As the Bulls fall 117-111 in Cleveland, after again having a first-half lead and being in the game down the stretch, the focus is on making sure this young Bulls team is learning from these games and moments, and that they are growing in their ability to close out games.
LeBron, yes, we could understand that. Maybe even Kyrie. Price and Daugherty? Sure. Heck, maybe even Bingo Smith. But Cedi Osman, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland with Tristan Thompson dominating inside? The Bulls Wednesday finished up a disheartening first week of the NBA season in a 117-111 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Yes, those Cleveland Cavaliers.
It dropped the Bulls record to 1-4 with losses to what's expected to be residents of the league's dungeon, the Knicks, Hornets and Cavaliers. The Bulls in being out rebounded for the fourth consecutive game have the worst rebounding margin in the league while ranking in the bottom five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. And promising third year forward Lauri Markkanen was benched for the last seven minutes of the game for Thad Young with the Bulls trailing by just a basket.
"I feel like, instead of us talking about being a playoff team, people hollering about something that's so far away from now, we need to focus on each individual matchup each and every night." said Wendell Carter Jr., who again battled valiantly despite an early morning migraine headache that shocked his respiration. "That will take care of itself if we look at each game and take it like it's our last game.
"I feel like we got too caught up in, ‘Oh, we're a playoff team.' Or, ‘We got the team, we got veterans around us.' All that's great, but we just need to win. That's how I'm looking at it now," said Carter. "I am a competitor. I want to make it to the playoffs. But that's not my mindset. My mindset is, ‘I want to win Friday.' And then after that, once that game is over, I want to win the next game. So, that's kind of how my mindset is changed."
So make it the second opening night Friday when the Bulls host the Detroit Pistons and former Bull Derrick Rose. It's November 1, and the NBA season not too long ago didn't begin until November. OK, now! Perhaps the Bulls can leave in their rear view mirror the car wreck of a week that started with dreams of an open road toward respectability.
Both Markkanen and Zach LaVine had 16 points to lead the Bulls. Carter had 15 points and eight rebounds. Otto Porter Jr. scored in double digits for the first time this season, also with 15 points, and Young off the bench had 14 points, the two team captains with their best games of the season.
Bulls vs Cavs Game Recap
But it wasn't enough as the Bulls lost another double digit lead, albeit early at 35-25. There were 19 lead changes and ties, but the Bulls still led early in the fourth quarter and trailed by a basket, 108-106, with less that two minutes remaining in the game. But again like in New York Monday, the Bulls were pushed around down the stretch and the Cavaliers scored seven fourth quarter baskets on dunks or layups with all sorts of defensive breakdowns from back door cuts to being beaten off the dribble and outhustled for loose balls.
The Bulls were outrebounded 47-32 as Kevin Love had 17 points and 20 rebounds and Thompson 23 points and 10 rebounds. The Cavaliers, who were in the bottom half of the league in shooting, shot 52.6 percent overall and 42 percent on threes. The Bulls finally exceeded 30 percent on threes, but were 14 of 39.
I am a competitor. I want to make it to the playoffs. But that's not my mindset. My mindset is, ‘I want to win Friday.' And then after that, once that game is over, I want to win the next game. So, that's kind of how my mindset is changed
Wendell Carter Jr.
Bulls coach Jim Boylen, however, continued to pursue a positive perspective given it's just five games and with several new players. Boylen added the team hoped to have injured forward Chandler Hutchison back in the lineup Friday.
"We collectively as a group have to do better with our defense in the second half," said Boylen. "I thought, again, there was some great moments in that first half. I thought we had control of the game and as the game went on their (the Cavaliers) energy grew and ours didn't. You've got to give them credit for that. They brought the physicality you need to have in the fourth quarter. It's something we talked about we have to do better. That's the growth plate for this group, physical toughness, mental toughness and, again, a lot of good things.
"I think we've played in competitive games on the road; I think we've battled," Boylen added. "We haven't played as well in key moments as I'd hoped and as they have hoped, too. That's part of the learning process. So we're playing competitive basketball. I think we won the first two quarters and I think we lost the third and lost the fourth. So the other night we won the first two quarters and lost the third and lost the fourth. So that's where we've got to grow. That's the learning."
Boylen explained that playing Young down the stretch for Markkanen merely was "just coaching. I thought Thad was doing a good job. Just like I rode with Coby (White) in Memphis, I rode with Thad here."
And for the Bulls it's time to climb back on the horse.
Like Boylen suggested, it hasn't been all blindfolds and last meals. The Bulls have maintained a pulse, if not always as much heart and head as they'd like. They've been competitive in the fourth quarter of every game but the home loss to defending champion Toronto. Which the team should be, of course, even on the road against teams not expected to be in the playoffs. Though the failure to finish has been puzzling because this isn't your G-league tryout guys anymore. Perhaps that's one reasonable reason Boylen opted to close with Young, who has been shooting well from distance and is adept in pressure situations. Boylen also had Porter and Tomas Satoransky finishing, his most experienced players, along with LaVine and the physical Carter.
LaVine did make several big offensive plays after the Bulls fell behind 102-94 on a Sexton fast break layup. LaVine sandwiched threes around a Young strip steal and full court driving dunk to get the Bulls within 106-104 with 2:52 left. The Cavs missed but got a long offensive rebound and Garland drove all the way around another Bulls defensive lapse for a layup. The Cavs also identified slower defenders they searched out on switches. The tradeoff of veterans and their savvy can be their lack of quickness against athletic young guards. Carter had another strong offensive rebound of a Satoransky miss to get the Bulls within 108-106 with 1:43 left. The Bulls were right there. Winnin' time? Not for the Bulls, alas.
Young drew a charge giving the Bulls a chance to tie. But Carter committed a foul trying to rebound a LaVine miss. Love then made a 14-foot bank shot over Young and Carter missed a dunk attempt on a pass from Porter. The Cavs ran out with the miss and as they settled into a half court set, Sexton snuck behind LaVine. Love found him back door for a slam dunk and 112-106 Cavs lead with 28.5 seconds left. LaVine missed a long three on the inbounds to effectively end the game as the Cavs went on to shoot free throws the last 20 seconds.
"We keep letting them slip away at the end of the games," said Young. "Like I said, it's a growing process and it's growing pains that we have to go through. I've been on teams like this before and then we figure it out along the way, figure out how to get ourselves in the mix. It's still early in the season. We can still get ourselves in the mix. We just have to come out prepared and ready to play each and every game." The Bulls mostly were ready Wednesday, leading 21-11 behind an energized Porter to start. But in mixing lineups, the Bulls have had a tendency to ease up. Rookie White again was erratic with three of 12 shooting and eight points. Without his scoring like in the first two games, the second group has lost leads as Boylen continues to stir ingredients to find the best recipe. Luke Kornet had a good stretch in helping extend that lead to 35-25. Young scored seven straight points for a 42-34 lead. But again the Bulls lacked a closing gene to extend the lead and led merely 53-50 at halftime. There were concerns as the transition and ball movement from earlier games has slowed the last few games with stagnant offense and heavy reliance on seeking out threes. Even as the Cavs started two small guards, the Bulls abstained from postups and interior play. Several times players in the lane pulled up to seek out perimeter shots.
Still, Porter and Young showed vitality in the third quarter, and later Kris Dunn had a pair of driving scores and the Bulls led 82-80 entering the fourth quarter. Boylen even tried his first coach's challenge of the season and was successful, negating two free throws. Carter did admit he was unusually winded and asked out early in the third quarter having missed morning shootaround to stay in bed with that migraine. Though he still led the team in blocks and equaled a team high of eight rebounds. His power move with 8:57 left gave the Bulls a 90-89 lead. And then the Cavs speed killed the Bulls.
"We definitely went through a lot of adversity and I feel like there ain't nowhere else for us to go but up," said Carter. "We came into the season thinking we are this playoff team, hunting to the playoffs. Now we're taking it back to reality."