Bulls come out flat, fall in Miami 112-99

Bulls coach Billy Donovan Monday was sounding philosophical in the wake of the Bulls' mammoth 112-99 loss to the Miami Heat that even Donovan conceded wasn't really that close.

And we thought when he talked about Nietzsche he meant the not so philosophical Green Bay Packers' linebacker instead of the German philosopher who believed living is about suffering and surviving is finding the meaning of it. "That which does not kill us," Nietzsche famously said, "makes us stronger."

Of course, Nietzsche spent his time in frigid Germany while the Bulls melted from the force of the Heat.

"I think it's really good for us, I look at it that way," Donovan offered without the benefit of beard or pipe. "You (might) say it's concerning. It's not concerning as much as shining a light on what goes into this. I don't think the score was indicative of what the game actually said. Whereas the Memphis game (Saturday loss cutting a 17-point fourth quarter deficit to two) was back and forth. I've said this before: If you really want to win big, you're not going to win big without going through some hardship. I like that part of it. Struggles, adversity, challenges ultimately helps you grow into who you want to be as a player, a person, and helps you grow as a team.

"We have to confront it, go through this and get better at it," Donovan continued. "It's coming; everybody knows what our schedule is. This is good for us. The last thing I want is for us to have a false sense of reality of who we are. We have to face the reality of the areas we have to get better at; there's a light shined on it now."

Tap to listen to postgame reaction from Billy Donovan following Chicago's 112-99 loss to Miami.

And this time the Bulls blinked badly. Going to Miami, you can find yourself blinded by the sun.

Unfortunately for the Bulls, it was when they were inside.

And if this was a statement game between the teams with the two best records in the Eastern Conference, the Heat read the Bulls the riot act and it said: Not ready for primetime quite yet with a third consecutive loss to Miami this season. It left the Bulls at 39-23, two games behind Miami for the top of the East and losing the potential tiebreaker.

Miami led by double digits six minutes into the game and fought off the one Bulls run of the game, a 14-2 late second quarter incursion. The Heat eased into a 55-46 halftime lead and then made the Bulls look overmatched and underwhelming in a 91-67 Heat lead going into the fourth quarter. Donovan gave in a few minutes later as DeMar DeRozan's streak of 30-point games ended at 10, one short of Michael Jordan's Bulls best.

DeRozan, facing the sort of bewildering defensive tactics he's rarely seen this season, had 18 points. Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 22 and Ayo Dosunmu also had 18. Nikola Vucevic scored 14. Miami substitute Gabe Vincent and Tyler Herro off the bench led with 20 points each. Jimmy Butler had 15, but four first quarter steals that seems to rattle the Bulls. The Bulls this season almost always responded from large deficits relentlessly, if also to lose on occasion. This time they seemed to accept their fate. At least for now.

"Sometimes we need to be battle tested," echoed DeRozan. "We understand that a lot of the teams we have been facing, they have been through it. Most of us haven't. We haven't been healthy. We're trying to figure out a lot. I have the utmost confidence we are going to bounce back against these top teams. As these next couple of weeks go by being able to get guys back, that's going to be another second wind for us. Even more to change the spirit of the team. I know once those guys come back the energy of this team is definitely going to heighten.

"Sometimes you need adversity to really see what you are made of and how hard it is to win in this league," DeRozan said. "Everyone understands how we need to respond and how we can fix this. I have the utmost confidence in the guys. I do."

DeMar DeRozan finished with 18 points against the Miami Heat on Monday night.

There's time, of course, and no one loss is going to diminish who the Bulls have been this season and how well they have played.

But the playoffs also are about experience and continuity, and this Miami team has mostly been through it together the last three years. What was most apparent in addition to their excellent shooting game was that their best players, Butler, Bam Adebayo, P.J. Tucker and Kyle Lowry, the latter missing the game, are defensive specialists.

The Bulls best players, DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic, are great offensive players. So the Bulls are pining for the return of their defensive icons, particularly injured Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball. Based on their rehabilitation schedules, both seem out probably at least two to three more weeks.

Though Donovan wasn't giving in to waiting for the cavalry. He noted the Heat played without their point guard leader in Lowry as well as physical Markieff Morris and Victor Oladipo, the former All-Star expected to make his return from injuries later this month.

"I've never believed in the excuse," said Donovan, who has been consistent in pushing for accountability. "These are all professional players. They have pride. Anytime you have players out, (it) hurts. Miami has good players sitting out and they've been hurt with injuries this year. Everyone has gone through it."

Though with the Bulls defensive deficit without Ball and Caruso, it's perhaps more acute. Like Nietzsche noted, a hammer can cause pain or it can help you build a set of wings. I'm not fully sure how that fits, but the Bulls were flying to Atlanta for Thursday's game.

"We have the talent to play with all of the best teams in the NBA," said Vucevic. "We just have to be willing to do all of the little things, the dirty work and things like that. It's a process; maybe this is good for us to understand we have to do that or we won't have a chance. Better to figure it out now. I'm not concerned. I think we have good players, smart players, guys who understand what it takes. It can change pretty quickly."

Nikola Vucevic, seen here defending Heat center Bam Adebayo, finished with 14 points and seven rebounds against the Heat.

The Bulls Monroe-like era of good feelings, however, did take a bit of a hit Monday, especially the way Heat players throttled the Bulls offense. Miami has defeated the Bulls by an average margin of 14 in the three games with the Bulls averaging 98 points.

Miami plays relatively small with the 6-9 Bam Adebayo at center. But they are unusually quick to help and recover and clever the way they attacked DeRozan, especially, and Vucevic at times. Miami's players are deft enough to help, trap and double team once a player begins his move and then recover. The normally good shooting Bulls were seven of 29 on threes and missing 12 of their first 13.

Miami's rotations seemed to completely flummox the Bulls to start with eight Bulls first quarter turnovers. Virtually all the Bulls shots were difficult, contested and mostly from the outside early in the game. In Tucker, who was a vital defender last season for champion Milwaukee, and Butler the Heat has two of the top individual defensive players to go against DeRozan and LaVine. Because Miami's players are similarly sized, they switch often on defense. But they also are active, fronting bigger players and then coming to help and forcing quick and unsteady passes. On offense, there's a lot of Miami movement off bruising high screens from Adebayo that repeatedly opens up shots. Playing together since the 2020 Finals makes it seem even more seamless.

"We didn't shoot the ball particularly well. When you play against good defenses that's going to happen, right?" Donovan offered. "Our consistency on the habitual things you have to do, like shot fake, leaving our feet, fouls, contesting a shot and leaking out and not coming up with a long rebound, pick-and-roll coverage. Those things add up. You've got to have that consistency, and we haven't been consistent enough. The mental toughness, the competitiveness, you have to have a mentality to dominate what you can control; the really good teams do that."

Like Nitschke said, "Hit harder than they hit you." That was Ray, the one with less hair, if also a vital message.