That one stings.
"I thought they stung us," said Bulls coach Jim Boylen Wednesday following the Bulls 126-125 opening night road defeat against the Charlotte Hornets.
There was a lot more venom with these Hornets than the Bulls—or many of us—anticipated as this species of NBA rebuilding babies with a Bridges, a Bacon and a Washington in the starting lineup dropped a swarm of threes on the Bulls, 23 for 44 led by rookie P.J. Washington with seven and 27 points. The Hornets buzzed by the Bulls with a 16-point lead in a first half in which the Bulls were defenseless and trailed 63-55.
"We were in mud early," said Boylen. "I don't think defensively we had the edge we needed early."
The more veteran Bulls with the higher expectations then seemed to explain who they were. Led by Lauri Markkanen with 35 points and 17 rebounds for the game, the Bulls dropped a 40-point third quarter on the Hornets in apparently putting away the pesky pests with a spray of baskets and a 10-point lead with six minutes left.
Lauri Markkanen drops 35pts and 17reb against Charlotte
"When he gets 35 and 17 we need to win," lamented Boylen.
But the Bulls didn't when the Hornets' responded with a 15-1 run and then at the last moment the Bulls left everyone wondering what could or should have been.
It was a Zach LaVine driving layup with 4.5 seconds left in the game that brought the Bulls within 126-125. Charlotte called timeout and threw in and dribbled out the clock.
"He (LaVine) tried to get to the rim," said Boylen about the fateful last play for the Bulls. "He was hoping it was six seconds and it was four and a half. I thought he tried and we executed where he got to the rim; sometimes nobody comes and you lay it up; it happens."
"I knew we were down by three," explained LaVine. "I was looking for the three; that's what I always look for. Marvin Williams stepped out and they switched. I knew there wasn't much time left, so I had to get something. I knew they weren't going to foul me at the rim. If they did it could have been an And 1 (three-point) opportunity. Just try to get something and play the foul game.
"We had something called," LaVine added. "But at that time you've got to create. Try to go out there and make a play. I got what I could. Gave us a chance toward the end; get a steal or something like that toward the end to where we have a chance."
That proved the final chance and it spoiled, at least for one night, all the good vibrations coming out of the preseason and an entertaining game with 20 lead changes and ties.
Though there was much to like about the Bulls' debut, if hardly the final result.
Markkanen after a tentative preseason admiring the view from the three-point line was dominant on the offensive glass and slashing to the rim, adding eight of 10 from the free throw line. The Bulls had 78 paint points, 11 steals and 20 offensive rebounds, but were just nine of 30 on threes. Charlotte assaulted the step-slow Bulls defense with the threes and 51.1 percent shooting overall. The Bulls shot 46.7 percent in the wide open offensive game.
"That's the NBA evolving," noted Kris Dunn.
"They really said that (I was settling for threes)?" asked Markkanen, whose internet apparently isn't working yet. "Yeah, I was looking for the shots. I know in the regular season it is going to be different, get involved more and obviously the rotations. It kind of showed the way we can play; so just have to work every day and get better at it."
Rookie Coby White in his debut in his home state was predictably unfazed as he quickly got up a pair of shots upon entering and finished with 17 points and seven assists. Thaddeus Young emerged from preseason veteran cool for 17 points, Dunn added 11 and four steals in another defensive game changing sequence and Wendell Carter Jr. had 12 points and nine rebounds. Otto Porter Jr. was just three of 10, but he led the team with a plus-14 while on the floor as he helped settle the offense.
Coby White scores his first regular season bucket for the Bulls
But LaVine had just 16 points with just two in the first half on seven of 17 overall shooting and seven assists, admitting even starting his sixth season he was somewhat overanxious at the beginning of the game.
"I was ready to go," said LaVine. "I've played this game so many times you should know how to calm yourself down. I just missed some easy shots. Not like you're not trying. Point blank layups, open threes (missed). I wanted to go out there and get right after them, but I missed a lot of easy shots. I just have to knock them down. Obviously, I expect more of myself. That's a big part of my job, to lead the team especially on the offensive end and I didn't do that, so I'm upset. It's frustrating. We wanted to come out and win the game and obviously we didn't do that. It's one of 82, so we have to stay level headed."
It also looked like the succession of casual preseason games in which the new Bulls never were tested and opponents often didn't play regulars lulled the Bulls into a false sense against a team that lost its best player and most projected to be among the three or four worst in the NBA.
"Just didn't come out with the right edge," said LaVine. "Weren't getting back in transition. It's upsetting."
More shocking, actually, as it was the Hornets in a half filled arena setting the early pace with ball movement and threes, blowing by the Bulls in transition and off the dribble in the sort of offense the Bulls claimed in preseason but didn't take on the trip, at least in the first half.
"Maybe they (were) tight, maybe they (were) nervous," Boylen said. "I think they care, I think they're trying. A team defended the home court on opening night. You have to give them credit. I thought they kind of punched us and we didn't respond right away, then kind of got our sea legs back and got back in the game.
"I thought they had us on rotations, got downhill on us; sometimes our one on one defense hurt us," said Boylen. "We have to help. They sprayed it out and they made them; they made a lot of shots. Transition defense was poor in the first half."
"They made some plays at the end," Boylen added.
Oh yeah, that too.
Boylen played the starters he used at the end of preseason, taking Carter out early so he could put him back with the defensive group that included Dunn and Young. Then Markkanen played center often in an offensive-oriented group that was effective in the second half. But it requires considerable offense to match the defensive flaws. It figures to be an ongoing process as both teams used relatively tight rotations with the Bulls relying mostly on eight players and 10 minutes from Ryan Arcidiacono. Luke Kornet played just under seven minutes against a speedy Hornets team.
Charlotte bolted ahead to start by shooting a dozen first quarter threes with nine fast break points in the quarter and 25 in the game. For a young, rebuilding team the Hornets were impressive making extra passes for threes and finishing in transition. They extended out to a head scratching 55-42 second quarter lead before leading 63-55 at halftime.
"We had a good talk at halftime and scored 40 in the third and got ourselves back in the game," said Boylen. "We talked about getting three stops in a row to start the fourth and I think we had five, or five of six, and we had the lead.
"And (then) the game flipped."
Trailing 104-101 with 9:42 left, the Bulls used disruptive Dunn play to ignite a 14-1 run for a 10-point lead culminating with a LaVine fast break dunk after a Carter block and LaVine three. The Bulls led 118-108 with 6:19 left.
"I thought Kris Dunn was great tonight," said Boylen. "I thought he did what he was supposed to do for us tonight with a pure heart."
Time for the Charlotte kids to admit they were close and played well, right? They had more heart than expected.
It's difficult to explain relaxing coming off a 22-win season, but the Bulls seemed to after that lead with a disparate array of shots by Carter, Porter and White, three turnovers and a couple of LaVine misses while Markkanen mostly looked on curiously in the 15-1 Charlotte sequence.
"I think we played into their hands a little," LaVine admitted. "We were up 10 and started going up and down (the floor). You have a 10-point lead you have to hold onto it. That was our problem last year; we were giving up leads. We have to put the ball in our playmakers' hands. I have to do a better job of commanding the ball, getting the pick and roll with Lauri. Lauri had it going. Spread them out. I think we got a little too happy because that was really our first time getting into the game and playing like that and that's how we want to play. But at that time in the game we cannot do that."
The Hornets banged in a pair of threes in a minute, continued to get to the basket for layups and suddenly the Bulls had to make a last second play and find a go-to guy for the first time this season. They could not.
The Hornets got one of two free throws with 18.9 seconds left for a 124-121 lead. The Bulls took their final timeout and with 17.2 seconds left, Markkanen was fouled on the inbound pass and made two free throws. The Bulls fouled the Hornets with 11.3 seconds left. Devonte Graham made two for a 126-123 lead with 11.3 seconds left. The Bulls had to take it out and go full court.
"We had a play set up (the previous timeout) to where (LaVine) was going to make a decision on rim, three, and he made the decision," said Boylen. "Him making plays in the open space. It's a key learning moment for us."
Class resumes Friday in Memphis.