Bulls sputter down the stretch in Indiana

It only takes one. The Bulls once had one. The Cavs do now. Golden State has three. The Indiana Pacers even have one, the closer, Victor Oladipo, who scored the Pacers last four points, six of their last 10, and 11 fourth quarter points and two steals in the last two minutes in the Pacers devastating—at least for the Bulls—98-96 victory.

The first time the Pacers led in the game Wednesday, which was mostly dominated by the Bulls, was with an Oladipo pull up three pointer with 31.1 seconds left after a steal from Denzel Valentine.

It was the Bulls 10th consecutive loss. They are 3-20. Indiana is 14-11.

The Bulls were led by Kris Dunn with 18 points, six rebounds and six assists. Robin Lopez had 16 points and Valentine 15. Bobby Portis had 12 points and Lauri Markkanen and David Nwaba 11 each, Nwaba with impressive second half hustle in helping the Bulls to an 83-69 lead going into the fourth quarter.

There’s plenty to scrutinize, analyze and explain in this kind of loss, half the Bulls free throws missed in the game, way too much isolation and dribbling at the end leading to that Valentine turnover, a fourth turnover in that stretch for Dunn, who otherwise played brilliantly, one for Justin Holiday when everyone kind of stood around seemingly watching to see if he’d make a turnover, a couple of wild shot attempts from Markkanen, essentially a how-to blueprint for a collapse in which the Bulls shot 28 percent in the fourth quarter (52 percent until then) and the starters one of 10 in the fourth with six team turnovers.

“Our youth definitely showed in the fourth quarter with our defense, rebounding and shots,” said Valentine. “It hurts. They picked up the intensity defensively and offensively and we panicked a little bit. We stopped moving the ball and they were swarming to the ball and we weren’t getting back and talking through our coverages. We played a really good game, we just had a couple meltdowns in the fourth quarter.”

Most teams suffer such meltdowns at various times late in games. But they often are camouflaged by the presence of the so called closer, the team stress reducer. So then no one notices the Pacers’ Myles Turner’s unnecessary foul, or Thaddeus Young and Cory Joseph with big misses in the last minutes when one more basket for the Bulls might have clinched a victory.

The Bulls have one of those guys who can assume the responsibility; it’s just that he’s not going to be playing for about another month, Zach LaVine.

It’s not what coaches or players can talk about. You know, next man up. But just because you need someone to do something doesn’t mean he is capable. I’ve tried to explain that many times with a car that won’t work. Sure, they’re all professional basketball players. But other than Robin Lopez, hardly the go to scorer type with a career scoring average of 7.5 points, the Bulls really don’t have another player on the roster who has been an NBA starter. Holiday started more games in the G-league and Belgium than the NBA. Valentine and Dunn are trying to reverse rookie bust labels. Nwaba wrote tryout letters and is just hoping to stay in the NBA. These guys all did terrific things earlier in the game when the Bulls led 55-39 at halftime. They’ve had big moments in the season and gotten better. They’ll have NBA careers as a result. But they can make other plans all the All-Star weekends.

Hello, rebuilding.

LaVine has been a starter, but he remains out, though progressing well, after February knee surgery. He’s a big time playmaker and shooter. It’s much easier to draw a potential winning play for him. Remember when Bill Wennington got open for the winning basket in Michael Jordan’s 55-point return game in 1995 in Madison Square Garden? Much easier to score when three guys are guarding one of your guys. Imagine Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant with those shots without Jordan. We recall Phil Jackson didn’t even want Pippen to take one. Nikola Mirotic has been a starter and has made big shots. He may play his first game for the Bulls Friday in Charlotte after his preseason incident with Bobby Portis.

There are great professionals who do wonderful things on the court and are vital to a team for success. Only the truly rare ones can produce the last chapter.

So this is how it went in the closing minutes after the Bulls had lost most of a 16-point fourth quarter lead and were ahead 94-92 with 2:43 left in the game. The Bulls had played one of their best games of the season in what would become their third loss in the last four games by two points or fewer. The signs were positive in a fast start, aggressive and active defense, ball movement and penetration, domination on inside scoring, a double digit rebounding edge through three quarters, no way anyone could believe this was a team that had lost 19 of 22 games this season.

The Bulls are doing as promised, not giving up on the season, accepting every disappointment with disdain and coming back with more determination and effort. It’s a team playing hard, competing. Without the rewards, unfortunately.

“I thought we were playing great basketball,” said Dunn.

Dunn was a big part of that, now among the league leaders in steals and three-point shooting while averaging 16.4 points and 6.4 assists the last five games. Dunn took it on himself like he did in Denver last week, and he came through again. Dunn lined up Joseph on the left wing and then cut hard right past him and all the way for a layup score to give the Bulls a 96-92 lead with 2:29 left.

“Kris Dunn was terrific for the majority of the game tonight,” said Hoiberg. “We had good contributions from guys coming off the bench. The big message to our team is if we continue to play with that type of effort, if we continue to play the right way, play unselfish, we’re going to start winning games.”

Oladipo, who finished with 27 points and is 15th in the league in scoring, isn’t the point guard. He may be the league's Most Improved Player, however. And he took over that lead position at the close. He also led the Pacers in rebounding down the stretch. Young drove and his finger roll was blocked by Lopez. But Young got it back as the Pacers dominated the Bulls on the boards in the fourth quarter. In one crucial earlier fourth quarter sequence, the Pacers collected four offensive rebounds on the same possession for a basket when the Bulls led by 11 points. It seemed always just one basket away.

The Pacers ran every play through or for Oladipo.

Then with 1:57 left and the Bulls still ahead 96-92, Turner committed an offense foul with Oladipo going in for a drive. Thus, another chance for the Bulls to probably end the game.

Dunn drove right and put up a short runner that fell short. The Pacer went to save the ball, but Dunn reacting quickly got it back. Dunn then drove into the middle into three Pacers and lost the ball. Credit Dunn for wanting to make those plays. But he hasn’t even been an NBA starter for a month.

Oladipo dribbled up full court and was fouled with 1:30 left. There were no shots. Joseph got a screen from Turner on the inbounds and made a nice jumper from the left elbow to bring Indiana within 96-94 with 1:18 left.

Dunn dribbled out of the backcourt. The Pacers were playing physically now, hitting and bumping cutters, holding, trapping, fourth quarter NBA stuff. No calls; play through it. The Bulls were going to Markkanen early in the season at the end of games. It’s a lot to ask of a 20-year-old rookie, and seemingly too much now as the games come fast with little relief. He drove left, but he could barely get lift or extension and his shot was blocked. It went off him. The kid looked exhausted, and with good reason.

Indiana ball with 1:06. Here comes Oladipo again. He got a screen as Holiday again shaded to his right like in the Denver game. Wide open lane again. But this time, Portis came over with a strong challenge. Oladipo shot too hard off the backcourt on his drive. Bulls ball and the lead with under a minute left. So maybe. They are mostly playing exciting games.

Again, Dunn came running out of the backcourt. He got a screen from Portis and drove, was cut off and passed out to Holiday who handed off to Valentine. Who started dribbling and driving right, three, four, five dribbles, a slip and then a turnover to Indiana. Oladipo grabbed it and he came rumbling down court.

“I was surveying the scene at first, just seeing who was back, how many people were back and nobody stopped me,” Oladipo related.

The Bulls have had a habit of failing to stop the ball in transition, getting back to avoid the drive.

“I could have kept going and drove into the defense or pulled up for the three, shoot the ball with confidence, and that’s what I did,” said Oladipo.

Oladipo’s three went in with 31.1 seconds left for the Pacers first lead of the game.

“They just kept grinding, fighting. You could see it,” said Dunn. “They were sticking to what they do and got stops when they needed them.”

But mainly Indiana put the ball in the hands of one guy every time they needed to, and just about every time down the floor. So when Turner or Young did stupid things no one much cared or remembered.

It would be 13-2 Indiana to close, the Bulls with one field goal in the last 7:14.

The Bulls came out of their last timeout to Dunn against full court pressure. Dunn got into the middle with the Bulls’ five starters on the floor. Dunn drove right, eschewing screens from Lopez and Markkanen. And almost got the lead. His 22 footer went halfway down and spun out. Oladipo got the rebound and dribbled away about six seconds before the Bulls fouled him. He made one of two free throws for the 98-96 Pacers lead with 12.8 seconds left.

Walkoff three for the win? Nah.

The Pacers smothered Dunn on the inbounds, so Markkanen threw in to Valentine, who dribbled up slowly for some reason. He got a screen from Lopez, but dribbled left toward the sideline into a double team. Markkanen came circling out of the right corner with Lopez setting another screen for the pass. Markkanen took a dribble right and fired a line drive off the backboard as the game ended.