Bulls struggle defensively, fall to Clippers 125-106

Kawhi Leonard scored 33 points for the Clippers in the victory
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later
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Clippers star Kawhi Leonard scored 33 points as Los Angeles shot 58.1% from the floor to cruise past the Bulls 125-106. Zach LaVine led Chicago with 26 points, nine rebounds, and six assists. Tomas Satoransky had perhaps his best game of the season, scoring 17 points on 5-of-8 shooting and dishing seven assists off the bench. The Bulls (10-15) will travel to Indiana to take on the Pacers (13-13) on Monday night.

Remember biology class? The day you had to dissect the frog? It made you wince, just as you may have watching the Los Angeles Clippers with similar precision Friday methodically take apart the Bulls 125-106.

Proceeding deliberately, Clippers star Kawhi Leonard cut up the Bulls for 33 points almost exclusively on mid range elbow and wing jump shots. The Clippers' shooting threat—they lead the league in three-point shooting, though they made just one more than the Bulls—spread out the Bulls defense as if with forceps. It then enabled famed Sixth Man Lou Williams to slice open the Bulls and tear out the insides of their defensive core with three consecutive driving layups and five straight baskets in a 17-8 early fourth quarter run that led to a rare uncompetitive finish for the Bulls.

And so Bulls became a frog on this night.

The Bulls dropped to 10-15 led by Zach LaVine with 26 points, a team most nine rebounds and a second most six assists. Coby White added 17 points and they combined for seven of 15 threes (the Clippers starters were a combined five for 16).

Zach LaVine scored 26 points on 11-of-21 shooting in the loss on Friday night.

The Clippers playing without Paul George—the Bulls remained without Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter, Otto Porter and Chandler Hutchison—were led by Leonard. But he wasn't in the game when the Clippers took control in the fourth quarter behind Williams' 11 straight points and then a pair of threes from Marcus Morris. Morris had 20 points with six of eight threes and Williams scored 17 points. The Clippers got 59 points off the bench.

"That wasn't obviously our best moment defensively in our game," agreed Tomas Satoransky, who scored a season-high 17 points. "They kind of take the momentum out of your game. They switch a lot. They have physicality. But that shouldn't prevent you from cutting and playing hard. When we did that, we did have a couple of layups where we got to the basket, where we found the open shooters. They're a very physical team that plays a lot of one-on-one basketball. They're able to shoot tough shots and make them. We tried to play to our identity, which we didn't."

The Clippers were better.

We've known that. But the Bulls played them to the last seconds last month in Los Angeles during the best/worst trip of the season, losing to two of the league's best teams basically at the buzzer. The Clippers were having none of it this time.

They aren't Showtime like the Lakers have been and show at times. The Clippers are more versatile and patient with an effective offensive game that slows the pace. That seemed to drain the energy from the Bulls, who couldn't get much going in transition or fast breaks.

"I don't want to say we stagnated," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "We just didn't generate enough quality possessions in that second half on offense."

Not so much in the first half, either, especially in a grim start for substitute center Daniel Gafford. He was benched about three minutes into the game after four turnovers, an offensive foul and two personal fouls. Nobody else was injured, though. Fortunately, White started the game with a pair of threes before that look away sequence in which the Clippers scored 14 straight points.

"He has to slow down a little bit," Donovan said of Gafford. "The ball comes to him in the middle of the floor and there's generally people around him and things are happening quickly. He just has to read the floor. I thought he had some opportunities to do that and he lost the ball a couple times. One time I think it got stripped. It was hard for him."

Donovan speaks to the media following Chicago's 125-106 loss to LAC.

It's difficult to fault Gafford. He was a second round pick thrust into the starting lineup and playing some of the most savvy veterans in the NBA. Similarly with rookie Patrick Williams, who has reverted to timidity on offense with 10 points combined the last two games. It's too much offense for LaVine and White to make up for with veteran Garrett Temple also starting. But Williams is just a kid not yet 20 having to defend the best platers in the NBA. He's had an excellent start to the season. If he were consistent already, he's be a star.

"He's (Williams) got to be able to stay involved and put pressure on the defense (with his offense) and make Kawhi and those other guys work." said Donovan. "(Kawhi) made some tough shots tonight. That's what he does. That's what great players do."

Leonard really didn't tip the balance in this game despite his lead in scoring. He shot poorly from three at one for six. But his defiance of the conventional basket wisdom should be a lesson for every team.

Williams was assigned to defend Leonard, but defense in the NBA these days often is a mirage because virtually every team switches on almost every pick and roll. Players rarely even bother to fight over screens. Which enables offensive players basically to pick out the mismatches they prefer.

What's so special about Leonard is he defies the prevailing view that a three is better than a two. It is more than two, which even with a New York City public school education I learned. But it produces other advantages generally not accounted for.

"They're really a matchup oriented team," said Donovan. "They put Kawhi in different situations and let him go to work a little bit. They've got things for Lou Williams. They create dilemmas and challenges for you."

Especially with those mid range shots. Leonard with his long reach and ability to create space excels at maneuvering into position as the shot clock runs down. He made every one of his mid range jumpers. No one usually makes them all, but mastering it as Leonard has is reminiscent of the way Michael Jordan played in his 1995-1998 return for the champion Bulls. Jordan didn't run and dunk like he once did. He'd maneuver his defender into position and then shoot a 14 footer that rarely missed. Teams then cannot get in transition getting the ball out of the basket. It's equally difficult even with a miss because it eliminates the long rebounds.

So the Clippers shot almost 60 percent for the game, which is how they could get a blowout win without much difference in threes and having fewer assists, fewer rebounds and an equal number of free throws. Make baskets. Twos sometimes count for a lot more than it seems.

But coming off that high scoring win against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Bulls were ready to continue the momentum. White complied with the two threes to start and 6-0 Bulls. Gafford didn't help with his Gaffe-fest of five straight empty possessions. Still with shooting from LaVine with the more physical Clippers defenders literally body to body, LaVine still rose up to make some remarkable threes. The Bulls trailed just 30-25 after one quarter and 58-54 at halftime.

Coby White

Coby White rises up for his first dunk of the season on Friday night.

White mostly playing off the ball still seemed invigorated and even got his first dunk of the season on a wide open driving lane early in the second quarter. Satoransky was looking more at the basket than his teammates, though he led with seven assists, and led the Bulls with seven second quarter points.

"At some point I have to be a little bit more aggressive," said Satoransky. "I'm a pass first point guard and sometimes when I feel like the other team doesn't pay attention too much to me I have to become a little more aggressive, which I did today with my cutting and getting to the paint, trying to take advantage of the switching with the bigs."

The Bulls kept kicking.

Even a team as smart as the Clippers, like just about everyone else, didn't seem to know Thad Young shot left handed. He made a few more going that way to astonished looks and had 14 points. LaVine set up White for a pair of scores and the Bulls still were right there trailing 78-74 with about four minutes left in the third quarter.

"Our guys battled," said Donovan. "Obviously there were some lineups out there I thought were hard for us with their size differential and playing over the top of us. We had some breakdowns defensively. They score the ball so well."

They also wear you down with the more deliberate pace and the defensive pressure. The Clippers also switch a lot on defense, but they're bigger and have an aggressor like Patrick Beverley. The Pelicans Wednesday mostly seemed to be waving at Bulls shooters from a few feet away.

"They guarded us a little differently than New Orleans," said Satoransky.

Tomas Satoransky

Tomas Satoransky was a bright spot in the loss, scoring 17 points off the bench and collecting seven assists.

The Bulls were asking the Clippers defenders to use breath mints.

That sort of defense takes away the legs, and eventually the Bulls began to miss, six out of seven to close the third quarter and then two more to open the fourth.

Then it was Lou Will to the basket and to the basket and to the basket and to... you know where.

"He's been doing it for a while," noted Satorasky.

It was 109-90 with seven minutes left when Williams and Morris were finished.

"I just didn't think we did a good job on Lou Williams," Donovan acknowledged. "Him and Morris make you pay for mistakes. We had to pay for them tonight. There was no presence at the basket. Even if it was a guard down there, we have to do a better job of coming across and helping one other."

And then they bring back Leonard. Seriously!

LaVine was so frustrated he sprung up between four Clippers for an offensive rebound and putback. Then he hit a setback three with a quilt of Clippers blanketing him. But there would be no reprieve on this night. They cut out the Bulls vitals this time. The anatomy of a loss in this particular basketball lab.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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