Bulls struggle to get things going in loss to Clippers, 113-103

Groundhog day was Friday, though things seem to happen later out on the West Coast where the Bulls have been playing lately. The sun sets later, the TV shows come on later and for the Bulls in Saturday's 113-103 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, it was the same day all over again in the team's sixth consecutive loss.

The Bulls were ineffective and inefficient to open the game, though not lifeless this time in falling behind badly to start the game, trailing after the first quarter for the sixth straight game, all losses. This time it was 10-3 to begin, 22-17 after one quarter and yet another game in which the Bulls never led.

The Bulls are in transition with the Thursday trade of Nikola Mirotic, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen still away from the team, though Markkanen will join the team in Sacramento Monday, and the new players from the Mirotic trade, Jameer Nelson and Omer Asik, not having passed physicals yet. There certainly was little transition on the basketball court for the Bulls as the Clippers, in turmoil of their own following the trade of Blake Griffin, had a shocking, runaway 33-19 edge in fast break points and 52-36 inside as the Bulls reverted to their November habit of admiring their long, contested shots.

The Bulls dropped to 18-34. The Clippers are 26-25.

"Still trying to figure out those starts," said Zach LaVine, who led the Bulls with 21 points and nine rebounds.  "Coaches, players, all of us. We need to get it down and eventually it will turn around, but somebody better figure that out."

Markkanen's return should help, though Dunn remains in the league's concussion protection. It's unclear when he will be cleared. Plus, the roster is a kaleidoscope of pieces with Paul Zipser starting again and having his best game of the season with 16 points and four of six threes.

Robin Lopez had 15 points, Jerian Grant 14 and Justin Holiday 13. Bobby Portis had 10 points and 13 rebounds, but he and Denzel Valentine combined to shoot five for 24 and zero for nine on threes as the Clippers bench had a  46-24 advantage.

The Bulls shot just 36.1 percent with LaVine despite his second consecutive game of at least 20 points at six of 18. LaVine is now shooting 38 percent overall for the season and 19 for 59 the last three games.

"He's still trying to find his rhythm," Hoiberg acknowledged with LaVine playing his 10th game in his return and first time more than 30 minutes. "I think he's turning down some pretty darned good looks and turning them into tough shots and tough contested mid range shots and that was an issue for us. I thought especially in the first half we were settling for way too many mid range shots. You have to keep driving the ball, get it into the paint and spray it out for open threes or get something at the rim. As far as Zach, he's had stretches the last few games where he has shown what he can do. But now it's about getting his rhythm and timing and getting him to understand when we produce good shots he's got to raise up and shoot those."

If there was a note of frustration in Hoiberg's voice, it was understandable.

With once again a plethora of personnel changes, so much of what Hoiberg implemented in the offense in that 10-6 December and even the three straight wins last month has disappeared with the variable rosters, the trade, the rotation needs of additional scrutiny for certain players, starters out with injury and personal issues.

Hoiberg, even with the team riding a six-game losing streak, appears to have done an excellent job in maintaining a competitive atmosphere, of players, albeit limited in skills, continuing to show commitment, effort and intensity, if not results.

"The thing we did today, our defensive intensity and energy was much better than it had been and that kept us in the game," Hoiberg noted of the Clippers shooting 31 percent in the opening quarter. "I thought out of the gate our defensive grit was pretty good. Second quarter they got downhill on us; too many transition baskets. I think 18 in transition at halftime. We got it going and found a little bit of a rhythm to cut it to six after falling down 15. We kept playing and had a chance to cut it to four when we missed a dunk. It would be nice to get that lead after the first 12 minutes and go from there."

The Bulls did come back despite the latest torpid start. After trailing 43-28 midway through the second quarter, they closed to 57-52 at halftime with a driving two-handed dunk and three from LaVine to end the first half.

"I think we're all trying to get familiar with each other and get that chemistry down," said LaVine. "Sometimes even with the group of guys we have we go through stretches where we are really good. We're competitive and then other stretches we look sorry, we look out of place and lacking here and there and we have to get that out of the way."

The Bulls opened the third quarter cutting their deficit to three a few times. The Clippers, led by Tobias Harris and Danilo Gallinari with 23 each and Lou Williams off the bench with 21, shot their lead back up to 76-63 before Zipser and Holiday threes and a driving LaVine score placed the Bulls within 76-70 and the Clippers searching for a score. That was with Lopez rolling in wide open and uncovered, but missing that dunk. The Clippers then hit the Bulls with an 8-2 run while Portis committed one of his three turnovers and led 86-81 after three. Still manageable.

But quick Portis and Valentine threes early in the fourth quarter began a stretch of eight Bulls possessions without a field goal. The Clippers had enough to make it 100-87 with seven minutes left and pretty much retain a double digit lead the rest of the game.

"We're really a good group of guys; spirits are high regardless we win or lose," said LaVine. "We're going to battle, talk about it. We're in a little bit of a slump right now, but our spirits are still high. We're not down on ourselves. We're going to get it clicking and get it together and change this thing around. Call it what it is. We have to go out and fight; all of us included. So we're going to get those guys back and be a full team. We are a competitive team with the guys we have, so we have to be able to string some of these games out."

Certainly, the absence of two starters with a team already limited in overall talent is weighty. But the way the players have gotten away from the structure and offense Hoiberg implemented so well through December and until recently with all the changes that has been most glaring.

Now, there's little speed out of the backcourt or push. The extra pass is missing except for those to friends for the family hospitality room. Though the Bulls still run that dribble handoff action to start possessions, when the big men move they rarely get the ball while perimeter players settle for shots instead of moving into position for a better shot.

"I thought we had some opportunities to get the ball to Robin in the pocket and the pass to the corner and we missed several of those opportunities," Hoiberg pointed out. "I thought we held the ball a little too long when they were blitzing the pick and roll. When we did get it early and make quick decisions, I thought we got a lot accomplished.

"We are playing makeshift lineups out there," Hoiberg agreed. "We have guys playing who haven't had much of a chance this year. I was happy to see Paul Zipser get it going today. Hopefully, get Lauri back in the next game, keep battling, keep grinding and we're going to have a game where we make some shots and get back in the winning column

"You have to stay positive with them," Hoiberg said in walking the line between patience with changing personnel and demands. "You can't pile on. But at the same time, you have to learn from the mistakes being made out there. From that standpoint, my job doesn't change. They have to make the simple play to get it going on offense and hopefully get our defensive intensity ratcheted up. It's tough like this when you're on a slide like this. You have to find a way to keep morale up, keep going out and battling and competing. I think we competed today; hopefully get over the hump."

And get over the hump, and get over the hump, and get over the hump, and....