featured-image

Bulls' struggles continue, fall in Philadelphia 121-106

It wasn't all bad for the Bulls Monday.

Nobody got eaten by a shark, Joey Chestnut was not catering the team meal, everyone read their Tweets before hitting send, no one could hear Adele on the headphones, and the team was fourth in the Eastern Conference still sitting on a first-round playoff home court.

Feeling better?

And the Bulls were getting to leave Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, that was with a season-worst fifth consecutive loss, 121-106 to the 76ers and Joel Embiid's 43 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks. The defeat to yet another top Eastern Conference team dropped the Bulls to 39-26 and just a half game ahead of the fifth place Boston Celtics. It also was the 76ers 11th consecutive win against the Bulls and completed another season series sweep, the Bulls in the last week losing to each of the top three teams in the conference by an average of about 10 points per game.

Zach LaVine hammers home a dunk in the first-half against the Sixers.

Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 24 points and DeMar DeRozan barely missed a triple double with 23 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists. But the 76ers continued a defensive strategy that has limited DeRozan of late, showing traps and blitzes whenever he got the ball and made a move, and then assigning the best individual defender to LaVine to make him work.

It was perhaps a bit easier for the 76ers to pursue with Nikola Vucevic out with a hamstring strain that Bulls coach Billy Donovan said wasn't serious. Tristan Thompson started and was steady with 13 points and nine rebounds, though having foul issues against the gigantic Embiid. Tony Bradley was ineffective and Donovan used small lineups much of the second half with Derrick Jones Jr. at center.

Though seeing that, 76ers coach Doc Rivers kept Embiid in the game the entire third quarter after the 76ers held a 59-53 halftime lead. The 76ers sent the Bulls to a quick timeout with breakdowns to open the second half. And then with Embiid scoring 19 points in the third quarter, the 76ers powered to a 17-point lead midway through the third and pretty much led by double-digits the rest of the game.

James Harden had 16 points and 14 assists while Coby White off the bench for the Bulls had 19 points. The Bulls outrebounded the 76ers by 10, but committed 13 turnovers against pressure defense for 18 Philadelphia points. The Bulls did attempt 26 free throws, a dozen by DeRozan and eight by LaVine after low totals in recent games. And though Donovan continued to label it a point of emphasis, the Bulls, not a particularly big or physical team, sent the 76ers to the free throw line 34 times, 16 for Embiid.

Though there also were some rare signs of frustration with DeRozan engaged in an animated conversation with the starters in that early third quarter timeout, and later in the game ripping what appeared to be a shirt or towel during a timeout.

There was some speculation that it really was to share with a teammate.

"Everybody should be upset, but also understand we have to go out and work," said LaVine. "We're a team. Everyone has to look inward and improve. You can't put the finger and blame people. Each and every one of us needs to look in the mirror and figure out what we can do better to help the whole unit. That's what a team does. I take me and DeMar versus anybody in the entire world. I feel strongly about that. I still do. It doesn't matter if you don't win games, though. And, obviously, we have to start going out there and put some of these Ws up.

"We've hit a little bump in the road, but I think that can make everything better if you learn from it," LaVine admitted. "I feel like as a unit we have to compete, have a little more sense of urgency, enjoy the game, have fun; it's not the end of the world. Everybody's got to keep their heads up. Go out there and still have fun and enjoy what we're doing."

You know, other than the losing part.

Step back a little, and you realize maybe it's not that bad.

After all, the Bulls were hardly a candidate for top four in the East this late in the season. It's a difficult part of the schedule with top teams and road games, and things do change.

"No one's panicking," said Thompson. "I think you've got to understand that when you come out that hot in the first half of the season teams are gonna start prepping for you differently. Instead of just treating it like, 'Hey, a walk through we have the Bulls tonight,' it's like, 'Hey, this is a potential playoff matchup. We gotta throw some wrinkles in our scheme to see how they'll react.'"

Tristan Thompson finished with 13 points and nine rebounds on Monday night against Philadelphia.

Thompson, who likes to bring up his Cavaliers' playoff history often, said he saw that with those teams, and even those Cavaliers teams that went to the Finals had regular season hiccups.

Thompson said the season the Atlanta Hawks won 60 games for the most in the conference, they swept the Cavs in the regular season and then were dominated by Cleveland in the playoffs.

"Kicked their (butts) 4-0," said Thompson. "Sixty wins, four All-Stars, hollering and accolades. We kicked their (butts) easily; wasn't even a game."

They didn't actually sweep (3-1), but Thompson was rolling. Someone mentioned that, well, the Cavs had LeBron.

"We've got a Big Three here that's really good and they're All Stars," Thompson countered. "We've got Vucevic, who's a walking double-double every night, Lonzo Ball, who is a walking triple-double any given night, and a bench that can change the game. It's on you (media) guys to create that narrative of what the record is (against winning teams). For us, it's to get better every day."

That's generally been Donovan's advice and counsel, and for the most part it still is. But for perhaps the first time, Donovan stuck his toe just a bit into the bitterly cold lake of Bulls infirmaries that continues to produce a chill around the team's hopes.

"I believe there's enough in the locker room to go out there and be competitive and win, I really believe that," insisted Donovan. "I felt like there have been strides even though we lost. We got in there and physically fought and battled after what happened in the Milwaukee game. I do see the next game they come out and try to get things corrected. We're not getting the results we want, but I can see progress in some areas we have to make strides in.

Tap to listen to Billy Donovan following Chicago's loss in Philadelphia on Monday night.

"But we had 16 games the entire year with Lonzo, Alex (Caruso), Patrick (Williams), Vooch, DeMar and Zach, 16-some games," Donovan pointed out. "Our guys are fighting and we can be better. I agree we have not performed really well against these teams and our margin for error against these teams is very small. Certainly Alex, Patrick and Lonzo make us better defensively.

"That's not to say they are the cure for all this," Donovan continued. "And I'm not making excuses because we have to be better because we don't know if we'll get whole. Everyone, including myself, is hoping, hoping, hoping, but the reality is we're not (sure). With this current team we have now we have to understand what goes into winning (free throws, rebounding, good shots). I want to see what happens if we are totally whole against those teams. If that is the case right now, if we were totally whole against (those teams and still lost), I'd say OK, (they're better).

"I don't know if it's going to be in our heads right now because our guys know we are not playing with a full complement of players," Donovan admitted. "Maybe this team if we are whole against some of the elite teams maybe we're not there. I don't know that yet. But I do feel pretty good these guys are getting better and competing, though we are not getting the results we want."

It's about as close as Donovan has come to an appeal for a level playing field before judgment; assuming that is possible.

This was going to be a particularly tough game given the losing streak and facing a healthy and motivated Embiid, who is the league MVP favorite, and a reinvigorated Harden. The Bulls displayed some grit to start with DeRozan's 11 points in the first quarter and a 23-15 lead, which would be their largest of the game. The Bulls put a quick double team on Embiid early, and it had some effect. But it left open threes the 76ers cashed in, and Thompson began counting up the fouls. Still, the Bulls were working hard. Ayo Dosunmu scored on some runouts for seven of his 11 points in the second quarter. But playing with Thompson the Bulls have slowed some. Their pace of play will be a prominent issue once the injured players return.

The Bulls slowed the 76ers after their 37-point first quarter. But with Harden slipping to the rim and Embiid crashing there to start the third quarter, the Bulls were overwhelmed. They peeked within 90-83 early in the fourth quarter. But the 76ers got a three off an offensive rebound, Jones had a pair of misses and the 76ers got another three recovering a Jones block and were quickly ahead by 13 midway through the fourth quarter. Against Embiid, you're not making up many double-digit deficits in six minutes. But the 76ers also are deep and Tyrese Maxey shook loose for 13 points late in the fourth to stretch the Bulls deficit in the last few minutes.

"In these situations," counseled Donovan, "you have to deal with the truth."

These Bulls can handle the truth. They just don't believe this is it quite yet.