Bulls lose to Trail Blazers, 124-112
Rookie forward Wendell Carter Jr. had an efficient performance with 22 points on nine shots and six rebounds.
Some days are like that. Your five-year old tells you it's almost impossible to flush a bowling ball down the toilet, but you can. People admire your new driver's license picture and say it's the best you've looked in years. Then someone hits your new car the first day you have it.
And then you get a new puppy. C'mon, smile. Things will get better.
So it was for the Bulls Wednesday in a 124-112 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. And not just because the Bulls held C.J. McCollum to 26 fewer points than he scored against the Bulls in Portland last year.
McCollum still led the Trailblazers with 24 points, and Portland broke open a back and forth game late in the third quarter with a 17-10 run for a 10-point lead after three and then pulled away to open the fourth quarter.
The Bulls fell to 10-31 at the halfway point of the 2018-19 season. Portland is 25-17.
But from the disappointment of the loss came one of the best performances this season for rookie forward Wendell Carter Jr. In what is surely now with a new coach and players returning from injuries even more of a developmental season, Carter was effective, efficient and energetic with 22 points on just nine shots, his first three pointer in two months, just two fouls and seven trips to the free throw line.
It's the kind of performance amidst the fog of defeat that the Bulls believe promises brighter times with Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis.
LaVine had 18 points and Dunn added 15 points and seven assists as the Bulls guards matched McCollum and Damian Lillard throughout the first half and most of the third quarter until All-Star Lillard's play provided the late third-quarter separation.
"It happens in an NBA game. You go through a drought or maybe you make all the right plays and the ball doesn't go in or maybe you don't make any of the right plays and the ball does go in. That happens in our league. I did feel our pace was better, had lineups together that I am excited about." - Jim Boylen
The Bulls could not recover even as Carter added a three-point play driving through contact early in the fourth quarter. But LaVine tailed off as his balky sprained ankle continued to bother him. Markkanen had just 10 points as he again had difficulty finding good shots in the offense. Portis added 15 points and a resurgent Antonio Blakeney scored 12.
But it was Carter's play fighting through physical and athletic Portland centers that perhaps invited some encouragement on a losing night.
"I'm really excited about the way Wendell played," said Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "He made a three, a back to the basket move, a faceup, had a couple of finishes; it was one of his more complete games.
"We didn't have the grit that we needed on the defensive end," Boylen admitted. "We gave up two big offensive rebounds in the third quarter that I thought kind of turned the game. I thought we did a pretty good job on Lillard and not a very good job on McCollum. We did a lot of good things and I thought our pace was better. The 124 (points) is too much. I'm disappointed we didn't win, but I am not discouraged at all because of those things, Wendell Carter, a 19-year-old guy playing his butt off, AB good minutes, Bobby had his moments. But we have to put it together and sustain it and be consistent."
That's clearly a goal for team improvement, though with the setbacks this season because of the injuries and the coaching change, the priorities likely change as well. With LaVine back to being one of the best athletes in the NBA, Markkanen physically stronger and Dunn poised to take over team leadership with Portis sliding the bench, the Bulls could in a fragile Eastern Conference have looked at this season with competitive zeal.
But that was decimated with the long-term injuries that knocked out Portis, Markkanen and Dunn for months and then LaVine when they returned, with Denzel Valentine, meanwhile, lost for the season.
Thus the season began to evolve into more of a showcase for the young players, and nobody is as young as rookie Carter. After averaging 10.8 points in October and 12 points in November, it seemed he took a step back in December averaging about nine points. He failed to score double figures in seven straight games and nine of 11.
Carter began the season deferring to teammates. But as the injures mounted he began to exert himself more with a 25-point game against Denver and 28 against Detroit. Then as players began to return from injury, he seemed to settle again into a support role, often going long stretches without shots or impact offensively. Then there were the foul problems and a scoreless game against Orlando.
But since that game, the 6-10 Carter is averaging 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds on 65 percent shooting. And in Portland he showed his versatility with physical plays at the basket and a nice shooting touch while also rolling to the basket for scores and continually contesting shots.
The Bulls took a hit defensively on Portland pick-and-roll plays to big men diving to the basket. Though the Bulls continue to change playing rotations, which makes help defense more complicated.
"The rebounding and our pick-and-roll coverage wasn't the best tonight," Carter agreed. "We didn't stick to the game plan that we were supposed to, but we're learning and growing. I have no regrets with what we did as a team tonight. (On offense) my shot was going down, attacked the rim when I could, drew fouls when I could. It wasn't me scoring a lot of points today as me taking steps forward. I just felt more comfortable taking my shots.
"Just demanding the ball (more)," Carter admitted. "All my teammates know I'm a very unselfish player. I'm never going to take bad shots. But just me touching the ball is going to keep me engaged. I've got the green light from my coaches (on threes). That's something I want to build on, just being more comfortable stretching out other players and then being able to shoot and drive by once they respect it. I've been practicing it before and after practices and it feels real comfortable coming off my hand. So I definitely look forward to shooting more of them. We learn, we move on.
"I feel like all of us are pretty talented on the offensive end, so defense is where we're struggling right now," said Carter. "We're going to fix it. I feel like everybody's bought in, so I feel like we can make it work."
It was the fifth consecutive loss for the Bulls and now the third consecutive game in which they scored at least 100 points after a previous stretch in which they failed to reach 100 points in eight of nine games. Boylen had been featuring a slower game to concentrate on defense, but the players were walking into the offense too slowly and taking too many late clock shots. So Dunn, particularly, has pushed the ball more and against Portland, LaVine brought the ball into the front court several times.
Though there are gaps in the evolving system, and lately it's been too few good shot opportunities for the talented Markkanen.
"I know I've got to get more out of me and get to my spots," Markkanen acknowledged.
Boylen said perhaps Markkanen given his offensive talent has to be somewhat selfish at times.
"He's got the green light, but he's not that kind of guy," said Boylen. "So maybe we need to talk to him about changing his mentality a little."
The Bulls mentality Wednesday was mostly encouraging in a fast-paced first half. Portland led 30-29 after one quarter with LaVine starting adroitly with 10 points and a pair of three pointers.
"I was having a pretty good game and I got tired," LaVine admitted. "I have to do a better job of getting through the season, keeping going and keeping the scoring going. I didn't do a good job of that tonight. The ankle still hurts. I don't have the same explosion. So I'm trying to go in there and get some foul calls. I feel I'm making the right plays, but I've got to finish better."
"I feel like all of us are pretty talented on the offensive end, so defense is where we're struggling right now. We're going to fix it. I feel like everybody's bought in, so I feel like we can make it work." - Wendell Carter Jr.
Portland led 56-51 at halftime as the Bulls were answering each Trailblazers scoring burst. There were 12 first half lead changes and four ties. Portis was dominant in the third quarter with 13 of his 15 points and three of three on three pointers. Portis was limited to 24 minutes and played 19, but didn't get back in late because Portland pulled ahead by 19. The Bulls made nine threes to Portland's 11. But the Bulls couldn't keep Lillard off the free throw line late in the third and didn't have much left to close.
"It happens in an NBA game," said Boylen. "You go through a drought or maybe you make all the right plays and the ball doesn't go in or maybe you don't make any of the right plays and the ball does go in. That happens in our league. I did feel our pace was better, had lineups together that I am excited about and keep building on it. I thought we played about 30 minutes of good basketball; got to play 48."
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