We have to figure out how to put teams away, put that nail in the coffin, finish the game out,” said White. “It’s a learning process.”
But who’s idea was it to extend the hours of this school?
The reserves fumbled a bit to start the second quarter, though Valentine was all heart. He had a clever behind the back pass to Markkanen that led to a Daniel Gafford dunk, got the ball moving well and his mouth even better. At one point, Golden State’s Omari Spellman had to be held back from him with Valentine smiling and shrugging.
“This is what I love to do,” said Valentine. “It was taken away from me for a year (with injury), so I’m playing with passion. I just do what I can do to help the team, play hard, play with passion and on both sides of the ball. It was just some friendly trash talk.”
With LaVine scoring his first points late in the second quarter, the Bulls regained the lead 51-50 at halftime. Kris Dunn was fist pumping on a LaVine three, and it just seemed a matter of time before the Bulls pulled away for, finally, a real winning streak.
It was LaVine taking over to begin the second half, fast break, pull up jumper, and a pair of long threes, 15 third quarter points in all with White closing. White led Gafford with a perfect two-man roll for slam dunk, Ryan Arcidiacono made a three and Valentine made a floater and set up White for a three. The Bulls led 83-76 going into the fourth quarter even with Thaddeus Young away for a game for personal reasons and Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison still out injured.
The Bulls still were holding onto a 92-87 lead on another Valentine three when Boylen went back to the starters except for Wendell Carter Jr. with 8:32 left in the game. But the Bulls had too long played it a bit too cute and a bit too cautious, and now the Warriors seemed to believe they had a chance.
Green drove the ball to tie the score at 92 after misses by Tomas Satoransky, Dunn, LaVine and a Gafford offensive foul; it was game on. Markkanen made his only basket of the second half with 3:36 to tie the game at 97. It came after the play that would haunt the Bulls.
Many NBA teams, including the Bulls, have streamlined their offenses in this three-point emphasis era to run a pick and roll near the middle of the floor with three players behind the three-point line waiting for a pass or to reposition. It’s not particularly creative, though if you have really good shooters you can score a lot of points. They do still add all the points.
The Bulls defensive game plan this season has frequently focused on double teaming the pick and roll with two players trapping the ball handler. The positive is it’s led to the Bulls leading the league in forcing turnovers. And again Friday the Bulls had 11 steals and forced 20 turnovers. The weakness is teams often have countered after halftime by having a playmaker as a screener. So he rolls to the free throw line and can make a play if he’s deft with the ball. Sometimes the Bulls drop off to switching when that occurs. This time they would stay with the trap.
The Warriors had taken that 97-94 lead before Markkanen’s three on that very play with Green lobbing to Willie Cauley-Stein for a dunk. The Bulls have not been able to rotate well enough yet when teams break that trap.
A bit more Bulls offensive efficiency would have cancelled the late game second guessing. But Dunn missed on a drive, Markkanen committed a travel trying to pass after a drive and then had to force a three as time was expiring. Now it was under two minutes left, and then anyone can make a play and win a game. Home court doesn’t mean much then.
Green appeared to flop out of a screen as the Bulls collapsed on D’Angelo Russell and Green got the call. He made one of two free throws with 1:26 left for a 98-97 Warriors lead. LaVine got weary of watching everyone else miss and responded, going all the way and was fouled. But he only made one of two, a rarity for him, to tie with 1:18 left.
Then came what would be the winning basket, though with 1:03 left, when the Bulls elected to trap Russell again. He slipped the ball to Green, who took a dribble into the lane to draw LaVine and lobbed to Glenn Robinson III for the two-hand slam and 100-98 Warriors lead with 1:03 left.
“That’s what we felt was the best situation for us, to get the ball out of D-Lo’s hands and make somebody else make a play,” Boylen explained.
LaVine got in good position, but missed a step back 15 footer with 47 seconds left. The Warriors got two shots at a three with an offensive rebound, but Russell coming back from injury missed both. The Bulls blitzed on the first miss, but not the second.
So a chance for the Bulls to win or tie.
Russell’s second missed with 22.9 seconds left. LaVine rebounded and began dribbling up court. He dribbled past half court and Carter came to set a screen. LaVine waved off Carter and seemed about ready to drive when Boylen bolted onto the court to call a timeout with 13 seconds left and the Bulls trailing by two.
White came back into the game and a play was set up for LaVine, who had saved the last three wins dating back to his spectacular three pointer in Charlotte.
“I liked the fact that the ball is in Zach’s hands,” said Boylen. “I believe in Zach at the end of the game. We wanted to see how they were going to match up. We did not want Draymond Green in the pick and roll. We'll take Zach in that situation.”
<p?The conventional wisdom in the NBA is you go for the tie at home and the win on the road, which would presumably mean a drive by LaVine. Perhaps a foul. Maybe then try for a steal. LaVine was thinking win.
“I’ve had games where I’ve gone to the hoop, got fouled and scored a two and we tied it up and we went up to win or we went on to lose,” said LaVine.
Overtime is no guarantee, but the consensus often is the home team has the advantage.
Carter again went to screen with Green on him. Green is generally regarded as one of the league’s best defenders, though he has been injured this season and often playing limited minutes. He hasn’t moved as well defensively, and Markkanen was scoring well on him earlier. When Green switched onto Carter, LaVine waved off the screen. But LaVine also began walking up with a dribble, running down the clock.
“The timing of it maybe could be better,” Boylen said. “But it's a rhythm thing. It's how you feel; he's done as good job of that and I believe in him in that situation. He can make that shot. His (efficiency) on that shot is as good as anybody in the league.”
LaVine turned left past Robinson toward the wing. LaVine got to the three-point line and put on the breaks, pulling up for a clear three to win the game with three seconds left.
“He's made it before,” said Boylen.
Not this time.
The ball hit the right side of the back of the rim long and bounced high. It got tipped to Green as the game ended.
The Bulls had been swept by the Warriors again as Robinson led with 20 points, Alec Burks had 14, Eric Paschell 13 and Cauley-Stein had 10. The Warriors shot 53.5 percent overall and outrebounded the Bulls 39-37. There were 11 lead changes and 10 ties. And a long discussion about the last few minutes.
“I didn’t want to give them another possession,” LaVine explained. “I was either going to take it to the hoop, try to get fouled, obviously go for the game. Draymond kept switching on and off. Draymond was being that guy to switch, but I didn’t want to deal with him in the pick and roll. So I rejected it. I looked at the clock. I think it was three seconds.
“Some of those shots I felt were good shots we usually make; if we make them it’s a totally different game. But that’s what you can always say. We have to get more stops,” said LaVine. “They outscored us in the fourth. I just wish I made it.”