Zach LaVine and Coby White combined for 66 points, but the Bulls could not overcome an eight-point halftime deficit in a home loss to the Pacers.
Zach LaVine and Coby White on Friday looked like gunslinger buddies from one of those old Western movies, amazing and accurate shot after shot.
LaVine finished with 43 points and White with 23, the pair combining to shoot 13 of 22 on 3-pointers and 55 percent overall. Their quick draw displays, which included LaVine with 20 consecutive Bulls points late in the second quarter and into the third, was beginning to seem like the stuff of legend. Butch and Sundance stuff.
And it didn't end very well, either, for LaVine and White and the Bulls as a mostly no-name bunch of Indiana Pacers defeated the Bulls 116-105 on Friday.
It was a grim sixth consecutive defeat for the Bulls, who dropped to 13-26, their woes metastasizing with starters Otto Porter Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr. out injured and Lauri Markkanen acknowledging that his sprained ankle from a week ago has worsened. Markkanen trudged on with 11 points and Tomas Satoransky added 13, the only other Bulls to score in double figures.
Bulls vs. Pacers game recap
The Pacers, 24-15, had five players score in double figures led by Myles Turner with 27 points and 14 rebounds. But with Victor Oladipo still out all season and regulars Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis missing this game, the Pacers started JaKarr Sampson from last year's Windy City Bulls callups, T.J. McConnell, T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb along with Turner.
And then it was former Bulls Justin Holiday and Doug McDermott combining for 25 points off the bench and crucial fourth quarter threes to thwart the Bulls after they cut a 16-point deficit with 5:44 left to 103-99 about two minutes later on a Markkanen three.
Again, LaVine had one of those games, making the most unlikely threes with defenders draped on him like Christmas tree tinsel. But the Pacers were brilliant at recovering after every timeout, this time with 3:31 left, on Holiday and McDermott threes and a Warren backdoor rebound and put-back to effectively close out yet another deflating Bulls defeat.
"You just try to get one," lamented LaVine. "We're in a [tough] stretch. We're staying together, but obviously it's frustrating. Got another [Saturday in Detroit]; have to find a way to dig one out. You [media] guys can tell. We play good basketball at times, like we always say. We just have to find out how to scratch that win out."
"I don't view [possible change of scenery coming] on trades or anything like that," LaVine responded to an inquiry about the February deadline. "I view [the season] on playoff outlook. I'm still trying to push for that; we're really close. We're still a couple of games out and if we can get hot we can still string some together. I'm optimistic going into every game trying to win. This is a tough month. We play a lot of teams above .500. We've got to get a couple of them before this All-Star break before it gets too late. I'm never down. I'm always confident. It's just frustrating."
LaVine is correct in that the Bulls are not a team that appears to give up or give in. Often apparently on the verge of being snuffed out, they deliver those hair-on-fire runs that get them just close enough to be even more frustrated.
"It sucks we play so hard and we always come up short," said White. "We just have to stay positive."
The team's character and ethic has been worthy. They just could use someone like Worthy.
Once again the Bulls were outplayed in long stretches early in the game. Without LaVine's astounding runs, the Bulls could have been trailing by 40.
"I thought Zach played like what All-Stars play like," complimented Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "I thought he was efficient, dynamic, did it in a lot of different ways. We talked about getting the team going and that he's going to have to make some plays for us. I thought he was dynamic and I thought there was a stretch he put us on his back on a night we were a step slow, fatigued, for whatever reason."
That was late in the second quarter when the Pacers went ahead 52-38 with McDermott was torching the Bulls on driving scores. The Pacers would finish with 70 inside points for the game in a parade to the rim with Carter Jr. out. But then LaVine had a 6-0 run to close the first half and added 14 straight Bulls points to begin the second half. In one 80-second sequence, LaVine made three straight 3-pointers to offset four different Pacers scoring.
The Pacers called timeout leading 64-60 and then proceeded to score 10 straight points, once again choreographed beautifully once back in play. LaVine left briefly, handing off to the rookie White, who put up a consecutive trio of threes of his own to get the Bulls back within 74-72. Indiana then eased back to a 79-72 lead after three quarters and was quickly back ahead by double digits a few minutes into the final frame.
LaVine poured in eight 3-pointers en route to 43 points
The United Center was pulsating with the play of the Bulls dynamic duo, which was obscuring the way yet another team had solved the Bulls defenses. Certainly missing Carter Jr. is a factor, but this is not something that began this week. Daniel Gafford started this time instead of Thaddeus Young and had just two points and two rebounds.
But the trend in the last six games back to the end of December has been toward defensive issues.
The Bulls had stampeded toward the top of the NBA in defensive ratings in December with their aggressive, trapping and showing defense on the pick and roll and ball screen. It resulted in nearly double-digit steals every game with Bulls defenders sneaking into the lanes to force turnovers. That combined with the pesky on-ball play of Kris Dunn. Friday, Dunn failed to get a steal for just the second time in the last 14 games.
The Pacers joined other teams cutting down on pick and rolls against the Bulls and challenging mismatches. They spread the Bulls out and then picked at mismatches, on one occasion, Sampson even dashed past Markkanen to dunk and saluted the Bulls bench with a muscle flex.
"They drove us," acknowledged Boylen. "They got a little bit away from the pick and roll stuff. They got us in driving situations. We switched a few more pick and rolls in the fourth than we usually did and they drove those switches. They did that to us in Indiana when Brogdon was playing; the younger Holiday [Aaron, who had 19 points and eight assists] did a good job of that. We've got new guys, [have had] limited practice time. That's not an excuse; it's the facts."
But that defense which was becoming an identity once again, is becoming an issue as teams adjust.
In the last six games, the Bulls are toward the bottom of the NBA, giving up 115.5 points per game and an astounding 52 percent opponent shooting. Teams are averaging 55 paint points in those six games as they've responded both to the pick and roll traps and attacked weaker defenders.
"We're going to have to adjust a little bit," LaVine said. "We've done such a good job with the No. 1 pick and roll defense. They're advancing the ball and hitting the roller or they're skipping it and playing two-on-one on the backside. We've done such a good job in it. We have to continue to play it. I think if that's our scheme and that's what they tell us to do, that's what we've got to do."
It also suggests it might be Coby [and Zach] time.
"Coby is off the charts," said LaVine, looking to his right where White usually sits in the locker room. "I told you that from the beginning of the season. This dude is big time, can score in bunches, score in many ways. To the hoop, three pointers, midrange. When he gets hot it's tough to guard him. We have to find him. He was big tonight. Some of the games we've won, me and him went off and it was big. We just didn't have enough tonight."
Satoransky sits between LaVine and White in the Bulls locker room, which was another tough spot Friday. Reporters crowded around LaVine and White. So Satoransky couldn't even get back to his stall to dress. "Tough trying to dress between 66 points," he joked.
The Bulls can still smile; but they are not happy.
Dunn played much of the end of the fourth quarter for White. It wasn't unreasonable since the Bulls were looking for those so called defensive stops. And the Bulls did cut their deficit from 10 to four after Dunn came in. But it was back to 10 with 1:06 left before White returned. Although Dunn is a much superior defender, could White have made a difference?
The debate played out earlier this season about what kind of team the Bulls would be. The personnel seemed to suggest an offensive-oriented team, though Boylen did well establishing a defensive baseline and attitude. But that has begun to erode with the accumulation of injuries. The Bulls bench with Luke Kornet and Chandler Hutchison struggling was outscored 58-31. And that was with White scoring 23 points.
Can the Bulls ride out of trouble with Zach and Coby?
It should have been a celebration Friday of LaVine's 43 points on eight of 13 from three, defenders by the end face guarding and surrounding him like they were a posse cornering a bandit. LaVine would fade back or simply rise as if wide open. He never was about giving up. You could almost hear him saying something like, "For a moment there I thought I was surrounded."
"I just know we came up with another L," said LaVine. "You can have a bad game and win. I think we've done that a couple of times. As a group we're looking for anything we can do to win; ugly, nasty, we'll take it. We are competing our [behinds] off. We're close, but not there. We'll get one eventually. We'll keep fighting."