Bulls Start Strong But Fall To Talented Thunder

We’re heard so much about fighting with these Bulls that you almost wonder if the films they are watching involve Mike Tyson. And then Monday in their 121-96 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder it moved into the basketball ring, at least with some shoving and glaring, four technical fouls and a bug eyed Robin Lopez eventually ejected.

"To be honest with you, it’s really not that big of a deal,” said Bulls coach Jim Boylen, who did some refereeing duty in holding back provocateur Jerami Grant. “Those things used to happen all the time. Now they happen and it’s like a major deal. It’s not that big a deal. Everybody moved on.”

And the Bulls finally back home after a week on the road in two countries, three cities, more than 4,000 miles and more than a dozen traveling staff cases of, well, some ugly not feeling well.

“We continue as a travel party to kind of fight some type of bug,” Boylen acknowledged in saying that Jabari Parker took sick Monday and was inactive. Of course, the way the rotation has gone he wasn’t playing, anyway. Well, maybe with G-league two-way player Rawle Alkins making his NBA debut in a lineup with Cristiano Felicio and Antonio Blakeney after the Bulls trailed by 30 points with four minutes left.

Yes, it can make you sick, too, though not all that surprising a result considering the Thunder loss in Chicago last week, Zach LaVine still out injured and players perhaps fatigued from the nightly sprints to the toilet.

“I liked our start,” said Boylen (15-10 Bulls lead, though trailing 31-22 by the end of the quarter). “I thought we were in control of the game a little bit. And I felt they made some shots, some tough shots, and we didn’t respond very well. Then, the game got away from us.”

The Bulls were led by Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis with 16 points each and Markkanen with 15 rebounds. Kris Dunn had 12 points and seven assists and Cameron Payne with 11 points and six assists. Russell Westbrook had a triple double with 13 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists with five steals. The Bulls committed 25 turnovers, though the Thunder had 20.

But the last half of the second quarter pretty much ended the Bulls hopes with a 25-7 Thunder rumble led by Paul George with 23 points in the first half. That left the Bulls trailing 64-44 at the half — there was no Spurs Saturday night massacre and comeback this time — as the principal second half discussion was the pushing and shoving and Boylen’s headlock on Grant with 4:27 left in the third quarter and the Bulls trailing 82-61.

It hadn’t been a particularly rough or dirty or angry game, though Westbrook always appears a bit unhinged.

This time as Cameron Payne just ahead of him on the sideline was fouling Terrance Ferguson, Westbrook pushed Dunn. Dunn, back for just his fourth game this season and often playing with an angry edge and painted on glare, immediately pushed back.

“Things just got out of hand,” said Dunn, who has been terse in interviews.

“I was just trying to stand up for KD,” explained Lopez, who also joked, as he is wont to do when not snarling on the court, about the officials misunderstanding his trying to help them when he later drew his second technical foul. “I saw somebody flying out of the corner of my eye from the other side of the floor and I was just trying to stand up for my point guard right there.”

That was the charging Grant, who seemed to come after Dunn and shoved Lopez, the latter who tumbled into the high roller row of seats. Lopez came up gesturing and apparently suggesting something other than the good manners of Jerami’s uncle, Horace. Boylen helped lead Grant away in an embrace.

“Obviously, we don’t want to back down,” said Payne, who previously played for the Thunder. “KD felt like
he got pushed, so we got to ride with our team.”

Lopez, historically, wasn’t about to be present for much longer and rode his way out later in the quarter with a well-timed drop of the ball on Grant after a foul with played stopped. Thunder center Steven Adams was getting a good laugh out of it as Boylen escorted Lopez from the game.

“He’s (Lopez) a competitive dude,” said Boylen. “He cares about the team and he’s not going to back down. He’s got a great soul and a great spirit. He’s a Bull. Kris Dunn’s a tough kid. He’s going to stand his ground. He’s a very respectful kid, but everybody has a trigger point. I thought he felt he needed to do that.”

The Thunder, 19-10, led 88-69 after three quarters and then finished off the 7-24 Bulls with Westbrook running back to back fast breaks to close off a 13-4 spurt and 107-81 Thunder lead midway through the fourth quarter.

“We’ve just got to take everything we can and learn and grow,” said Boylen. “We’ve got to continue working on our poise, not turning it over, make simple plays. We’ve got a willing group in there. They want to please. They’re trying to do the right things, and we just need to play better.”

Speaking of those fast breaks, however, is the difference with these Bulls under Boylen. They fell into nine points that way Monday (27 for Oklahoma City), but the Bulls are certainly not trying to very often.

It seems apparent, and perhaps understandable with their best scorer sidelined, that Boylen has opted for a slowdown style of play. Which did work well against the Spurs because it was coupled with aggressive defensive play. Which is why Ryan Arcidiacono remains the starting point guard — Dunn actually is, but sort of starts off the ball — Shaquille Harrison is a regular and Lopez plays more.

It’s not a new theory in the NBA, if not exactly old school.

It’s the thinking that if you don’t have as much talent as the opponent, you slow the game down, walk the ball up, play half court, cut the number of possessions and stay in the game and maybe you can make some shots in the fourth quarter and steal a close game. Then if you defend aggressively, which has been Boylen’s prime directive, you can win some games. Like the way the Bulls turned around the Spurs game in the third quarter with steals.

But it’s challenging to score 100 points that way, and it’s difficult winning games in this more free flowing NBA without scoring 100 points. Plus, a team has to make more tough shots that way because of fewer open court opportunities. And it’s a change from the theories of former coach Fred Hoiberg, who emphasized passing ahead and running out.

Plus, you mostly need someone to break through with a big scoring game, or, at least, timely shots like Dunn did Saturday. There was no one for that against the Thunder, though Portis had a bit of a third quarter run before the commotion.

That’s when a player like LaVine can keep a team in the game now that Parker has been banished. Which is probably why the Bulls have to begin playing through Markkanen more. Markkanen did get 17 shot attempts Monday, but too many were quick perimeter jumpers. Markkanen was effective several times on the boards keeping balls alive and finishing. He has an inside edge being quicker than a big man like Adams and bigger than the backup Nerlens Noel. But the Thunder, like most NBA teams these days, do constant switching. That left smaller players too often on Markkanen. It’s an issue that’s been nothing new for these Bulls.

Markkanen is quicker and stronger than he seems and a better passer. He’s really the one player with LaVine out who draws the most defensive attention. Dunn got off to a quick start with six points and three of four shooting in the first seven minutes. But he attempted just four more shots the rest of the game. Though defenders go under Dunn on screens because of his weak three-point shooting, Dunn has developed a nice knack for his elbow jumper and getting through the defense to the basket. He needs to get to the free throw line more, as well.

But Markkanen has the best overall offensive game among the group with an ability to get his shot off in a crowd and get to the basket. Plus, he’s unselfish and will make a play. Until LaVine returns, he needs to be more in the middle of things.

The Bulls were ahead for a while early behind Dunn. Oklahoma City then had a 12-0 run as the Bulls went to the bench. The Bulls made their last effective run early in the second quarter with some nice moves from Payne to draw within 39-37 with 5:50 left in the half. Then it was the tornado named George who came roaring in for five straight scores, the last a pair of threes and the Bulls were looking for shelter.

Rookie Wendell Carter Jr. had just two fouls in the first half with six points on some nice rolls to the basket on Dunn assists. But Carter drew three fouls in the first five minutes of the third quarter and left the court clearly distraught. He also could be employed more given he’ll finish and has good hands and a nice shooting touch. But he likely been flustered again by the surfeit of fouls.

So the Bulls did push back. But more when the game wasn’t going on this time.