Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 22 points, Lauri Markkanen added 21, and rookie Patrick Williams had 16 in his NBA debut but the Bulls were too disjointed defensively as they fell to the Atlanta Hawks 124-104 in their season opener on Wednesday night
At least with Wednesday's game the Bulls finally have the preseason behind them and they can get to the games that count. What? That one counted? Couldn't be. Please, no. The Bulls sure looked like they were in a preseason game.
Not the Atlanta Hawks, however, who dominated the Bulls 124-104 in the much anticipated season opener, the Hawks leading at times by 40 points in not only what was the most one sided opening game in the NBA, but an historic loss for the Bulls franchise in trailing 42-29 after the first quarter and 83-59 at halftime.
"That's certainly not the way we want to play," said an unruffled coach Billy Donovan, who true to his reputation was phlegmatic and analytical in post game comments, deflecting any individual rancor. "I do agree early in the game the game was decided. There's no question about that."
So at least there was plenty of time to check out Jayson Tatum's banked winner over the Bucks and the Kings' exciting overtime win in Denver. It was an appealing night around the NBA with Russell Westbrook's triple double and James Harden's triple illegal partying offenses. It also was supposed to be a celebration at the deserted United Center for the Bulls, a long awaited new era with significant management and coaching changes aimed to invigorate the franchise, the first game that mattered for the team since March 10.
It quickly became a disappointment the way the Hawks led by double digits almost the entire last 44 minutes of a game after which Bulls players were even saying they apologized to teammates for their play.
"Lot of us got inside of our own heads, including myself, worrying about the stuff that happened rather than worrying about the moment," admitted Wendell Carter Jr., who had six unemotional points and missed another pair of threes (1-18 including preseason). "I just talked to my teammates, apologized for my effort that I showed tonight, and I will be better for my team. That's something I've always struggled with my whole career since I started playing basketball. When I work on a certain craft for a very long time, to see that ball just not fall, bounce around the rim, in and outs, I tend to get down on myself. I felt myself just worrying about the wrong things. That's something I need to work on and I feel like that's something that could be a quick fix in terms of next game.''
Wendell Carter Jr told reporters after the game that he apologized to his teammates about his play and vowed to play better.
The Bulls host the Indiana Pacers Saturday and the Golden State Warriors Sunday before 10 of the next 13 on the road from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, Sacramento and Portland. But it's also a concern that three years into a career players still are worried and depressed about missed shots and opponent fast breaks.
"When we get down like that we've all got to come together and just continue to play and don't worry about it and move on," said Coby White, who shot two of 11 for nine points while Hawks point guard Trae Young was spectacular with 37 points and five of six threes. "Tonight I didn't come ready to play like I was supposed to. Got to move on and also remember this feeling that I don't want to have anymore. Tonight there were times we hit adversity and I kind of stopped being vocal and I kind of stopped being that leader. I've got to fight through and I've got to keep playing because these guys feed off me. They see my head down they are going to put their head down, so I have to lead my team."
Team leader Zach LaVine led the team in scoring with 22 points, though fighting foul trouble early. Lauri Markkanen probably was the best among the vanquished with 21 points making four of six on threes. But an old hobgoblin appeared as despite shooting well, Markkanen attempted just nine shots overall. Markkanen was second in assists with four as he passed well against pressure. Rookie Patrick Williams started at small forward. He scored 16 points mostly on face up jumpers while Otto Porter Jr. had 14 points off the bench. Williams even led the team in minutes played in a professional effort.
Patrick Williams scored 16 points in his NBA debut.
"I guess you say, yeah, wake up call, you got punched, slapped in the face, whatever it is," said LaVine. "We've just got to take it in stride; you can't let it determine your whole season. At the end of the day, it's one game. If you lose by 100 points or one point, it's still one loss. But we have to be a better team. We've got to come ready and get ready to play and win some more games."
It's just one out of 72 this time, and so there's plenty of time. And the group despite its issues has shown prior resiliency in his competitive DNA after bad losses. Still, it is something of a crucible for these players, basically the same roster the last two years now being managed by a coaching staff and management that didn't acquire any of these players other than rookie Williams. Markkanen didn't agree to a contract extension and will be a free agent after the season along with perhaps a half dozen other players without full guaranteed after this season. In a season long audition, you'd expect more to start.
Donovan and management are here to stay; no one else is certain.
Which makes not so much the loss but the lack of commitment, excitement and enthusiasm all the more surprising. It seemed like almost everything Donovan talked about in preseason— and the players promised—like energy, transition play, player and ball movement and unselfishness was a canard as the Hawks out hustled Bulls players to loose balls, ran out for fast breaks and converted lob dunk after lob dunk without much defensive resistance.
There were egregious lapses like when Young from half court beat White to a Hawks missed jumper and made a three pointer from the corner. And Bulls players gave up on a Hawks fast break, enabling the Hawks to convert the initial missed shot as Bulls players stood watching. At least no one applauded.
Because of health, injury and conditioning factors, Tomas Satoransky, Thad Young, Denzel Valentine and Garrett Temple remained out. But the revitalized Hawks were missing former Bulls Kris Dunn, Tony Snell and Rajon Rondo along with rookie Onyeka Okongwu and center Clint Capella. Atlanta was, nevertheless, impressive beyond Young's play. They spaced the court cleverly and moved well, shooting 70 percent in the first quarter and 67.4 percent through halftime.
That 83-point first half was a Hawks franchise quarter scoring record and second most ever yielded in a first half by the Bulls. It was the second highest scoring half ever allowed in the NBA to open a season, according to Bulls radio statistics. The Hawks became the fourth NBA team ever to score at least 80 points in the first half of a season opener. Never have the Bulls began a season like this.
Satoransky and Valentine should be available to play Saturday. But one concern was similar to what we witnessed last season when players like Shaquille Harrison and Ryan Arcidiacono played minutes seemingly beyond their talent level because of their conviction, inexorability and dedication to frustrating their opponents. Arcidiacono was in for the foul plagued LaVine in the first quarter with the Bulls trailing 30-19 and then two-way G-league player Adam Mokoka was drafted to defend and harass Young. The Bulls resorted to trick zone defenses an inordinate amount of time as the Hawks drove and passed for open shots or saw John Collins finishing lobs against weak switches.
The Hawks are a favorite of many this season to recover from last season's 20-47 record, next to last in the East and three games poorer than the Bulls, because of an active offseason. They acquired shooters Danilo Gallinari and Bogdanovic and get to finally play center Capella from last season's trade with Houston. But Wednesday it was less what the Hawks added but how they played with Young slicing up the Bulls defense with his daring ball handling, and sharp shooting from returnees like De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish.
For their part, the Bulls shot poorly again from three, just eight of 35 as the Hawks doubled the Bulls in fast break points. The Hawks even committed 23 turnovers to the Bulls 17, but Atlanta scored 29 points off the Bulls turnovers compared to the Bulls getting 16 off many more. It suggested less transition play for the Bulls, who again reverted to more isolation play on offense.
The Atlanta lead got to 71-46 with about four minutes left in the first half and midway through the third quarter it was 100-64, shortly to hit the 40-point deficit at 108-68 on a Hawks transition three and yet another lob dunk score.
Lauri Markkanen was efficiently offensively, scoring 21 points on nine shot attempts.
Nothing to see here anymore; keep moving.
"They shot it very well, to their credit, and I thought they played very well," Donovan acknowledged. "So I don't want to take anything away from them. But we did not help each other well enough defensively. It's going to be very difficult to win when you give up two quarters at 40 and 41 points."
There's an emoji that belongs there. Yes, I know what that is. This game? I had no idea what that was.