Bulls fall to Thunder

"We know what our problem is; it's black and white. Stop giving up fourth quarter leads, play better defense in the fourth quarter." - Zach LaVine
Zach LaVine drives against the Thunder.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later


The Bulls started strong, jumping to a 37-16 lead by the end of the first quarter. The Thunder fought back in the second half and defeated the Bulls 109-106.

The Bulls with Friday's victory over the Los Angeles Clippers were sensing they finally could turn the corner. And then Monday they turned right into another giant pothole, the Bulls surrendering a 26-point first half lead that still was 20 with five minutes left in the third quarter and lost 109-106 to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Chris Paul outscored the Bulls on his own in the fourth quarter with five three pointers. There were some disputed official rulings the losers, predictably, didn't like, including what could have been a couple of Zach LaVine three-point plays that were waved off and a foul call on Wendell Carter Jr. on an inbounds pass that resulted in an unsuccessful Bulls challenge and loss of the team's final timeout.

Bulls vs. Clippers game recap

LaVine with 10 fourth quarter points among his 39 did all he could to hold off what became the inevitable. Sure, he agreed, judgments might have been fairer for the Bulls with the Thunder attempting 15 more free throws. But the reality, LaVine acknowledged, was another loss on the Bulls.

"We just gave it up, man, a 20-point lead," LaVine said "There's missed calls throughout the game. But I don't think we should have been in that position either way to have me begging for a call. You're up by eight going into the fourth, you're up by 19 at halftime. I don't think we should even be in that position to where I got frustrated over that call."

It's not like the Bulls haven't experienced this before, right from the opening night blown fourth quarter double digit lead to the epic fourth quarter meltdown against the Lakers to a half dozen of these as the Bulls record dropped to 10-19. There's always post game talk about learning from these experiences, but somebody's getting left back.

Zach LaVine scores 39 points against the Thunder

"We know what our problem is; it's black and white. Stop giving up fourth quarter leads, play better defense in the fourth quarter," said LaVine. "Hold onto leads and sustain them. We're getting those leads and keeping them into the fourth quarter. We're giving up the game in the fourth. We know we're a really good team. We just haven't shown it on our record."

That darned NBA; they've been talking about reducing the length of the regular season to give players more rest. Why not the game? Thirty-six minutes seems enough, doesn't it?

"We played really well for 36 minutes," agreed Bulls coach Jim Boylen.

Unfortunately there's considerable indictment in that pattern.

It appeared the Bulls finally figured it out coming back to beat the Clippers in the last minutes. And then Monday in Oklahoma City, the Bulls easily played their best and most complete half of the season. And not only because they led 68-49. The Bulls finally showed why so many were excited about them entering this season.

Lauri dunks against the Thunder

They hit the Thunder with 9-0 and 13-0 spurts for a 37-16 first quarter mastery. Though it was more than the margin. It was the way the Bulls finally were playing. They stopped standing around waiting to shoot threes. They were moving and passing, cutting hard, recognizing mismatches, taking the best shot and not the planned shot. Lauri Markkanen, who finished with 13 points, was getting the ball on the move and finishing. Wendell Carter Jr., who had 12 points and nine rebounds and matched Markkanen's two blocks, wasn't passing up those good free throw line jump shots. Denzel Valentine continued to make threes and added 10 points. Ryan Arcidiacono came in firing, 12 points in 11 minutes making five of six shots. An offense that often looked like a sightseeing tour became a tilt-a-whirl. And defensively led by three more steals from Kris Dunn, the Bulls were on the way to provoking 26 turnovers for what should have been a fatal-for-the-Thunder 39 points.

"A lot of positive play," said Boylen. "A lot of movement. Disappointing loss, but I love the way my guys battled, and we'll learn from it."

Class never has been so frustrating.

Thaddeus Young shoots the ball against the Thunder

The Bulls shot 58 percent in the first half, so it was certain the Thunder would react. Paul had more turnovers than points, and that would change, as well. Though Paul gets forgotten about now at 34 and with a rebuilding Thunder team, he's still a terrific player. It would be unfortunate if he didn't end up with a contending team. His $38 million salary this season ($85 million more for the next two seasons) might be the eventual obstacle. But Paul could be a difference maker for a championship this season, especially the way he basically beat the Bulls in the last 12 minutes. And missing a 30-point triple double by two assists.

"We were playing great," said LaVine. "We let them get in a rhythm and walk us down and Chris Paul took over, had a damned flash back moment and went nuts in the fourth. We can't let Chris Paul kill us like that."

Paul's not what he was. But that's what it means to have a true veteran leader. Not just telling you how to win the game, but demonstrating. Unfortunately there are too few around.

It didn't go our way. I'm not going to make this into we're less than or we're not this or we're not that. We're learning, we're growing.

Coach Boylen

Teams generally respond well to the Bulls pick and roll trapping defense after halftime, rolling in for easier scores. Which also make you wonder how they don't know about it to start games. Still, the Bulls have generally started games lately more energetically than opponents. Paul made an early third quarter three. But the Bulls with LaVine cancelled that out and led 75-54 when Thunder coach Billy Donovan successfully challenged a shooting foul call for LaVine that was changed to a jump ball. Adams won the jump and Paul got him a dunk. Was that the turning point? Oklahoma City cut the Bulls lead to 16, but LaVine scored on a pair of back cuts as they did seem to be learning. The Bulls still led 85-65 with 5:15 left in the third quarter.

Paul cut the Thunder deficit to 10 with a jumper with 33 seconds left in the third quarter on a 9-2 Thunder run. Boylen had been calling quick timeouts to stop runs, but then with just a half minute left in the quarter he called another, which would prove costly when the Bulls were left without any timeouts in the last minute.

Still, with a Valentine floater to open the fourth the Bulls had another fourth quarter double digit lead.

Denzel Valentine dribbles the ball

Paul is one of the better playing strategists, and he was able to create switches to get Bulls big men on him. Bulls players said the plan wasn't to switch, though it seemed like it was as players didn't much fight through the screens. Paul took advantage with three consecutive three pointers in two minutes, and suddenly it was 96-93 Bulls. The Thunder is just 12-14 now with Russell Westbrook departed, also. But the Bulls tend to forget what they did earlier this season at these times, and it would occur again.

Satoransky did have a tough finish as the shot clock went off for a 100-98 Bulls lead with 4:53 left. And then the Thunder committed yet another turnover. But Adams drew a jump ball tying up Dunn, winning the jump that led to another Paul three and the Thunder's first lead since 2-0 with 4:10 left. The teams then exchanged misses on four possessions before Paul stole a Bulls inbounds pass and made yet another three for a 104-100 Thunder lead with 2:41 left.

And all you kept thinking was just how surreal this all was; could this really be happening again?

Kris Dunn and Wendell Carter Jr. on the court

"We battled in the fourth quarter," Boylen insisted. "We got down four and then tied it. They made some big, big shots. We've got to give them credit for that. I thought they made shots over us and those are shots you've got to live with those. They didn't get to the rim or in the paint. They were at the end of possessions, so give him (Paul) credit for that. He made big shots, six for eight from threes, big shots in the fourth."

Trap, get the ball out of his hands? Blitz the pick and roll like they usually do?

"It didn't go our way," said Boylen. "I'm not going to make this into we're less than or we're not this or we're not that. We're learning, we're growing and I was proud of how we played. We made mistakes; that happens. We have to do better in some areas. That happens. But this team is growing. It's getting better."

The Bulls did respond; at least LaVine did.

Zach LaVine soars for the dunk

He drew free throws after a Danilo Gallinari miss, and later would add another pair of free throws and a driving dunk to tie the game at 106 with 25.9 seconds left. But after those first free throws to get the Bulls within 104-102, the Bulls cried foul. It was partly their fault because Paul missed a long three as the shot clock expired. But the Thunder got the rebound. Terrance Ferguson missed a three, but Adams maneuvered Markkanen out of the way to get the rebound. Thunder coaches thought Adams was fouled, but the officials said Carter tied him up for a jump ball. They got tanged on the inbounds pass to Adams with a foul called on Carter with 1:22 left and the Thunder leading 104-102. Boylen challenged the call, but lost, which also cost the Bulls their final timeout.

Paul then got the ball and faked Dunn into a foul with his rip through move, the free throws giving Oklahoma City a 106-102 lead with 1:16 left. LaVine thought he had a three-point play, but the call was made before the shot and LaVine made two free throws. Two-point game. Gallinari missed. LaVine drove into the left corner and believed he was fouled on a three-point attempt by Dennis Schroder. It was called out of bounds. LaVine grabbed his head with both hands in disbelief. But LaVine got the inbounds pass and drove for the tying score at 106. The Thunder inbounded with 25.9 seconds left in a tie game.

"I thought we responded," Boylen pointed out. "We tied it back up. So I thought we had a response to their run and it could have gone either way in the last two minutes."

Lauri Markkanen looking to pass the ball against the Thunder

Paul dribbled up and took a screen from Gallinari. Dunn got back to Paul, so Gallinari went to screen again. This time Dunn couldn't catch up and Paul dribbled left past Markkanen to the lane. Carter blocked his pass attempt to Adams. Paul fell and grabbed the ball, getting a timeout with 4.3 seconds in the game and 2.4 seconds on the shot clock. Paul then lobbed into Adams and Carter was called for a hold.

Adams was awarded two free throws. He's a poor free throw shooter, but he banked in the first, barely avoiding breaking the backboard glass, and then missed the second.

"I think Steven Adams missed that last free throw on purpose," said LaVine. "That was really smart. If he would have made it, I think I would have had 4.5 seconds to get around to the three-point line or closer. With one second, it's a Hail Mary."

We're getting those leads and keeping them into the fourth quarter. We're giving up the game in the fourth. We know we're a really good team. We just haven't shown it on our record.

Zach LaVine

The problem for the Bulls without a timeout is Boylen was planning the play for after the free throws while the officials were huddling. Boylen was setting up for a push downcourt without the timeout. So he inserted Coby White for Carter after the first Adams free throw. But it backfired with LaVine and Markkanen up front. The second free throw ricocheted back to Adams, who slapped it back to Paul. He made two more free throws for the final margin.

"We needed speed on the floor," Boylen explained. "We didn't have a timeout. We needed speed and had to get the ball down the floor. He banks the first one in and now we have to get something going to the rim. That's what I wanted to do."

With 1.3 seconds left, all LaVine could do was get off a 60-footer that missed.

The end.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.


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