The Bulls outplayed the talented and young Pelicans until New Orleans stole the game late in the fourth quarter among reserve players.
It was beginning to look like the morning of the Bulls new day Wednesday despite the 127-125 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans and rookie Zion Williamson's 29 points. The fog of defeat has hung over the Bulls for too long. But it seemed finally to be lifting in a spirited and skilled first three quarters during which the Bulls ran — and ran and passed and shot — up a 21-point lead.
"I thought," said Bulls coach Jim Boylen, "at moments we looked like a team. We looked like how we want to look. We need to have more of those moments and be more consistent. And I am confident we will."
The Bulls had many of those moments with Zach LaVine's 28 points in 24 minutes with four of seven threes, 16 points, eight assists and seven rebounds from Otto Porter Jr., a dozen points from Lauri Markkanen, 11 points and eight assists from Tomas Satoransky and nine points and four assists in just 16 minutes for Luke Kornet in his first playing time with the team after a toe injury.
LaVine's 28 points against the Pelicans
With several impressive scoring runs, the Bulls attempted 37 threes after 38 in Monday's opener and had a smooth 34 assists through three quarters and 38 for the game. And featuring scoring and space-the-floor shooting lineups, the Bulls outplayed the talented and young Pelicans until New Orleans stole the game late in a 41-18 fourth quarter among matching reserve players.
"What I told the team after is that's a good learning moment for our guys," said Boylen. "Everybody in this league can play. If you have a group out there that loses its edge or competitiveness for a moment or two, the game can flip. Obviously, the game flipped and they had a big fourth quarter and won the game. I thought we did a lot of good things tonight."
It's obviously just the second preseason game, both losses. So it's not like the sun is shining brightly on this group quite yet. But in several scoring sequences led by LaVine's shooting and dunking—and he was the best dunker on the floor—Porter's relentless hustle for loose balls, Markkanen's stretch shooting and the urbane play of seven footer Kornet, one could finally begin to see the clear outlines of a team.
"I think we did a good job of moving the ball well and playing much better defense than the first preseason game," said Satoransky, who seems to be taking the lead in the point guard derby. "I think we were much better one-on-one defensively and I think we showed the way we want to play. We moved the ball well, had open shooters and just played with pace. Today we did a much better job spacing and being ready in catch and go. Especially beginning the third quarter with energy. After winning (the first half) by 13, still hyped and playing with a lot of intensity and lots of fast breaks."
LaVine can prove frustrating sometimes to the casual observer. What about the defense? What about the shot selection? What about the turnovers?
But when LaVine is producing, which is more often than not, he gets the scoreboard blinking like a Las Vegas slot machine on jackpot.
"Zach's a special cat," Boylen said.
It was a sputtering start for the Bulls with nine first quarter turnovers in the much anticipated Chicago debut of the NBA's next great thing. Williamson didn't disappoint in converting 12 of 13 field goals. He moves with remarkable grace and alacrity, spinning around bigger defenders and slamming the ball against smaller ones. It wasn't so much the highlight show dunks, but the blur quickness in so many post move spins that were remarkable for someone that size at about 6-6 and 285 pounds.
"I was amazed at his body control for a guy that big," agreed Boylen. "There looked like moments he wasn't going to get to the rim and he did. Amazing for a guy that big to slither and snake through things even though people are in front of him; hell of a skill."
LaVine added with a smile he wanted to show the kid what a dunk champion looks like, but then added admiringly, "He's the truth."
LaVine soars for the dunk in the first quarter against the Pelicans
Though it was no lie once the Bulls steadied with Markkanen and Kornet stretching the floor with long threes in the first quarter. The Bulls took a 26-25 lead.
"I can help our team shooting threes," said Kornet, a late summer free agent signing after leaving the Knicks. "We had a good group out there with everyone able to make plays for themselves, but also we were making the right passes. Tomas and Otto did a great job keeping the ball moving and getting out in the open floor. Just a bunch of guys trying to play the right way and everyone benefits from that. And it helps second half when Zach hits a bunch in a row like that."
Rookie Coby White had 13 points on six of 15 shooting. He led a group early in the second quarter to a 42-35 lead. Then he took a run beside Satoransky. With more offensive versatility than the Bulls have had in years with shooters like LaVine, Markkanen and Kornet complementing that duo for a stretch, the Bulls opened a 71-58 halftime lead. And then with Zach breaking out for a few fast break dunks to open the second half, the Bulls quickly had a 19-point lead.
We moved the ball well, had open shooters and just played with pace. Today we did a much better job spacing and being ready in catch and go.
Through three quarters, the Bulls had more assists than they had in any game last season. And with 54 percent shooting through three quarters, there hasn't been much to see like that from the Bulls. Though the Pelicans shot 54.5 percent, and still 50.7 percent through three quarters when it mattered most. So there's still an old look, too, as for now the Bulls appear built to succeed with offense.
No offense, as it were.
"It felt like we came out with a little more aggression," said LaVine. "The more we play together, I feel the ball will pop around the perimeter better. We did what we had to do. The first group went out there and took the challenge, the small lineups and getting up and down and playing fast. I feel like that's what we do."
The Bulls remain without injured Chandler Hutchison, Shaquille Harrison and Wendell Carter Jr. Boylen indicated Carter was close to a return and should play on the upcoming trip to Indiana Friday and Toronto Sunday. The Bulls then finish the five-game preseason Oct. 17 in the United Center against Atlanta.
Boylen promised by then he'd have a rotation and starting lineup set.
"That day is coming when we'll shrink this down in what it needs to be and then play with those guys," Boylen said.
We looked like how we want to look. We need to have more of those moments and be more consistent. And I am confident we will.
Kornet as the only interior seven footer probably has earned a spot. Rookie Daniel Gafford fought hard and played well again for eight points in 12 minutes. Kris Dunn had two points, five assists and five rebounds in 23 minutes off the bench with Satoransky taking a starting turn in the second game. Kornet joined the starters for the second half. Though it seems likely Carter will eventually reclaim his starting center position. And then the rotation musical chairs begins. Denzel Valentine had 10 points in 16 minutes with some fancy lob passes to the big men for scores. Thaddeus Young pinballed around for 11 points and six rebounds in 23 minutes. Boylen will have some difficult decisions to make. Which is a good thing for a change. Good enough to start breaking into song?
"I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Here is that rainbow I've been praying for
It's gonna be a bright bright, sunshiny day"
— Johnny Nash