The Bulls knew what they had to do against the Golden State Warriors Friday, so they crafted a plan. After all, just two months ago the Warriors Klay Thompson set an all-time NBA record with 14 three pointers in a 149-124 Warriors win in which the defending champions scored 92 first half points in the United Center.
"The game plan was to shut off Klay and not let him get going like he did against us," acknowledged Wendell Carter Jr.
So the Bulls apparently consulted the blueprint for the Edsel car and the formula for new Coke. They must have shown films of Custer's battle plan and the recipe for oyster and scrambled egg pizza. There had to be depictions of building a fire escape that emptied into a hot oven. Or perhaps everyone fell asleep in their pregame mashed potatoes.
"Obviously," agreed Bulls coach Jim Boylen, "the first quarter wasn't what we were hoping for."
That was because that aforementioned Thompson attempted the Warriors first three shots, all three pointers, and made them all, sending the Bulls into a timeout 100 seconds into the game trailing 11-2. Before the quarter was over, the Warriors led 43-17, the Bulls had established a record first-quarter deficit and were warming up the planes engines for the trip to Salt Lake City with a 146-109 loss.
Zach LaVine's scoring and Bobby Portis's frustration were the few signs of life for the Bulls in a game they should have been ready for with a day off, the defeat in November and a chance to measure themselves against the game's best. It proved a painful setback and sixth straight loss to drop to 10-32. Though it was more so the almost immediate failure to make the game competitive.
The Bulls did outscore the Warriors 38-33 in the second quarter to make the halftime deficit 76-55. But that with some berating and blabbering between Portis and Kevin Durant awakened the Warriors enough to lead by 40 points going into the fourth quarter.
LaVine finished with 29 points, the only Bulls starter to score in double figures in a game when Lauri Markkanen, Carter and Kris Dunn all had plus/minus ratings of at least minus-39 with Dunn at minus-45.
"Obviously the plus/minus of our starters compared to theirs was not good," noticed Boylen. "I don't know if we were just watching them, if we were in awe, if we were fearful. I don't know what it was. We talked about it and came out in the second quarter and played better. We did respond. But we were just following them around to start the game; we were a little bit too respectful, without the edge we need. I'm disappointed in that and going to have to learn from that."
Portis had 16 points and a bit of a dustup with Durant in the third quarter after back-to-back Stephen Curry threes. Portis claimed Durant forced his arm down trying to get through a screen and Portis' arm went numb, Portis briefly falling into the Bulls bench in what seemed like yet another serious injury. But he quickly shook it off.
"He pulled my arm and my arm started hurting," said Portis. "It wasn't really necessary what he did. It wasn't called for; you don't do that. I did not think that was a basketball play. If I would have done that, I would have gotten a foul call. But I guess who they are.
"My arm went numb," said Portis. "I couldn't feel it. I got the feeling back in my arm and then checked the situation at hand. At first we were just jawing; he was talking smack. Double T. I knew we were going to get one eventually because both of us were not going to stop talking. Obviously there was a lot of bleeding out there. They had it rolling and I was trying to do anything I could to bring some passion to the team."
It wasn't easy. Thompson ended with 30 points and Curry 28. Durant added 22 and none played 30 minutes. Antonio Blakeney had 12 points and Ryan Arcidiacono 10 for the Bulls, both with most in the fourth quarter.
Though it was especially painful for LaVine, who carried the Bulls through their one competitive duration in the game, holding off Thompson with 20 second-quarter points. LaVine had been looking forward to the game as a measure, in some respects, against the best guards in the NBA. But when he yelled charge and turned around there was no one there.
"I'm a competitor, man," LaVine was saying afterward. "I like playing here because it's competition. You like going up against these dudes. But it's frustrating when you get to the fourth quarter and you're down like that. You want to play, but it's like NBA (unwritten) rules, you don't play. It gets frustrating especially when you have multiple of those games in a season. There's nothing else we can do but keep playing. Frustrating though."
Despite lapses about defense or passing, LaVine this season has regularly been not only the team's most productive player and highest scorer, but most likely to demonstrate that offensive competitiveness against superior opponents. He did so again with more than a point a minute, and never was ready to give in. He's not about to accept it, though it's still a reality he must face as one of the most senior players on the team at just 23 years old.
"We're at the bottom of the totem pole and we're trying to climb our way up," LaVine pointed out. "It's just not easy. You have to take some bumps and bruises. You're going to have ups and downs, but I think you can appreciate those times when you get to that point; you have to try to get there. You have to enjoy, not enjoy, but you have to go through some pains and I think that we're in a little bit of a rut right now. It's not like anything is going to change, anybody is going to feel bad for us. We have to dig our way out of it, fight our way out and I think we can do it."
And so the Bulls move on to face the tough Utah Jazz in the third stop on this five-game road trip through the Western Conference. They get a break next week with the Lakers' LeBron James still out injured, but then close against the streaking Denver Nuggets.
Though it's not so much the losing, but the Losing.
Rephrase that. The Bulls aren't going to have a winning record, but this season needs to be a test of their edge and capacity. It was desperately lacking in their last visit to Oakland Friday. The Warriors move into their San Francisco arena next season.
Sure, the Warriors are a great, dynasty team that remains despite a 28-14 start favored to win their third consecutive NBA title and fourth in five years.
"Whenever we got a good two point shot, they came back and hit us with a three," noted Carter. "That team answers back; they are really good at that.
With them being so good, you can easily get frustrated and I felt like I let my frustration get the best of me (for a technical foul). They have so many weapons. We are running back trying to get matched up against one player and someone else is knocking down a shot. In transition, they are very dynamic. We like to crash the boards and one of the game plans we had was we couldn't crash the boards and get back, but we didn't do that and that's how then got a lot of their transition buckets."
The Warriors had 29 fast break points, a 49-29 rebounding edge despite Kevin Looney starting at center and they made 18 of 39 threes. Though what also makes the Warriors so great is they don't worry about the analytics and odds. They take good shots wherever they present themselves and don't try to force themselves into those so called ideal shots, the threes and layups. When the Bulls twice jumped out to Curry on the baseline, he simply stepped in and made 18-footers. Similarly with Durant. They understand a made two is much better than a hunted three. They're often the embodiment of the cliche about taking what the defense gives. It's how they shot 58 percent like they did against the Bulls.
"You can't go back and forth with them," said LaVine. "You have to come out ready and battle them from the beginning because it's hard to dig out of that hole when you play dudes like that."
There wasn't much to say about that game from the Bulls side.
It was 31-8 just over eight minutes into the game. Then Jonas Jerebko banked in a 60-footer to end the first quarter to lead by 26. Yes, in the first quarter.
"They just jumped on us and we didn't respond very well," said Boylen.
LaVine and Portis gave the Bulls some pulse in that second quarter, which was all the hope Boylen continued to hang onto.
"Winning the second quarter was important to me," said Boylen. "I want to see us respond to things. We have to come out (Saturday in Utah) with more of a competitive edge to win the game and try to start the game."
Curry took the baton in that third quarter from Thompson and added four threes and the Warriors had 16 more points through three quarters than the Bulls average in a game.
"Of course nobody likes getting their butt kicked, but we'll take the good moments and build on them, hopefully, and take the bad moments and learn from them," said Boylen. "That's my job; that's all we can do. It's only a setback if we keep it going."