Bulls falter down the stretch in Sacramento, fall 104-98

And the losses for the Bulls, they just keep on coming. This one Monday, 104-98 to the Sacramento Kings, was the Bulls seventh straight and in the assortment of defeats this season something of the box of donuts version. Pretty appealing at first glance, but filled mostly with regret when finished.

The Bulls were able to enjoy some impressive dunkin’, Zach LaVine with his high scoring game in his return from injury with 27 points and an All-Star weekend highlight dunk. It was a flying hammer job from the left wing over 6-9 JaKarr Sampson to give the Bulls a 55-41 halftime lead with LaVine scoring seven of the last nine Bulls points of the quarter.

“Got off to a great start, best start we’ve had in a long time,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “Defensively set the tone, had a great first quarter (28-9 lead) and executed the game plan.”

And then the Kings just killed the Bulls with a 19-6 start to the third quarter to suddenly make it a one-point game. And then it was the Western Conference last place Kings, who didn’t even appear interested in winning by starting their young players and keeping most of their best veterans as reserves, making the clutch plays down the stretch after the Bulls led 87-82 with seven minutes left in the game.

“They ramped up the pressure on us in the second half. It really bothered us,” Hoiberg added. “They started double-teaming Zach and we couldn’t get anything going. We just have to stay together; that’s all we can do right now. We have four games, all at home, before the All-Star break. It will be great to get back in our building in front of our fans. Hopefully, we’ll get Lauri [Markannen] back in the next one and hopefully Kris Dunn keeps making progress. But look, our guys did go out and battle. I loved the start. That’s a big thing we’ve talked about here over the last few days and we went out and executed early. Unfortunately, didn’t sustain it.”

And so the Bulls return to the United Center winless on this Western Conference trip and now 18-35 on the season. The Kings are 16-37 and the Bulls now are just two games ahead of the Atlanta Hawks for the poorest record in the NBA.

The Bulls also got 20 points from Justin Holiday, 18 points and 14 rebounds from Bobby Portis in as a starter, 11 points from Denzel Valentine and 10 from Paul Zipser. After an aggressive start, the Bulls finished with 24 inside points to 42 for the Kings. In a curiosity, it was the second time this season a team scored fewer than 10 points in the first quarter and won. Both now have been against the Bulls with Miami accomplishing it in November during the Bulls 3-20 start.

The Bulls now face Jimmy Butler and the Minnesota Timberwolves Friday. Markkanen, who missed the trip after the birth of his first child and travel delays Sunday trying to get to Sacramento, should return. Hoiberg said Dunn is in the latter stages of the concussion treatment watch and the Bulls hope he also will return after falling Jan. 17.

Meanwhile, LaVine took several shifts at point guard against the Kings. It isn’t his best position, though LaVine scored at least 20 points for the third consecutive game and is showing the kind of offensive ease he did in Minnesota before his knee injury last year.

There just weren’t enough players better after that runaway first quarter that had the Bulls leading 32-11 early in the second quarter and the Kings seemingly abdicating responsibility for this game. There’s much discussion these days about non-playoff teams like the Kings and Bulls and whether they should be winning games given the prospects likely to be at the top of the coming draft.

The Kings seemed purposeful in starting three rookies along with Willie Cauley-Stein and Zach Randolph. And then 10 shots later to start the game, they still were scoreless. When Randolph handed off to Justin Jackson for the Kings first basket six minutes into the game, the Kings got a mock standing ovation. Yes, this one was going to be easy for the Bulls.

Though we should recall with the glaze the Bulls often seem to play with having big leads that no game is a piece of cake for this Bulls team.

Despite the 28-9 first quarter lead, the Bulls didn’t play that well, either. They missed seven of their first nine shots, and it probably would have been another desultory debut if not for the Kings incompetence. The Bulls only had 13 points with a little over four minutes left in the first quarter when they closed the quarter 13-3 and charging to the basket for 10 free throws. They would attempt 14 the rest of the game.

“We work our tails off and we are all committed to one another,” said Portis. “Sometimes during the season you go through these kind of stretches where it’s hard to win. We’re going through that stretch right now. We’re missing Kris and Lauri, two big players that play a big role in us getting wins. That’s still not an excuse for tonight, but it still hurts.”

If the technique wasn’t always there for the Bulls, the temper was. The Bulls still were in control late in the second quarter, leading 43-27 when Robin Lopez just had enough! He’d just drop stepped and spun his way with about four moves to a wild miss. And then when a call went against him, he went Joakim Noah on the officials. Well, not quite the famous Noah explosion in Sacramento four years ago when he motioned trying to eject the officials from the game.

Lopez fired a chair in the tunnel as he left the court, held back by teammates and Bulls security, and after the game offered the most measured and articulate response to an ejection in NBA history.

See, he did go to Stanford.

You don’t want to trade that guy. Oh, right. It’s also the week of the NBA trading deadline Thursday afternoon, so there are some anxieties.

But the Bulls, especially LaVine, looked pretty relaxed closing the first half with LaVine swopping in from the left wing and rising well above the rim and thrashing the basket with that breathtaking dunk for a three-point play. He continues to look more like a player who will average 20 points with ease and star in highlight videos, the advertised Zach-attack.

Cristiano Felicio then started the second half for Lopez. And while he showed some spirit on the offensive boards with four, he almost never looks at the basket to attempt a shot. It becomes difficult to move the defense with him playing since they sag so far off to close the lanes. Sort of the donut hole. As a result, the Bulls began standing around again, taking the occasional three and suddenly it was a close game. The Kings opened the third quarter 14-3. Portis’ three was the only score, though he fired jumper after jumper, nineteen in all for the most on the team.

“Just go out there and take the shots that are given to me,” said Portis. “Trying to provide effort and energy. That’s something I feel I can provide. I got a lot of shot attempts up tonight because I had Zach Randolph on me and he was kind of sinking down. I got to shoot a lot more tonight so that was fun.”

Though there’s also a reason why they like to leave you alone. By comparison, Markkanen has attempted more than 19 shots in a game once this season in 47 starts. This was Portis’ first start.

Though it probably wasn’t much so for Hoiberg, it became an entertaining game after that as the teams sprinkled in matched baskets and traded leads after the Bulls led by double digits almost the entire first half.

LaVine stopped the Kings’ early third quarter run with a pull up three as he was four of eight on threes. Holiday was on the mark and added one as did Jerian Grant and Valentine continued to display his range of floaters and clever interior passes. But the Bulls could not pull away this time and led 79-77 after three. They got a little bump with a pair of Felicio offensive rebounds that led to threes for LaVine and Zipser, and at 87-82 it looked like maybe the Bulls would find some sweets on the losing road.

It still was tied at 93 with three minutes left after LaVine rebounded his own miss and scored. Portis did make one big three with 1:15 left to tie the game at 96. But he missed long ones right before and after, one after a terrific Grant save of a LaVine miss. The Kings sandwiched Portis’ three with threes from rookie Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic. And then with the Kings leading 99-96 with under 24 seconds left, the Bulls attempted to trap for a steal and lost Cauley-Stein, who dunked with 14 seconds left for the 101-96 lead to basically assure the win.

“He (Portis) hit the big three to tie it,” noted Hoiberg. “Had a wide open one the next time down that I think was off an offensive rebound (Grant tip). Wide open and he’s got to shoot those. If you turn those down, you end up taking a really bad one at the end of the clock. It was tough. Their pressure bothered us. That was the difference in the game.”

And now it’s Minnesota, Washington and Toronto in three of the four games before the All-Star break. Plenty of pressure to come. The kind that really can get you frosted.