So why is a Bulls game like a candelabra?
The Bulls Monday saw their season long three-game winning streak succumb to the shooting, scrambling and superiority of the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks in a 117-106 Milwaukee victory.
The Bulls would not be able to party even as Lauri Markkanen had his league most seventh game this month with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds with 26 points and 12 rebounds, and Robin Lopez matched Markkanen with a season-high 26 points, his sixth consecutive game scoring at least 17 points.
Zach LaVine, playing mostly point guard with Kris Dunn out with a migraine headache, had 11 points, nine assists and eight rebounds while Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Wayne Selden had a dozen points each. The Bulls also were without Otto Porter Jr. with a leg injury. MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo sat out with knee soreness.
The Bulls led 38-25 after the first quarter, but the Bucks tightened up with a 38-16 second quarter to lead by nine at halftime and Milwaukee controlled the second half. Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon each scored 22 points and former Bull Nikola Mirotic in his first time playing back in the United Center had 13 points off the bench.
“I think in the second we made a few too many mental mistakes,” said Lopez. "Got to play a little smarter. I think we all know that top to bottom.”
Though it was bottoms up for the Bulls’ hatter as Lopez made his only three-point attempt, the 10th of his career and sixth this season on a Ryan Arcidiacono pass.
It was 9 o’clock, but still tea time.
“When I am open I am going to look to pull it,” Robin said. “It seems when Arch passes me the ball it has… I don’t know if Vegas knows the odds on Arch passing me the ball on how often it goes in, but it seems I get some good assists from him.”
While the Bulls have been getting some truly remarkable and somewhat overlooked play from the veteran seven footer who can be as mischievous as a cheshire cat.
It was Lopez with the Bulls last gasp, his three pointer with 4:47 left to get the Bulls within 103-93 before the Bucks were tail lights on I-94.
The Bulls dropped to 16-45 against the 46-14 Bucks. But it’s been the best sustained play of the season for the Bulls starring mostly LaVine and Markkanen. And strangely enough, Lopez.
“Everyone has been really engaged and pulling for each other,” said Lopez. “I think we all feel a little reinvigorated; it’s been a lot of fun.”
Which pretty much describes the life of the Bulls merry prankster who lives at Disney World in the offseason, is feared by the league’s mascots and set the table after his three pointer, mixing his pantomime tea for Robin’s Tea Party.
Like Alice in the story told the Hatter, “You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret, all the best people are.”
The non conformist Lopez probably would enjoy the sentiment, and the Bulls certainly have been enjoying his antics. His play this month has been among the least expected and surprising in this wacky season that went down its own rabbit hole pretty early.
Lopez is averaging 20.6 points on 65 percent shooting the last five games, which is more than double his career scoring average, and 15.6 points on 68 percent shooting this month for a player who never has averaged 12 points in a season.
It’s come mostly thanks to a post up dropstep and spin move sequence that is as sweet as orange marmalade. It’s oddly becoming one of the more unstoppable shots in the game as Robin continually converted Monday against his brother, Brook, who had 13 points. Robin was 10 of 16.
“My teammates are just finding me in really good spaces,” said Robin, who rarely elaborates about his own play. “We had a pretty good offensive rhythm going on out there. Lauri and Zach, they are making everyone better, and I’ve been in some good spaces. I was doing that (drop spin) a little more in New York with the triangle offense, catching it in the post. I just try to help out my teammates, do what is needed of me. I’m just trying to go out there, set screens, help out my teammates. They’ve been looking for me a little bit. I am grateful to be playing with some really good players.”
And his teammates have been every bit as appreciative about having on their side the gentle giant who isn’t so gentle—or composed sometimes—in the games.
“Robin is so damn big, once he gets it down there and pump fakes a guy there’s not a lot you can do,” said LaVine. “He’s seven-whatever; throw it toward the rim he will get it. We’ve had a good two-man game going; with Lauri, too.
“It’s tough when you are a veteran guy and you are asked to play a role and he does that very professionally,” added LaVine. “Now with him back in the lineup, he is getting back in shape. We love Robin; he knows we need him. He’s very valued here. He’s a big-time teammate to where he is going to protect you, he is going to fight for you. He’ll play defense one day, he’ll try to block shots, try to run the rim, he sets some of the best screens in the NBA. I don’t take him for granted for sure.”
Which makes it a crucial week for the Bulls and Lopez. This is the last week players on rosters can be bought out and participate in the playoffs. Lopez said, as he has for weeks, that he isn’t thinking about that. The Bulls have said they don’t intend to approach Lopez for a buyout.
Which seemed certain, or at least a trade a few months ago. Now the Bulls have to be thinking about retaining the 11-year veteran. Wendell Carter Jr., the presumed future center, is more like 6-10 while seven footer Markkanen, despite rebounding so well, probably shouldn’t regularly face the rigors of the game’s most physical players. It would seem the Bulls need a big man going forward if they lose Lopez. So why lose him?
Though that seemed to be the plan to start the season. Lopez was out of the rotation early as the Bulls experimented with the more active Cristiano Felicio. When Bobby Portis was injured, Lopez played more. But the ironman who rarely has missed games in his career was in and out of the regular rotation with the occasional DNP. It wasn’t until late January when he began playing more than 20 minutes regularly and more than 30 minutes for the first time this season two weeks ago. Since then he’s averaged 32 minutes per game and has been one of the team’s most reliable scorers in their best stretch of the season.
But even Robin couldn’t save the Bulls after that terrific fast-paced first quarter.
Arcidiacono started for Dunn and Luwawu-Cabarrot started for Porter, and the Bulls were playing fast and sure as Markkanen had 14 points and LaVine 10 as they combined for four of six threes in a fleet first.
But the Bulls’ depleted bench got knocked back in the second quarter with a 16-2 Bucks start. Milwaukee led 63-54 at halftime, and there’s a reason Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer probably will be Coach of the Year. He did wonders with a modestly talented team in Atlanta a few years back, and has this Bucks team despite few changes from last season with the league’s best record. After LaVine started quickly, the Bucks made a nice adjustment to sink their Lopez back into the lane and spread out the wings to cut off LaVine, who had another of his amazing baseline hammer dunks in the first quarter.
With Dunn out and the added defensive pressure, LaVine looked to make the right play, as the advice generally goes.
“I was reading the game,” said LaVine, who is averaging almost six assists per game this month along with 25.5 points. “I had 10 quick ones and then they started switching up the coverage. I feel I was making the right plays to get us baskets. Once I drove to the paint I could pass the ball out. I saw a lot of people open. I felt if I kept doing that we were going to get a lot of wide open shots. I just tried to play the right way.”
But especially now with Porter out, which isn’t expected to be long, the Bulls also need LaVine’s offense. The Bulls reserves were pummeled 42-24.
“I think I should have been a little more aggressive in the second half to where I got some more points on the board,” LaVine acknowledged. “I should have been more aggressive with the shortened bench. I felt good in the pick and roll facilitating; whatever they need me to do to help the offense. But I should have been more aggressive.”
Bulls coach Jim Boylen said afterward he was upset several times when the players failed to execute properly on called plays even out of timeouts.
But with LaVine being shuttered, the Bulls were again overwhelmed by a team that depends on the three-point shot. The Bucks were 17 of 49, scoring 24 more points than the Bulls on three pointers. Plus, the Bucks are a high IQ team. They move the ball well, but are quick to identify and attack mismatches. There were numerous times the Bucks immediately jumped on switches to have Lopez or Markkanen trying to defend Middleton or Brogdon. The result was easy scores, though in the third game in four nights the Bulls were a bit more languorous with just five fast break points after averaging 19 in the three wins.
Now the Bulls head for Memphis and Atlanta, and their improved play may have a lot to do with whether Lopez is heading anywhere.
“I haven’t been thinking about it,” Lopez said. “I don’t worry about that. I’ve been enjoying myself.”
So Robin, why is a Bulls game like a candelabra? Darned if he has the slightest idea. But it’s felt like a party lately. And that dude sure abides these days.