Despite leading by as much as 16 points and limiting Phoenix to shooting 27.3% (6-of-22) from three, 19 Bulls turnovers were too much to overcome as Chicago fell to the Suns 106-97. Zach LaVine led Chicago with 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting. The Bulls (15-17) travel down to Tampa to take on the Toronto Raptors (17-17) on Sunday night.
How was the Bulls 106-97 loss to the Phoenix Suns like Alice in Wonderland? Anyone? Not anything like how a raven is to a writing desk.
It wasn't really a rabbit hole the Bulls fell down in the fourth quarter, losing a seven-point lead that had been 14 late in the third quarter after Luke Kornet dominated. His nine points in three minutes had teammates grinning like Cheshire cats. Then there was the February hare in this case, Chris Paul stealing the Bulls hearts in a 32-16 Suns fourth quarter. Alice in Wonderland was a great book with a terrible ending because it all was just a dream. The Bulls Friday were telling a great story about who they were which also ended in disappointment.
"The locker room is hurting," admitted Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "You can just see the disappointment in their faces because they knew that probably for three-and-a-half quarters we were playing really good basketball and we were hanging in there toe to toe. I think we competed and did some really good things."
But in the end it was only a let down as the Suns hit the Bulls with 9-0 and 10-0 runs in a 26-6 mad tea party of a fourth quarter in which the Bulls looked nothing like who they've been in winning four of their last five and seven of 10 to crowd into the last Eastern Conference playoff spot. The Bulls now are 15-17 and back in ninth. They close the first half of the season Sunday in Toronto and then against Denver and New Orleans.
Donovan speaks to the media following Chicago's 106-97 loss to Phoenix.
"I think that we just kind of got away from Bulls basketball," said Thad Young, who was typically clever with 13 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. "It happens some games where guys start trying to make plays and start trying to make reads and the outcome is not the way you think it should be. It was a few instances where Zach (LaVine with a team high 24 points) drove the basketball and he had a couple turnovers. He felt like he got fouled a couple times. A lot of different factors go into it.
"We kind of got away from our ball movement and started trying to create a little bit more as opposed to just kind of moving the ball and making it go side-to-side before we tried to get (to the basket)," said Young. "We feel that we let an opportunity slip away from us."
Young's comments to media came after the longest post game locker room session of the season. It had nothing to do with stealing tarts as much as hearts. Young said players discussed the breakdowns and what they might do next time, which is progress in a sense, also. These Bulls believe they are good enough to win against the best, which the Suns have become this season because of Paul at 21-11.
Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton each scored 22 points, but they were there the last few seasons and it didn't matter much. It helps to have a king. Booker is an All-Star, but Paul makes the difference.
Coby White had 19 points, but he and LaVine combined for six of their eight turnovers in the fourth quarter to accentuate the issue the Bulls probably know they have. No Chris Paul. Well, not everyone has one, but the Bulls lack that player in the open court who gets control of the game. They've overcome it often this season, sometimes with Young's acumen or the stability of Tomas Satoransky, who had 12 points.
But as this season toggles between playoff credibility and earnest evaluation, the Bulls need to develop the young players they have. Donovan often has closed games with combinations of Young, Satoransky and Garrett Temple for stability. This time he rode White and perhaps got to LaVine a little late as the Suns melted down the Bulls advantage through three quarters.
Coby White finished with 19 points, five rebounds, and four assists in the loss.
"I think we scored 16 points in the fourth. Can't have that," said White. "We were all hurt. There's no question that we controlled the game throughout the first third. It's just that fourth quarter we gotta come out and close. We felt like we should've won. We go into any game feeling like we can win any game."
The Bulls have mostly played like that the last month. But LaVine and White got little help from Wendell Carter Jr. and Patrick Williams. Carter after a pair of double/doubles had just two points with three shots against the taller Ayton. It pushed Donovan to giving Kornet another long look, and it almost was the Coach of the Year move of the night. One of fourteen on threes with nine points in eight games this season, Kornet had 11 points, five rebounds and three blocks in 12 minutes.
"He played well. I was happy for Luke," said Donovan. "He works hard and those shots kind of broke momentum for them and gave us a little momentum going back. Those three threes were big."
After a shaky start trailing 22-11, Donovan went to the bench and along with LaVine they got the Bulls tied at 26 after one quarter and then in control, a 19-4 run to end the half for a 58-46 lead. The Suns were cutting into it, trailing 66-61 midway through the third quarter when Kornet broke out with a pair of corner threes and one from the wing. The Bulls entered the fourth quarter still leading 81-74. It was 87-80 Bulls with eight minutes left.
"Using Luke, bringing (Ayton) out there, probably Wendell's minutes were back and forth," explained Donovan. "We started him in the first and the third, but they were a little bit mixed the end of the second, middle of the fourth. I think Wendell is an important piece to our team. When he's playing well on both ends that really helps us."
Temple remains an emergency starter with Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. out injured. Perhaps with anticipated returns after the break and March 7 All-Star game the starters will produce more consistently. Rookie Patrick Williams loped through another single digit scoring game with four points and now has single digits in five of the last nine. We justifiably excuse him because he probably should still be a college freshman. Though he is starting and played almost 34 minutes. And while that detached demeanor plays into the Kawhi-light comparisons, both Williams and Carter tend perhaps too often to the unemotional.
Patrick Williams slams one home with authority in the first quarter, though he finished with only four points on the night.
Maybe a primal scream every now and then? Not too often, though.
"I always talk about switches, light switches," said Young. "We were doing one thing the first half and then we went to something completely different the second half."
The Suns are a good defensive team, top 10 in team defense with several potential all-defensive team candidates. They're also one of the league's hottest teams, winning 13 of their last 16 with a narrow loss to Brooklyn in that stretch. In the fourth quarter, Paul had more assists than the entire Bulls team had baskets.
"It's not only his play," said Donovan, who coached Paul in Oklahoma City last season. "It's his intelligence, his smarts, his leadership, the way he can orchestrate and move guys around. That's who he is and that's what he does. He has a great impact on the game and a lot of times he doesn't necessarily need to be scoring. Listen, we contributed to it with the turnovers. That enabled him to really take control of the game, to manipulate the game the way he did. I'm not saying he wouldn't have done that down the stretch because he's done that many a time in his career and that's who he is. But when you're playing against him the last thing you can do is turn the ball over."
Turnovers are a constant refrain from all coaches. Donovan points to it as a fatal flaw and the Bulls committed 19 Friday that led to 24 Suns points. Though the Suns also are impressive the way they seek out mid-range shots, outscoring the Bulls 66-44 inside. It gave the Suns 35 assists.
The Bulls basketball that Young references has been appealing to watch and effective in this 10-game stretch with lots of passing and player movement, unselfish play and better shots. But it's also axiomatic the more you try to move the ball and have more players touch the ball, the more opportunity for someone to take it away.
Running into some of that against handsy Suns the last eight minutes, the Bulls began driving more off screens, resulting in some moving too quickly for more turnovers. There was a 24-second in there when they did move it around, the Suns recovering quickly. Without a conductor, sometimes the band plays sour notes. The Bulls committed eight fourth quarter turnovers. But the Suns made six, so that shouldn't fully account for the margin. Paul setting up most of 13 fourth quarter scores with 11 team assists proved too much for the Bulls with Ayton blocking White twice at the rim and Williams once.
It helped to have a shot blocking seven footer and a ball distributing wizard. Talk about being in wonderland.
"Those guys are a good team for a reason," said Young. "They know how to walk you down. They have a great point guard in CP, another great guard in Dev (Booker) and they just walked us down. Their coach is great as well. We weren't good on either side of the basketball in the second half."
Too bad the Bulls couldn't wake up from that nightmare.