It's still early, but it's not too late for a paradigm shift for the Bulls, who Saturday lost their home opener 118-116 to the Detroit Pistons on a last second defensive breakdown.
Points are obviously vital, though preventing them by the opponent also can be helpful.
"Can't give up a layup for the last play," Zach LaVine lamented about an Ish Smith winner with 5.4 seconds left. "We have to get our defense right. It's really upsetting because we played so well. At least we've got to make them take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can give; really upsetting."
Certainly for the Bulls in falling to 0-2 despite several spirited fourth quarter comebacks, including from seven points behind with less than two minutes left. The Bulls got excellent games from Justin Holiday with 19 points on six of eight shooting with a pair of steals, a career high equalling 17 points from Cameron Payne and 33 points and a game tying three from LaVine with 24.6 seconds left.
It was a second consecutive game of at least 30 points to open the season from LaVine, just the third time in franchise history and first since Michael Jordan in 1986 since a Bulls player has opened with those back to backs. LaVine repeatedly broke down the Pistons with athletic and acrobatic drives for scores and nine free throw attempts.
"I feel like I did good job facilitating, making the right plays, scored when I had to and we got back into the game," said LaVine. "I just got to end it; that's the main thing. I had a chance. It was an emotional roller coaster going from hitting a game tying three to letting the ball slip out of your hands; there were a lot of cuss words I said."
LaVine was referencing the last play, his attempt at an "oh no" three-pointer to win the game.
"I thought I was going to make it," said LaVine. "I'm going for the win; that's just me. Going for the win, regardless. Made one before that."
It was going to be all-LaVine, just as it was with the game tying shot as the Bulls quickly cleared out for him to make a play and tie or win after Smith's score. LaVine on the attempted winner came from the left side over a Bobby Portis screen to get the inbounds pass from Payne. Blake Griffin, who led Detroit with 33 points and two late fourth quarter threes, picked up LaVine. LaVine drove left toward the top of the three-point circle. As he stopped to go up with two seconds left, LaVine lost control of the ball and the game ended.
"Just can't let the ball slip out of my hand," LaVine mourned. "It can't happen. Got to be a miss or a make; really upsetting to lose that way. Got to at least give it a chance."
Though probably the biggest play in a game with a few hundred—but you can't go into them all—was the naked layup winner from the barely six foot Smith.
With Kris Dunn missing a second game with the birth of his child, the Pistons played extensively with small guards. Thus LaVine found himself on the tricky Smith to close the game. LaVine has been better defensively, but not a match for the water bug moves of Smith. Though the responsibility for the decisive play fell more to Portis and Jabari Parker.
The Pistons called their last timeout after LaVine tied the game and set up a screen play teams usually call horns. It has two generally big players coming up to set a double screen on the ball. Smith was dribbling high waiting for the screens. When the clock got to about 10 seconds left, Griffin and Stanley Johnson both came up behind LaVine and above the three-point line to knock off LaVine. There wasn't much he could do. It was Portis' and Parker's responsibility to come up to squeeze Smith and force a corner or on top pass for a tougher shot.
But both played soft, hanging back toward the free throw line.
So Smith came around the screen to his left, faked Parker and cut inside into the paint between the two. Holiday and Payne were guarding in the corners and Smith was untouched for the game winning scoop layup.
"At the end of the game you can't give up a layup," agreed Portis, who had a rough night offensively shooting two for 12, but with a game high 14 rebounds. ‘That's the worst thing you can do; at least make them take a tough shot. I feel like we fought hard. When adversity hit everyone stuck together. I feel like we did our job tonight, but we gave up a bad play at the end. The last play was the big story of the game."
Parker again declined post game comment and left the locker room before media arrived.
There was considerable post game discussion about whether Parker, a weak defender, should have sat out the Pistons last offensive possession since the Bulls had a timeout left and could have put him back in for offense. Perhaps Wendell Carter Jr. or Robin Lopez for basket defense? Though the Bulls were severely limited with Dunn, Lauri Markkanen and Denzel Valentine out. Neither Cristiano Felicio or Chandler Hutchison had played.
"Kid made a helluva play and got himself into the paint, made the shot," noted Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "They were small, so we went with the group we felt got us back into that game and gave us a chance to win."
Though Hoiberg was terse in his response to the second guessing, the likelihood was a big man might not have been mobile enough on defense with the Pistons playing guards and Griffin.
The Bulls did almost win, though almost is not their favored description for now. It was an exhilarating game with 10 lead changes and 11 ties, a game in which the Bulls outscored Detroit inside 58-40 and shot 50.6 percent overall. But in what is likely a continuing trend without Markkanen and Valentine, the Pistons made 18 threes to seven for the Bulls (9-2 in the first half) and out rebounded the Bulls 49-41.
Parker did have 13 points and six rebounds. Antonio Blakeney was unusually efficient with 10 points on five of six shooting and Carter had eight points and two blocks.
"We lack communications skills now," acknowledged the rookie center. "That's something we have to improve on, including myself, especially on the defensive end. I feel the offense will come. We rely too much on our offense. On the defense end we are not exerting enough effort."
It's likely to be a question that arises all season, though this is a different NBA than the one where defense was king. The league was averaging 112 points per game in the first week with the Pelicans averaging 140 in their two games. Tom Thibodeau's Timberwolves gave up 140 points in a Saturday night loss. Scores of 120 points to win games are common. The pace of play is much faster, resulting in more field goal attempts, higher scores and even better shooting percentages from the parade of fast break, outlet scores. So defense in this era cannot be judged the way it was even a decade ago.
Still the conclusion of Saturday's loss was almost the structure of the Bulls for now, especially without Dunn and Markkanen. Dunn, the Bulls best defender, would have been on Smith, giving LaVine a fairer chance off the ball. And Markkanen likely would have been on the court as well. Even without them, the Bulls scoring was impressive, especially with LaVine's play. Though he wasn't alone with Blakeney and Payne making big fourth quarter scores.
"This game definitely helped a lot because I am trying to get it going," said Payne, who likely solidified his backup role to Dunn. "I still have to continue coming out being aggressive. I was disappointed in my first game. I felt I could have done more things, so I wanted to make sure I came out aggressive tonight."
The Bulls did so with a 12-7 start behind LaVine and Payne flashing to the basket repeatedly after mostly dropping off the ball and standing around throughout preseason and the opener. Payne had five points in the last 96 seconds that enabled LaVine to be in position to even the score.
The Bulls led 27-25 after one quarter, and then LaVine had 15 points in the second quarter on an assortment of drives and a pullup three in an entertaining 60-58 half and Detroit lead. The 2-0 Pistons generally are considered a contender for the last East playoff spot, and the Bulls at least met just about all their challenges. Carter was forceful against Andre Drummond, who has a history of big games against the Bulls. Drummond fouled out with 10 points and 13 rebounds.
It was 85-84 Detroit after three quarters with an unlikely third quarter matchup of Payne mostly offsetting Griffin, whom the Bulls could not contain. Griffin made five three pointers. The Bulls briefly took the lead to open the fourth quarter. But the Pistons motored to a 9-0 run and 94-88 lead with 9:11 left. The Bulls continued to fight from behind with one daring and difficult LaVine drive after another matching Griffin and Smith. The Pistons would surge ahead 110-104 with 2:17 left and 113-106 before the sad ending.
"I'll say this, I thought our competitive spirit was night and day from where it was the other night when adversity hit," said Hoiberg. "I give our guys a lot of credit for fighting back and giving ourselves a chance to win it. We did a lot of good things out there."
And one bad thing at the end.
"They made plays, we made plays," said LaVine. "It just came down to they made a better play at the end of the game."