The Bulls Monday opened the 2018-19 NBA season with a 108-89 loss to the Sacramento Kings after losing a 14-point first half lead. Though it’s not uncommon to come into the season with dead legs after a hectic weekend and thus stumble late in the game. No problem, 81 to go.
Oh right, check that.
This is just the start of the season for the second time this season, the Bulls falling to 6-22 in the fourth game under new coach Jim Boylen, with injured players Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis playing together for the first time this season and the Bulls responding to the emotional player and team meetings Sunday that followed the worst loss in franchise history.
OK, it really starts now.
“I think everything made us closer, good bad or ugly,” said Zach LaVine, who led the Bulls with 19 points, 10 in a sizzling first quarter that included a generational, spinning tomahawk dunk. “I think the ordeal was good for the team. Everybody spoke the truth about everything. There isn't any more mixed feelings. I think everything was on the table. Being straight up with people is always a good thing. Sometimes people are afraid of the truth, and I think we handled that.
"We wanted to make a statement after the big loss,” noted LaVine, who led the way to what Boylen called perhaps the team’s best half of the season and a late second quarter 56-42 lead. “We made some improvements, but we've got to get better. We have to complete the game. That’s what guys are frustrated about.”
And so now the Bulls go to Mexico City for a Thursday game against the Orlando Magic in the NBA’s annual south of the border series. No, the Bulls don’t have to leave the country. They just need to blend their returning players with the core that has endured through these first nine weeks.
“We got the whole band back together and we can see what we can do from here on out,” said Dunn.
It seems like it’s going to be a work in progress of both bringing the returning players along and once again trying to settle on roles and rotations.
Dunn had nine points and a team-high six assists and Portis had nine points and eight rebounds to match Wendell Carter Jr. Both Dunn and Portis came off the bench as each played just over 18 minutes.
Boylen was circumspect about working one or both into the starting lineup, though Portis likely will remain in a reserve role. Dunn figures to eventually replace starter Ryan Arcidiacono. Though Boylen during the game seemed more enamored with the backcourt pairing of Dunn with Shaquille Harrison, the team’s two best perimeter defenders. Harrison had two more steals in under 12 minutes and is up among the league leaders in steals per minute. He averages more than four per 100 possessions.
“I’m very thankful that Kris and Bobby got to play and then got through the game,” said Boylen. “I thought they each showed a spurt of what they can bring for us and I’m very excited about that. I thought Rolo (Lopez) did a great job the first half powering the ball in (six points in nine minutes). We played with some different lineups the second half, looked at some different things.”
It was an encouraging first half with Lopez effective in the post. The Bulls slowed the game and played considerable half court offense to accommodate Lopez, who earlier this season had fallen out of the rotation. But Lopez then didn’t play in the second half as Boylen appears to be trying out those new roles with returning players.
Jabari Parker finished with seven points, but didn’t play in the fourth quarter as the Bulls were trying to get back into the game after trailing 81-74 after three quarters. Boylen went with fourth quarter lineups featuring Chandler Hutchison, who didn’t play the first three quarters, Harrison and Arcidiacono.
“When a guy comes back, it affects two guys, the guy that came back and the guy that was in his role,” Boylen pointed out. “It’s harder when guys come back on your team than when a guy goes out as far as playing time and your role and your responsibility. Now we need to share and we need to sacrifice.”
Markkanen finished with 13 points and six rebounds on five of 16 shooting and Justin Holiday had nine points and three steals. It was Holiday's ninth game with at least three steals to tie for the league lead with his brother, Jrue. De’Aaron Fox led Sacramento (14-12) with 25 points, including 16 in the third quarter when the Kings took control and claimed the game.
The Bulls were still within seven points with eight minutes left in the game when the Bulls committed three consecutive turnovers — a staggering season high 27 for 31 Kings points in the game — and the formerly lowly Kings went on a 17-2 run to turn the game into another blowout loss for the Bulls.
“That first half I like how we looked,” said Boylen. “The second half I was disappointed. We’re having a hard time right now as a group – and I have to do a better job of this – of doing the basics for the whole 48 minutes. Some nights we play 32, some night 38, 42, whatever it is. That’s what we’ve got to work on and that’s where we’ve got to grow. I thought they crawled into us a little bit in the third and we didn’t like it. That’s something we have to work on.”
So there’s plenty to work on, though hopefully the Bulls are past the disquiet of the last 48 hours with the record loss, the team meetings and endless questions about what it all means. At least the Bulls likely cleared the air better than they do in Mexico City.
But perhaps it’s an ideal time for a winter break in a warmer climate as the Bulls close the trip in San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
The heat has been on this Bulls team these last few days like for few other teams this season.
Now is the time for them to prove it hasn’t burned them.
“It felt good,” said Portis, who appropriately scored his first basket on a putback. “Everything went our way in the first half. Unfortunately, in the second half we had some lapses, turned the ball over. I want to credit them. They came ready in the second half. They brought energy and effort. They kind of roughed the game up a bit. They kind of sped us up and got us out of position. Credit to their coaches for getting them ready for the second half.”
LaVine seemed determined to make a point —and several— to start the game with a pair of dunks and a three as the Bulls sped to a 33-26 lead after one quarter. He had a new short haircut and seemed long on making a statement. Though LaVine was scoreless playing just over five fourth-quarter minutes. Both Portis and Dunn entered late in the first quarter and made an immediate impact, Dunn with a driving three-point play, Portis banging the boards.
“It was great to have them out there,” said LaVine. “They are some of the dawgs on the team. They get out there and cause havoc; it’s good to see them with Lauri. It will take time to get back in rhythm.”
The three from the Jimmy Butler trade now have played in games together just 13 times in two seasons.
The Bulls continued to control the game in the second quarter, though the pivotal question was becoming whose style would prevail. Boylen has not established a mode of play yet, playing slowly in his first game in Indiana and then faster when the Bulls upset the Thunder Friday. The Bulls Monday appeared to play to control the pace, walking the ball up court and mostly refraining from transition. It enabled them to hold the high scoring Kings, sixth in the league in scoring, to 45 first half points.
The Bulls used Lopez more in the post with his size advantage and had Parker more often at small forward to accommodate the return of Portis. It seemed to be working as the Kings shot 38 percent in the first half and were four of 17 on threes.
But when the Bulls could not control the swift Fox in the third quarter, the strategy collapsed. The Bulls more often were standing around on offense watching two-player sets while the Kings broke out, making seven of 12 threes while the Bulls failed to record a fast break point. It can wear on a team to work so hard to score without easy points in transition. The Kings hit the Bulls with an alarming 30-11 close to the third quarter that proved too much before the Kings pulled away late.
“First half I thought I had more energy than in the second,” said Dunn. “First half had a lot of energy and grit and kind of got away from it when adversity hit us.”