It never seemed to mean much this season for the Bulls, who Friday saw their three-game winning streak end in a 111-104 loss to the Boston Celtics.
There was the 3-20 start to oblivion after the starting and backup power forwards knocked one another out or out of the lineup. Then there was seven straight wins and 10 of 12, though what did it all mean with the team already almost out of the playoff race? Then seven straight losses to solidify that, the trades and acquisitions, the post All-Star benchings and auditions. The time Lauri had 33 and eight threes, when Zach taught Jimmy a thing or three, when Kris celebrated and even Denzel showed LeBron about drama.
And now, 79 games in with the Bulls 27-52 and headed to their most losses in 14 years, comes perhaps the crucible, the back to back games that could mean more than any, home and home against the Brooklyn Nets for what could be anywhere from the sixth to tenth selection in what many say is a stacked NBA draft.
Could the team’s future coalesce around the player there at Nos. 6 or 7? Or not there at Nos. 8 or 9?
Or does it matter at all? That the player at No. 13, like last year with Donovan Mitchell, may be better than the guy at No. 6. or No. 8?
Though it’s usually better to go first.
That’s why they call it honors in golf. Best to take the kickoff in football, get the jump ball in basketball. Is losing winning? Is winning losing? Is left right? Is down up? Which came first, the chicken or DeAndre Ayton?
Brooklyn (New York) and Chicago. Call the TV guys; these two could be interesting.
It was intriguing Friday even with apparently another snow day in Boston and most of the kids taking off.
The Bulls were without Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Antonio Blakeney, Paul Zipser, Denzel Valentine and Noah Vonleh. Boston’s Kyrie Irving was this week declared out for the season and playoffs. Marcus Smart remains out and Boston sat out Al Horford and Jayson Tatum. The Celtics are locked into the second seed in the Eastern Conference behind Toronto and now ahead of Philadelphia third. But also because of the Celtics injuries, teams toward the bottom of the East playoffs have been eying the Celtics as a preferable first round opponent. The Bulls, meanwhile, got their first look at former Bull Omer Asik from the Nikola Mirotic trade. It was a parade of names, some familiar, most not as Bird for Boston had 15 points-Jabari Bird—Guerschon Yabusele started for Boston and half the players from both teams were either undrafted or second round picks.
It still made for compelling theater as the Bulls, trailing 102-92 with 3:46 left, got three pointers from Sean Kilpatrick and Ryan Arcidiacono and were about to make it a two-point game with 2:23 left when Bird came swooping in to block a sure layup by Kilpatrick.
Boston ran out for a Semi Ojeleye layup and then a three from Jaylen Brown with 32 points gave the Celtics enough space to raise their record to 54-25.
Kilpatrick led the Bulls with 24 points and five of seven threes. He has scored in double figures in five of the six games he’s played for the Bulls. Lauri Markkanen had 20 points while again sitting out the fourth quarter. Markkanen has scored at least 20 points in each of the last three games without playing in the fourth quarter. He is averaging 20.4 points in 24.8 minutes in the last five games.
The Bulls also got 15 points and eight assists from Jerian Grant off the bench in relief of Cameron Payne, who had 11 points and made three of four threes. David Nwaba added 10 points and Bobby Portis was ejected in the third quarter along with Boston’s Marcus Morris after they had continued to talk sharply with one another.
“I walked in there to play D and the refs called a tech,” said a confused Portis. “It doesn’t make sense. I’ve been (getting) techs all year that don’t make sense.”
Each team made 14 threes and each had trouble shooting free throws, the Celtics missing 10 of 17. But Boston moved the ball well for 35 assists and shot 55.6 percent. The play was sloppy at times with the teams combining for 35 turnovers, but the Bulls shot a credible 47 percent overall and on threes. Even with Greg Monroe getting a triple double off the bench for the Celtics, the Bulls reserves had a 52-50 edge.
“I thought we played with great effort for 48 minutes,” said Hoiberg. “That’s the big thing we talked about after the game. I thought we went out there and played really hard and put ourselves in the position to be right there in the end and that’s what it’s about for our group. Obviously, the turnovers were the difference in the game. They turned us over way too many times, 17 overall which led to 25 points. It’s tough to win on the road when you do that. As far as effort, I thought we came out and really played hard, inspired basketball.”
The Bulls got another fast start from Markkanen with a pair of early threes as this group of players led by Payne looks to include him in offense more. It was tied at 30 after one quarter with Brown doing the serious work for Boston without most of their regulars. The Bulls pulled ahead by a game most 11 points late in the second quarter, again with Markkanen’s shooting and some good run outs and a lob dunk on a Payne pass. The Bulls led 58-55 at halftime.
Asik, who had been exiled to the bench since the trade, finally got into a game for the first time since the February trade. He played 16 minutes and had a basket. Nwaba appeared to suffer a sprained ankle and left in the second quarter, but was back to start the second half. Markkanen had 14 points in the first half with three of four threes.
“I feel a lot more confident now that I know what to expect,” Markkanen said. “It’s gone by fast, though there have been a lot of games. Taking the shots I have. I think it all comes down to spending time in the gym, all the stuff I have been working on, being comfortable as time goes on.”
The lead see sawed throughout the third quarter with the curious ejections of Portis and Morris, though one or the other twin Morris often ends up in heated disputes and challenging talk during games. Both happened to be ejected Friday, Markieff earlier in the evening with the Wizards.
The Celtics led 79-76 after three quarters and then with a spirited fourth quarter—what the Bulls now call Kilpatrick Time—with three ties and two lead changes. There would be 18 lead changes and 10 ties in the game. First, the Bulls took an 86-84 lead and then trailed 92-90 with 7:46 left when Boston scored seven straight points. But the Bulls shot their way back in with newcomer Kilpatrick again the top fourth quarter scorer with 14 points and four of four threes.
“Playing good offense, getting to the spots, making use of himself at the right times,” Portis said of Kilpatrick. “He has a ton of confidence when he shoots. He’s a great player in this league.”
But Kilpatrick got surprised by Bird on that layup attempt on the fast break, and time finally ran out on the Bulls.
So the clock perhaps truly starts now on what could be a big part of the team’s future: Brooklyn in the United Center Saturday and then the Bulls in Brooklyn Monday before closing the season against Detroit Wednesday in the United Center.
The Bulls currently have the eighth poorest record in the NBA, one game better than the Nets and a game and a half better than the Sacramento Kings.
Is it finally nervous time?