We’ve been trying to figure out these Bulls, and if they shoot like a good basketball team and move like a good basketball team and make plays like a good basketball team, well, heck, they might well become a good basketball team after all. Which the Bulls looked very much like Friday despite a 119-116 overtime loss to the Indiana Pacers.
And not just because the game ended with a lucky shot, Victor Oladipo’s banked in three pointer with 1.2 seconds left in overtime, and then a very unlucky shot when Zach LaVine’s impossible sideline turnaround with three tenths of a second left came a tick less than a tock in time.
“Another point one or point two,” LaVine sighed.
Though the Bulls were hardly celebrating being close as their record fell to 10-29.
It was not only the way the Bulls held off and seemed ready to overtake one of the league’s hottest teams, the Pacers with six straight wins and 12 of 14. But the way the Bulls played led by their three core players in a crisp, active and enthusiastic game that was both entertaining for the night and encouraging for the future.
“There’s been multiple games were we kind of had it, but this was one of those games where we all three played at a high level,” acknowledged Kris Dunn. “Tough we couldn’t come up with the win.”
It’s the next step, but the Bulls this time looked like they began to sit up and perhaps the league will start taking notice.
LaVine led the Bulls with 31 points, a career best 17 in the first quarter when the Bulls shot out to a 30-18 lead. Lauri Markkanen added 27 points and a team high nine rebounds and Dunn had 16 points and a career best 17 assists. Wendell Carter Jr. bounced back from his scoreless game against Orlando with 15 points and eight rebounds and Antonio Blakeney had 13 points off the bench. The Bulls shot 51.6 percent and had 30 assists.
But it was the ensemble performance of the three players from the Jimmy Butler trade — Dunn, LaVine, and Markkanen — that provided the inspiration despite the defeat. The Bulls hope to build a contender around those three players, along with Carter Jr, additions from this year’s NBA draft and free agency. But with injuries, a coaching change and uncertain roles and responsibilities, the threesome mostly has played like needing introductions.
“I’m thankful they played well together and we had good moments,” said Bulls coach Jim Boylen. “Tonight it showed signs of our work paying off.”
But at least on this night in the first start with the five young players including Chandler Hutchison after the trade of Justin Holiday, the design appeared less like a plan than a reality.
The shots were taken by the guys who were supposed to, LaVine with 21 and Markkanen with 20, each also with nine three-point attempts.
They are the best shooters, but too often have been fighting less talented teammates for chances with an offensive in progress under Boylen. Wednesday against Orlando, for example, poor shooting Shaquille Harrison led the team in field goal attempts.
And it was Dunn making the plays instead of a revolving cast of point guard hopefuls, the physical 6-4 guard breaking down the defense and even providing his own exclamation point with a driving slam dunk in overtime and emotional pounding of the backboard stanchion.
“I thought Kris Dunn was unbelievable,” said Boylen. "One of better games he’s played since I’ve been here. If he continues to play like that we are going to be a real good basketball team.”
That power slam dunk over Pacers center Myles Turner gave the Bulls a 113-110 lead with 1:12 left in overtime. Dunn then almost stripped Oladipo on the inbounds and a jump ball was called. Indiana got the ball. But Oladipo with 36 points rubbed Dunn off a screen and tied the game with a three. LaVine on a jump stop and spin was called for traveling. Oladipo then drew a double team and tossed back to Turner on top. He made a three for a 116-113 Indiana lead with 30.7 seconds left. But in a game of great shotmaking that the Bulls have rarely participated in this season, Markkanen exchanging handoffs with Dunn made a step back three with a defender up on him to tie the game at 116 with 9.9 seconds left in overtime.
Just before Oladipo’s last deposit and LaVine ending up in withdrawal.
“I think everybody had their moments when they were feeling hot and making shots and I think we found the right guys tonight,” said Markkanen. “Just tried to play unselfish and make plays.”
Though the close of regulation was no less thrilling despite the Bulls trailing 102-96 with under a minute left. That’s been enough time to give in, but not this time.
The Bulls went into a timeout with 32.5 seconds trailing by six points. Hey, where you goin’!
LaVine failed to come open on the first option for a Carter pass. Then Dunn, often a reluctant shooter, curled behind Carter and made a challenging three with Cory Joseph up close. With 26.8 seconds left, the Bulls had to foul with too little time to play out a defensive stand. Oladipo made both free throws for a five-point Indiana lead with 25 seconds.
Over? Nothing is over until these Bulls decide it is. Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? No! Because when the tough get going, well, you know. It was crazy.
Dunn dribbled up and threw cross court to LaVine with Oladipo stuck to him. LaVine simply rose up and made the 30 footer with 17.3 seconds left to get the Bulls within 104-102.
At this rate with the Bulls making up a point every eight seconds there was a chance.
The Bulls fouled Bogan Bogdanovic as the Pacers inserted their best shooters. But Bogdonovic made just one of two with 14.3 seconds left.
The Bulls were out of timeouts and Pacers’ coach Nate McMillan almost made the fatal mistake for his team. With the Bulls having to go full court and the clock going down, McMillan failed to call for a foul and two shots. So Dunn dribbled up unimpeded, got LaVine in the same spot and LaVine again rose up easily over Oladipo for the three to tie the game with 3.9 seconds left in regulation. The Pacers would be unable to get off a shot before overtime.
“We got in a rhythm early when we were pushing the pace, taking and making threes,” noted LaVine. “KD (Dunn) did a really good job of pushing the pace. We haven’t been fast; we slowed it down because we had to. But we played fast because we have some athletes out there; we should push. Kris could have had 20 some assists today because we missed some easy ones. He played great, ball hawk on defense, doing everything out there.
“We’re dangerous because we have so many different weapons out there,” said LaVine. “But we have to learn to put it together. It’s tough because chemistry doesn’t come in a day and learning how to win doesn’t come right away. There are going to be ups and downs, but we are trying to speed that process up because we know how good we can be. We played well two or three quarters; we just have to put it all together.”
The Bulls came close yet again in controlling most of the game. They had a bit of a setback in the second quarter going to the bench. Jabari Parker played for the first time in eight games with Holiday traded and the new players not available. Though Hutchison started, his offense remains deficient and Boylen closed the game alternating Harrison for defense and Blakeney for offense.
The Bulls still led 58-55 at halftime and continued to shoot well, finishing the game 12 of 28 on threes. The Pacers shot above 50 percent, but it’s also the price of taking advantage of the skills the Bulls players have. Boylen came in slowing the pace to emphasize defense and a deliberate game to offset the lack of talent with injuries. But it seemed to be taking away from the strengths of Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen, who are among the most athletic trios. Now they are back, and Bobby Portis could return Sunday against Brooklyn.
So the Bulls Friday didn’t let the clock run down to the last ticks before shooting and passed and moved with the intention of making a play instead of running down the clock to set transition defense.
“I liked the pace and flow,” said Boylen.
“When those two (LaVine and Markkanen) are aggressive, it brings the team to another level,” Dunn pointed out. “They’re two of our best scorers. When they have it going we are hard to guard.”
The Bulls maintained a 78-75 lead through three quarters with a nice lift from Blakeney’s shooting. But the Pacers ran off scores on what would be 12 of the last 14 possessions that the Bulls were able to match with those triumvirate of threes to close the regulation.
And then what could have been one of the more amazing shots from LaVine to force a second overtime in a game no one wanted to see end.
“I just knew I made it,” LaVine related later about the shot and his exuberant reaction, yanking on the “Bulls” on his jersey and signaling the shot was good.
“A lot of explicit words,” LaVine admitted. “I’m a real nice dude, but on the court I say some things. A whole bunch of bleeps. I talked a little bit.”
The officials went to check the replay to determine if the miracle shot was in time. There’s not much movement a player can make to catch and shoot with three tenths of a second.
Hutchison was inbounding from the left sideline even with the top of the three-point circle. LaVine was in the right corner guarded by Oladipo. LaVine came running across court toward the ball between screens set adjacent by Markannen and Carter. LaVine caught the ball looking at Hutchison and then turned three quarters around right to face the basket and shot.
It was ruled a wisp late. And perhaps even a step out of bounds that was moot.
“I’ve got a quick release and know I can get the shot off,” said LaVine. “But point three is tough. So when I had to spin, I think that took the time. If I had been turned down the middle where the ball was already in my shooting pocket, I could have flicked it up there. But got to take your hat off to Oladipo. He made big time plays, led them the whole second half. Big time shot at the end, the bank regardless. He hit it. You have to understand there are going to be some ups and downs until we find our way.”
But you can have some fun walking a mile in their shoes if the games are like that one.