The Bulls Monday had another thrilling finish as first runner up. That's not too bad in a beauty contest and pretty good in the Olympics. Basketball games? Not so much as the Bulls once again squandered a fourth quarter lead and watched helplessly as Zach LaVine's driving attempt for the win bounced away as time expired. The Bulls with the 93-92 loss to the Toronto Raptors fell to 8-17 with the last three losses by two points, in overtime and by one point, games in which the Bulls led by at least five points midway through the fourth quarter.
"We're close, we're right there," insisted Bulls coach Jim Boylen.
Notwithstanding a home loss last week to a Golden State team that is only the Knicks away from being the league's worst, the Bulls should have, would have, could have beaten…if only, if that shot, the rebound, that turnover….
"We've got to win two or three more possessions," Boylen said in a fiery post game media session. "One more defensive rebound, one more loose ball, one more open three. That's the difference in this.
"It's disappointing when we don't win games," Boylen acknowledged. "It's disappointing when we don't win home games. Nobody is running from that. But this team is playing hard and competing and they're learning and they're growing. I think people can see that, too. I loved the way we played the last two nights. I get a lot of positive feedback about our group. I think people understand what we're trying to build. I love the way our defense has grown. I thought we had a lot of really good looks we can make. The ball was popping, the ball was moving; those are the things I look at. How many times this season have we had 30 assists? Anyone know? Our goal is to get 35. I'm not going to let those things deter me from understanding who we are and what we are trying to do and what we are building. I'm not. And I'm not going to let any negativity deter us from that mission."
With that Boylen departed leaving the much-too-familiar empty feeling about what just occurred, and why and whether it's going to change anytime soon.
Despite the record, these Bulls aren't dull.
And they're hardly giving in or giving up. It's just the winning part that continues to be elusive.
Though there's a common denominator in lost fourth quarter leads, there's generally a variety of occurrences. Against Miami Sunday night, LaVine attempted a three in overtime to tie in the last minute after tying the game with free throws in regulation. LaVine also had missed late long jump shots to win or tie against the Warriors last week. Though LaVine had made similar shots to save games previously, notably in Charlotte last month.
So LaVine, who led the Bulls with 20 points all in the first half, adjusted Monday and drove the ball with 8.1 seconds remaining and Toronto ahead 93-92 on a Kyle Lowry driving score.
"I saw Marc Gasol there (coming to help)," LaVine related afterward. "I tried to get him in the air and draw a foul. I've looked at (the play on film) now. I just wish I would've took an extra dribble to see the double team on me. I could've hit Daniel (Gafford alone under the basket). I could've kicked it back out. I thought I was making the right play by trying to get in the air and get to the free throw line. It just didn't happen."
And so yet again another almost and coulda.
"It's always frustrating when you are missing the last piece to get the win," said Tomas Satoransky, who had his first Bulls double/double with 10 points and 11 assists. "Hopefully we see progress. Right now it is tough because this league is about winning."
The encouraging aspect is the players haven't given up or given in to the disappointment and exhaustion of defeat, which sometimes occurs and is noticeable by the margins of defeat. The discouraging element is the way it continues in subtlety different ways, yet is consistent in its relentlessness. The losses just keep on coming like waves on a beach. And there seems no one thing that can change the erosion other than simply doing better.
Denzel to Daniel for the slam
The reserves again gave the Bulls a good effort, especially Gafford and Denzel Valentine. Gafford had 14 points with Wendell Carter Jr. in foul trouble. He finished the game when Carter fouled out with 3:52 left and the Bulls trailing by one point. Valentine had 13 points and ran the best two-man game the team has seen this season in a pair of lob dunks to Gafford. It seems inexplicable that Valentine, who is one of the team's best three-point shooters, was out of the rotation so long this season. He made three more threes and now has multiple threes in five straight games. Gafford also had three blocks and was a defensive rim presence the Bulls usually lack with the smaller Carter. Carter had 14 points and six rebounds with three more offensive rebounds. His play following missed shots probably is the team's best with his uncompromising work ethic.
Coby White had another of those 0-fer games, scoreless in 30 minutes. Boylen indicated after the Miami loss it was time to work in White as a true point guard, and White did have five assists. He's obviously another of those high character Bulls players who seeks to please and do what is asked. But the Bulls seemed to lose the benefit of his aggressive nature as he looked constantly to pass instead of shoot. He's probably the point guard of the future, though now Satoransky is a far superior playmaker while White's presence as a high scoring sixth man seems diminished with his concentration on sharing.
Lauri Markkanen added 13 points and eight rebounds and was two of six on threes. But the Bulls were a miserable 12 for 46 on threes, attempting many more threes than twos in the first half and falling just short of the franchise record for three-point attempts. It's been a concern since the team ranks 19th in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage and top 10 in attempts. It's no longer a small sample.
It's accurate as Boylen said that the Bulls may be this close to their goals with just an almost arbitrary play here or there. Yet just as concerning was a segment early in the second quarter when the Bulls, returning from a long trip back from Miami Monday morning and perhaps a bit tired, in seven possession attempted six three pointers. All missed, yet everyone continued to try again. It finally was left to Markkanen to realize the folly and drive to the basket. The Bulls in that second quarter were an egregious three of 16 on threes. It seemed almost comical, as if each player were daring another to shoot. The Bulls still led 51-49 at halftime. But that was a time the Bulls might have distanced themselves from a lackluster Raptors team.
So while a team can point to a rebound or loose ball or turnover at the close, it also needs to note the opportunities when the game turns in its direction and the team seems otherwise occupied.
"It's a different situation for every game and we just have to learn from it," said Valentine.
Maybe they are just slow learners.
It was a fast start for the Bulls, and especially LaVine. He's often the focus of criticism for the late shots he doesn't make or sometimes from where he takes them and how. But no one on the team has as many exceptional sequences as LaVine, like he did again Monday with 15 first quarter points, no-way-he-makes those threes with defenders all over him, speedier-than-The Flash drives, and even faking his way into a half court three free throws as the first quarter concluded.
"We're trying our best," said LaVine. "We have to break through to the point where we make the play at the end or get out to that seven or eight-point lead and we coast to the end; it shouldn't even have gotten to that point because we were playing that team really well."
Toronto coach Nick Nurse quietly has established himself as one of the game's better tacticians. He's one of the few coaches, along with Dallas' Rick Carlisle, who'll switch in and out of a zone defense, though it helps to have a former Defensive Player of the Year in Gasol. Nurse actually was a tangential Bulls coach as the G-league coach of Des Moines when the Bulls shared that franchise. The Raptors tested that zone early in the first quarter, and they'd bring it back late with some success. Valentine admitted it caused some confusion, though the Bulls did beat it twice late with a Markkanen three and a Gafford putback that forced the Raptors back to man coverage.
That early second quarter with the barrage of bad Bulls threes was crucial with the Raptors floundering and then the teams were tied at 71 after three quarters. Toronto had inched ahead in the third quarter until those two-man game plays with Valentine and Gafford. The rookie is unusually facile catching passes by the rim and provides an energetic defensive presence. He could prove to be an excellent find given more playing time.
He continued to excel to open the fourth quarter playing off Valentine. Valentine added his own long three, and the reserves procured an 85-77 lead with about eight minutes left in the game. Boylen had been second guessed at times for not going back to his starters in the fourth quarter, so he began to stagger them back in. Of course, so did the Raptors. The Bulls would then go more than five minutes without scoring, though it was Valentine, White and Thad Young with turnovers and Carter with another and then immediately fouling out after having the ball stripped.
"My subs were tired," Boylen said. "We were on a back to back. There's always a discussion of who we should we leave in and take out. The starters' job is to come back in, get reengaged in the game and close it out. That's what they (Toronto) did. They brought their guys in and they closed the game out. We have to learn to do that. That's the growth plate."
The Bulls did score in half of their last six possessions even with the LaVine miss.
The Bulls defensive play continued to frustrate the 16-7 Raptors. Toronto did get an 86-85 lead as Carter fouled out. Valentine scored on a drive for an 87-86 Bulls lead with 2:35 remaining. Then the Bulls defense wasn't as stout. Toronto scored on four consecutive possessions. Markkanen's three gave the Bulls a lead with 1:45 left. Normal Powell rammed his way to a score, Gafford put back his own miss, Lowry scored on a drive with 50.9 seconds left. Those would be the final points of the game. Markkanen was blocked, Lowry turned the ball over, and then it was Zach's time again.
"We put the ball in his hands; we trust him with it," said Boylen. "He's trying to get fouled. He's trying to get something good going to the rim. It's a shot he can make. He's delivered before. We'll trust him again."
"Feels like a little bit of a broken record," LaVine said.
The kids know what records are?
It is the same old song.
BullsTV Recap: Raptors 93, Bulls 9
BullsTV Recap: Raptors 93, Bulls 92