Bulls struggle defensively, fall to Spurs 131-122

Despite a five-point lead at halftime, Chicago got outscored by 14 in the second-half.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later


Bulls D-fence, D-fence... was missing a few slats Friday.

And so the San Antonio Spurs slid through, around, and it seemed like over and under on the way to a 131-122 Spurs victory over the Bulls.

The Bulls had the stars with DeMar DeRozan scoring 32 points and Zach LaVine 30. But in this war of stars with the Spurs promising point guard Dejounte Murray getting 29 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, the force was not with the Bulls.

The Spurs shot almost 53 percent overall, 43 percent in making 16 mostly open threes and faced little resistance from the Bulls with just seven turnovers while grabbing ten offensive rebounds, six from center Jakob Poeltl to go along with his 21 points. The Spurs Keldon Johnson added 23 points.

In the modern NBA parlance, for the Bulls this was a No 3 and D game.

"When you score 122 points, you've got to be able to play good enough defense that that's enough points to be able to win," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "You have to be able to control the ball. I didn't think that we closed very well, and that's when threes come. The difference in the game was the three-point line. Ball gets downhill (into the lane), you're having to pull over and help, they start spraying it out. We just didn't do a good enough job defensively."

Tap to listen to Billy Donovan react to Chicago's disappointing 131-122 loss to San Antonio on Friday night.

The Bulls fell to 30-18, which is still good enough for second place in the Eastern Conference, a game and a half behind Miami. But the East continues to bunch up with the Bulls just a game ahead of the Nets and 76ers, who share fifth and sixth. The Bulls point differential, which is a significant barometer for measuring a team's play, has dropped to seventh in the Eastern Conference. It's the third time in the last 10 games the Bulls have given up more than 130 points, yielding an average of 115 the last four games.

"It didn't matter what we were in, we couldn't stop the ball," LaVine acknowledged. "We have to figure out a way to keep teams from scoring so much. We had a good offensive game, we scored 120-some points. We gave up 130. It's going to be hard to beat anyone that way. We're supposed to win these games. We cannot keep letting these opportunities slip. Obviously, you're not going to replace those guys. That's what they do. We're not going to step in and be as good as them, but as a team collectively we have to fill those gaps and hold on; we can't just be exploited and give up 130 points."

Zach LaVine being defended by Spurs guard Dejonte Murray, both Seattle natives.

Zach LaVine being defended by young, promising Spurs guard Dejonte Murray.

Ah yes, those guys.

That would be Lonzo Ball, who had his surgery Friday, and Alex Caruso, who had his earlier in the week. They happen to be the team's best defenders, the players who make those plays on the ball everyone is talking about missing. They're both supposed to miss about two months.

Excuse making is not much endorsed in the NBA these days with absences from virus and injury common. And neither was about to be an All-Star, as DeRozan is and LaVine surely will be when the reserves are added next week.

But it's not just what the Bulls are missing without the two aggressive defensive players.

Ball also is the Bulls best guard in transition, who gets the offense running. Though the Bulls scored well Friday, it too often was at a slower place that didn't do much to fatigue the opponent. Baskets were more difficult, though LaVine and DeRozan can do that. But the harder you work on one end, the more difficult it obviously is on the other.

Nikola Vucevic shot well again and had 18 points and Coby White off the bench broke out of his shooting woes (three of 27 on threes the last four games) for 18 points and four of six threes. But the regulars were pushed with Donovan essentially using a seven-player rotation. Only White and Troy Brown off the bench played at least 10 minutes. Ayo Dosunmu starting at point guard plays more deliberately than Ball, and without the steals and deflections from Ball and Caruso, both among the league leaders, the Bulls don't quite rattle the opponent like that can and have.

So they have to do more individually, and it's just not a decisive defensive lineup.

"We didn't do a great job helping, let them get an awful lot of open threes, let them get in rhythm," admitted DeRozan. "We were so out of whack defensively and it showed. It's on us, the leaders on this team, to set the tone. With those guys out we've got to be able to step forward and bring that defensive intensity."

DeMar DeRozan hits fadeaway jumper in the first quarter against the Spurs.

DeMar DeRozan hits a fadeaway jumper in the first quarter against the Spurs.

The Spurs, in hardly an innovative technique in the NBA these days, had Murray and their centers in repeated pick and roll offense. The Bulls mostly played it soft, allowing penetration for scores and open threes. Predictably, which mostly is the case when the Bulls give up a lot of points, many point at Vucevic.

But Zach vouched for Vooch.

"It's not Vooch's fault," defended LaVine.

Is it fair to say the team's best defense of the evening?

"Vooch is doing what the coaches, what we're asking him to do," LaVine said about the drop coverage the Bulls centers play instead of trapping or show-and-recover activity. "We have to help support him. Everybody including Vooch has to give more effort; it's not one guy's fault. We have to do a better job collectively. Vooch didn't give up 130 points; that was on the Chicago Bulls."

About which Donovan agreed.

"Defensively everyone has to block out, everyone has to get back in transition, everyone has to guard the ball, everyone has to get over pick and roll, everyone has to get in screening actions; you have to do all of that collectively," lectured Donovan. "The reality is defense is a five-man situation."

Which may be a lot to ask with the work load of playing time, the packed schedule with makeup games like Toronto this week and the absences. Go deeper into the bench? Make a move or an addition? The trading deadline is in two weeks. Though it sounds like this needs to be solved internally.

This was a Western Conference-type shootout from start, though the Bulls seemed like they were in control with an early nine-point lead behind White's three-point shooting and 35-29 after the first quarter. DeRozan cranked it up in the second quarter with 11 points as the Spurs welcomed him back for his three years there with a video tribute. DeRozan waved appreciatively to the fans. Murray rivaled him with 10 points, and DeRozan said his former Spurs teammate was one of the top young point guards in the NBA and one of the better overall two-way players with his improved game.

He would prove DeRozan accurate, if not helpful to the Bulls hopes.

Tap to watch video highlights from Chicago's Friday night matchup with San Antonio Spurs.

It still was 68-63 Bulls at halftime, which wasn't a great sign. At least the 63 given up. The Bulls lately have had issues with younger and athletic teams without Ball and Caruso. And they're not coming through the door soon.

The Bulls tried multiple defenders on Murray, but he added another 10 points in the third quarter. LaVine countered taking the offensive baton from DeRozan. But the Bulls missed eight of their nine three-point attempts in the quarter. Still, with about four minutes left in the third, DeRozan powered in on a fast break dunk from a Dosunmu pass for an 85-83 Bulls lead. The Spurs, however, responded with threes and drives, taking a 98-91 lead after three. And then sending the Bulls into a quick timeout to start the fourth quarter following six straight Spurs points on a three and a three-point play for suddenly a 104-91 lead.

The Bulls had some life left, if not enough to lift them all the way back.

White and Vucevic had back to back threes to get the Bulls within 108-106 with seven minutes left. And the way this season has gone, that's usually been the start of a run to put a losing team away, the Spurs coming in at 18-31.

After a short Murray miss, Vucevic had a chance for the lead. He missed a three.

And just over minute later the Bulls were trailing by 10 points with a Spurs three and a couple of layups. The Bulls had a last gasp on DeRozan's only three-point attempt of the game and got within 124-120 with about a minute left. But Murray drew help on his drive, leaving Poeltl open for an easy runner. And then it was pretty much over when Dosunmu missed LaVine with an inbounds pass and the Spurs got another easy floater from Murray following the turnover.

Ever the optimist and teacher, Donovan counseled that, "This can make us a better team as they go through this."

But that's also the problem. They keep going through them.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.


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