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Bulls fall to Pelicans despite Zach LaVine's 39-point effort

Who knew the Big Easy was not so much the laid back environment of New Orleans, but the ease at which the Pelicans could score against the Bulls.

And so it was again Thursday as the play-in hopeful New Orleans Pelicans blew away the Bulls not only with 40 fourth quarter points in a 126-109 victory, but did so behind the play of a maybe 5-10 undrafted guard on a two-way contract.

Jose Alvarado—certainly I nor apparently the Bulls knew who he was—scored 13 fourth quarter points, mostly in a 17-2 hurricane that blew away a 90-90 game and sent the Bulls to their 10th loss in the last 13 games. And suddenly the game of the year is in Cleveland Saturday, one that could determine whether the Bulls fall into the play-in tournament standings with nine games remaining in the regular season.

"We've done enough talking," said Zach LaVine, who was the only player to address media post game.

Because his game did all the talking.

Zach LaVine scored 39 points on 12-of-23 shooting in the loss to New Orleans on Thursday night.

He was brilliant, by the way, a virtual one-man offensive festival who with a season high 39 points in 40 minutes with 11 of 13 free throws and four threes almost rescued the Bulls from their torpor. The Bulls seemingly needed LaVine for all 48 in this one to have a chance since the fourth quarter meltdown occurred mostly when coach Billy Donovan was trying to steal LaVine some rest. Remember, he's also been nursing a knee issue.

Coby White did what he could to help off the bench, 23 points on eight of 15 shooting, five of eight threes and a team-high six assists. Nikola Vucevic had 16 points and nine rebounds, but just 11 shot attempts as the guards, who even Donovan singled out, failed to involve Vucevic in the offense. There was little response elsewhere.

"I didn't think our guard play was great tonight all the way around," said Donovan in a rare rebuke. "We've got to find ways to help Vooch more. He's seven for 11. Our guards have to understand how he's being guarded and find him."

But those guards, primarily Alex Caruso and Ayo Dosunmu, the latter with another negative rating of more than minus-30, failed to control the diminutive Pelicans G-leaguer in the crucial part of the game. It got so bad Alvarado was even signaling the Bulls were too small to stop him.

Seriously?

Tap to listen to postgame reaction from Billy Donovan following Chicago's loss in New Orleans.

The fateful run came with 10 minutes left in the game after Caruso tied the score at 90 with a pair of free throws. Caruso did force several offensive fouls fighting over screens and throwing himself into scrums with his disruptive energy. But he did seem to bang his surgically repaired wrist a few times.

After a Pelicans miss, Caruso threw low to Derrick Jones Jr. on a break for a turnover.

The Bulls were having some success earlier speeding up the game. Though that was mostly thanks to LaVine back at point guard pushing the ball and assailing the basket.

Jones had been dropped from the rotation recently with Patrick Williams back. But Jones got the call during the second half with Williams slowed and still on a playing time restriction. DeMar DeRozan did have to miss the game with what Donovan said was more precautionary with a mild groin strain (that's surely one called mild if it's not you).

The Pelicans were missing their two best players, Zion Williamson out all season and Brandon Ingram, the latter out with a hamstring injury.

The Pelicans, meanwhile in that fateful fourth, got a fast break dunk off that turnover and then White missed a runner. It still was just 92-90 New Orleans.

Jones trying to help lost Larry Nance Jr., who in his first game back from injury made a three for 95-90. Alvarado then pulled off the sneak play of the month when he basically hid in plain sight, camouflaging himself in front of the Pelicans bench, though on the corner of the court. The Bulls tossed the ball in lazily to Caruso, who didn't see Alvarado rushing toward him from his left. Caruso tried to skip and lost the ball for a travel and turnover. Alvarado then drove by White for a score for a 97-90 New Orleans lead.

Vucevic got a good look for a three, but missed. It was his only missed three of the game.

Caruso then switched to defend Alvarado, who made a runner over him for a 99-90 New Orleans lead. The Bulls came out of the timeout with a play for Vucevic, who missed a short floater. Caruso then failed to switch on Alvarado coming off a floppy action and he made a three.

Really, this was getting ridiculous. Talk about your flop in sight.

Anyone know where this kid went to school?

Alvarado, by the way, is listed at six foot. Yeah, so am I.

Caruso responded with a driving score finally to break the 12-0. But going back the other way, Devonte Graham with 30 points lost Caruso on a crossover dribble and made a three. After a Dosunmu miss, Jonas Valanciunas with 16 points and 19 rebounds made a short push shot in the lane for a 107-92 Pelicans lead with six a half minutes left.

The Bulls did bang in a pair of threes to get within 109-102 with, as they say in the NBA, plenty of time remaining, 3:42 in this case. But Graham responded immediately with a driving three-point play and the Pelicans paraded to the free throw line against desperate Bulls tactics the rest of the way.

C.J. McCollum had 25 points for the 31-42 Pelicans. They outrebounded the Bulls by 10, had more second chance points and fast breaks and forced the Bulls into 15 turnovers for 20 points.

Pelican guard C.J. McCollum had 25 points for New Orleans.

The Bulls at 42-31 remain fifth in the Eastern Conference, but now just a game ahead of Cleveland and Toronto, tied for sixth. The Bulls do get the tiebreaker with Cleveland if they can win Saturday's game. It could determine which team falls into the play-in tournament. Though the Bulls do have five consecutive home games beginning March 31 to steady themselves for the playoffs and avoid the mini-playoff week.

"We've done enough of trying to pep talk and rallying to keep guys spirits up," said LaVine. "We just have to get it done now. It's time to stop talking and start playing the right way."

There even was a bit of an emotional meltdown late in the game when Dosunmu was called for a flagrant foul on a push of a fast breaking Alvarado with 21 seconds left. It hardly was Grayson Allen-esque (in case you missed it, old buddy Tomas Satoransky took down Allen with a cheap shot in the Wizards loss to the Bucks Thursday; you know you really liked that guy).

Amidst the commotion of the flagrant, Tristan Thompson from the bench earned a pair of technical fouls and was ejected, leaving the floor in a hail of invective aimed at the officials that likely will get him fined. It was the second consecutive late game meltdown for Thompson, who skirmished with the Bucks' Serge Ibaka late in Tuesday's loss and drew a technical foul.

No, things are not going well. Like they told Caesar, beware the ides of March. And Jose Alvarado.

Perhaps I don't have that quote precise.

"I think you go through ebbs and flows throughout the season," LaVine observed. "Obviously, teams start buckling down and understanding as they ramp up for playoffs and post season. They're looking at what you do and what you don't do. We have to start getting back to our brand of basketball and not giving up 126 points.

"We take our hats off to the Pelicans, but we can't do that if we're a playoff team," reminded LaVine. 
"We're going to have to figure it out and dig our way out of the hole. I think everybody's on high alert right now. Everybody knows what's ahead of us and what we need to do. And if you don't understand that in the locker room then you're in the wrong place. We've just got to stop talking about it and get a win. It's as simple as that."

Zach LaVine hammers home a huge dunk against New Orleans for two of his 39 points.

This seemed like the one coming off the tough loss to the Bucks and against a team missing its All-Star in Ingram and working in recently acquired players like McCollum and Nance.

LaVine immediately recognized not only the uncertainty but the opportunity. He came out pushing the ball and firing from long range, a season most 16 first quarter points with three of three long balls and a 39-31 Bulls lead after one quarter. The Bulls shot 61 percent and made six of nine threes, and talk about partying in New Orleans. The Pelicans seemed as soft as a fresh baked beignet with Zach's stroke as sugary as a powder dusting.

This looked like a night for collecting the trinkets of victory.

And I don't even like going there. OK, maybe the beignets.

Uh oh, there came the bench again. Coby was terrific, but not much else as the Pelicans swallowed up that Bulls lead like it was a school of sardines. Though Zach and Coby kept coming, seven points for Zach and nine for Coby in the second quarter, the Bulls with 62 points and shooting 56 percent on threes by halftime.

Which made Donovan very worried.

"You're down by one (at half) and you're 10-of-18 from three-point," warned Donovan. "It was all of those things, the rebounding, the loose balls and the transitions."

The Pelicans had a fast start to the second half with seven straight points before things began to look good to Donovan.

"Come out in the third, don't get off to a good start," Donovan agreed. "I thought from the nine-minute mark to two minutes to go in that third quarter, we were good in terms of how we needed to play, identity wise. We were physical, we got out in transition, we created some steals. We put our nose in plays. We rebounded and got into transition. We made some shots. Zach was really good."

And then it was winnin' time.

It was 86-85 Pelicans going into the final quarter with already 26 lead changes and ties. There wouldn't be many more.

"All of a sudden," said Donovan, "we had careless turnovers, we didn't come up with loose rebounds, we fouled. The fouls break momentum. Some of the fouls that we had, they're just unnecessary, running into people. Just put your hands up! You're slapping down when you've got an opportunity to make a guy finish his shot. Maybe (a lack of) composure, carelessness. Those things really impacted us. When we needed to make plays we weren't able to in the fourth."

Jose Alvarado?