New year, but it was an old story for the Bulls Wednesday in a withering 112-84 home loss to the Orlando Magic.
The Bulls never led, trailed by double digits the last 38 minutes of the game, allowed the poor shooting Magic an opponent-high 57.9 percent accuracy for the game and had the end of the bench playing most of the fourth quarter.
It was a disappointing—and they hope short term—setback for a Bulls team close to healthy and confident recently they had left the worst behind.
"I just want this team to be great," said Wendell Carter Jr. "I feel like we have so many great young pieces on this team and I feel we can really prosper as a team. But everybody has to play their role. I know my role and I didn't do it to the best of my ability tonight. The fans are pretty disappointed in us now, so we are going to try to turn things around in Chicago."
Carter is just a 19-year-old rookie, and it was the toughest game of his young life, no points on zero for five shooting and one rebound in just over 13 minutes despite starting. Bulls coach Jim Boylen said he elected not to play Carter again after an offensive foul with 8:17 left in the third quarter and the Bulls trailing 73-45. Robin Lopez came in and also was scoreless in about 16 minutes. Poor shooting Shaquille Harrison led the Bulls in shot attempts.
Boylen said Carter could learn by watching and experience some introspection about his play.
Though thinking about this one could leave a mark.
Orlando got 22 points and 12 rebounds from center Nicola Vucevic and 10 points, five rebounds and three blocks from backup big man Mo Bamba.
The Bulls were led by Zach LaVine with 16 points and 14 each from Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn. LaVine had five free throw attempts. The rest of the team combined for three. The Bulls fell to 10-28. Orlando is 17-20.
"Effort too," said LaVine about a smorgasbord of issues. "I think we lacked all of it; it was an overall terrible game. I can't imagine what it looked like on TV. It felt even worse in the game."
The TV camera flashed on a dejected LaVine on the bench late in the game.
"I think we have to try to figure that out on our own. We haven't done that yet. So it's becoming a problem," LaVine said. "We're not doing our jobs. We're top of the line professional athletes; that's what we get paid to do. We were giving them easy looks, we weren't physical enough, they dictated the game and we fell back. We have to do a lot of things better. We are not making passes to the open man, not hustling, not helping each other on defense. So that's a problem.
"We just keep talking about the same things," LaVine lamented.
It actually seemed like the Bulls were past much of this, the inconsistent play, backing off when things went badly, the concerning lack of competitiveness.
Perhaps it's merely an aberration, a product of a break over the New Year's holiday. The Bulls get another run at it Friday in the United Center against the Indiana Pacers and then Sunday against the Brooklyn Nets. During which time the Bulls need to stop talking and do more. That's because they leave Tuesday for a five-game Western Conference trip against some of the highest scoring teams in the NBA.
Which will test the team the Bulls have been and what kind of team they will or want to be.
"We need to play better offensively," Boylen acknowledged. "I thought our pace was poor early, our push. I didn't think we had the intensity, the urgency at both ends. We talk about winning the first quarter; we've done a pretty good job of that. Tonight, we didn't. We lost the first quarter by 16; first quarter is very important in the league. Our effort has been good. We've played really hard and our guys have competed in most situations. Tonight, for whatever reason, our energy wasn't what it's been. They played well, we played poorly and didn't respond."
The Bulls since Boylen replaced Fred Hoiberg as coach have initiated a slower, more defensive-oriented game to improve the competitiveness on a more consistent basis. It's been somewhat effective, if not artfully appealing with low scoring, closely contested games. The top ranked Raptors in the last game needed a strong late effort from star Kawhi Leonard to squeeze out a win at home. Before that, the Bulls had won three of four while averaging fewer than 100 points per game and ranking last in the NBA in offense.
Could it continue? Should it?
Boylen is faced with a intriguing conundrum. He wants to reestablish a toughness and defense identity for the Bulls, though the prime of the roster with potential star players like LaVine and Markkanen aren't particularly fitted for the slower game. LaVine and Markkanen are skilled and athletic and likely would prosper by scoring easier baskets in transition. Plus while Carter is a physical player, he's smaller than most elite centers. Boylen believes he has to establish a physical, defensive-oriented identity, which has been a touchstone of Chicago basketball success. But at the same time, he's got athletic players who aren't physical playing in an NBA era that promotes guard-oriented, open court play and shooting.
It doesn't make for an easy answer, which is why there are so many wrinkled brows and uncertain expressions among the players after a game like Wednesday's.
"I feel like they had the edge and we didn't," said Markkanen. "You always think you are ready to play. They punched us in the mouth with the big lead to start; what we were trying to do didn't go our way. I felt they got whatever they wanted. They were way too comfortable playing tonight; you see the result. Effort was probably the biggest thing.
"It's disappointing," Markkanen added. "But we can't put our heads down. We still are trying to figure everything out. I'm sure we will. We're all confident on that. Just keep working; that's the only way to fight through it."
The Bulls didn't have much fury to start, failing to score on six of their first seven possessions as Dunn couldn't get going with plays for him on the first two possessions. Orlando began getting easy penetration and open shots with movement as the Bulls maintained their slower pace. It hasn't produced much movement and left LaVine and Markkanen to attempt too many shots against pressure tactics.
The Bulls trailed 32-16 after one quarter. They got their only sustained offense of the game midway through the second quarter with Dunn getting going with some pace and thus opening the floor for a Markkanen three and LaVine getting to the basket. The Bulls got within 53-40, and seemed about to make it a game before the Magic took a 62-45 halftime lead and opened the third quarter with 11 straight points. That made it 73-45 and there wasn't much more to say.
"Our edge and our energy to start the game was poor," Boylen noted. "I thought we were poor at both ends. We didn't respond well, but what I'm disappointed in is I thought we tried to do it ourselves. You've got to work for each other, screen better, do the basics better. I thought we got worse at the basics when they punched us. I thought we stopped doing some of the things we've been doing pretty well."
But now comes the larger question for the franchise's future. Continue to try to develop a defensive identity with a more limited offense? Or take the chance of opening up the game and featuring the offensive skills of players like LaVine and Markkanen? After all, if the Bulls have a scoring star to carry the team, it has to be one of them. But perhaps they're better as an ensemble featuring merely a hard working core of so called blue collar, lunch box types, perhaps reminiscent of the Pistons best teams of the early 2000s. Can you succeed in the NBA that way in this era? Though doesn't defense travel well anywhere? There are larger questions to consider than just another disappointing loss.
Sounds like time for some resolutions.