Basketball is about numbers, and so are the Bulls as they play out this season.
There’s 5, which is the number of consecutive losses the Bulls now have after Tuesday’s 118-103 loss to the Charlotte Hornets.
There’s 8, which is the places from the bottom of the standings where the Bulls are in the discussion — if not race — for the lowest spots in the standings and added odds for gaining one of the top three picks in this June’s NBA draft.
There’s 20, which is the Bulls number of wins. With 41 losses, that’s a winning (losing?) percentage of 32.8 percent. Which equates to 27 wins. Though for the Bulls this season that seems unlikely given the run of 10 wins in 12 games and the 10-6 month of December.
And then there’s the team’s most important number, 3. Which represents the team’s hoop trinity with Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn. They are the trio acquired in the momentous Jimmy Butler trade last year. They’ve had their moments this season, but the troika hasn’t truly been pulling its collective weight and have had a difficult time developing much chemistry or teamwork.
While the attention since the All-Star break has been about the roster change to dismiss starters Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday for Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba, and Jerian Grant for Cameron Payne, the impact of LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen playing regularly together this season remains more significant.
Though LaVine led the Bulls Tuesday with 21 points, their results were somewhat disappointing. Though some of that, apparently, reflects the uncertainty of primarily playing with teammates who likely won’t be future starters.
In perhaps the most vital sequence of the game early in the third quarter when the Bulls appeared like they might take control with a 55-53 lead after trailing 24-17 early, Felicio twice in three possessions missed LaVine passes that would have been layups. It contributed to five consecutive Bulls possessions with turnovers that enabled the Hornets to seize a lead. Charlotte then hit the Bulls with an 11-2 run for a double digit lead they maintained for basically the rest of the game.
“Sloppiness to me,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “I look at these four games we’ve had since the All-Star break and we’ve had leads in three of them at halftime, and tonight we were tied. So we’re playing some pretty good stretches; were just not sustaining it right now. When you turn it over twelve times in the second half against a team that’s hot like this, on the road, you’re not going to win. Twenty-one turnovers tonight (seven by Dunn). That’s tough to overcome. We turned it over on five straight possessions at one time, and then you’re swimming uphill and it takes too much energy to get out of it.”
Markkanen added 11 points and Dunn 10. But the three combined shot 14 for 41 with LaVine and Dunn combining for 12 of their 31 points in the fourth quarter after the Bulls trailed by 15 points with eight minutes left. They also had the three poorest plus/minus ratings for the game with LaVine minus-20, Markkanen minus-19 and Dunn minus-18. They were 2-2 in fits and starts together around their injuries and absences, LaVine rehabilitating his knee, Markkanen with personal time for a birth and Dunn with a concussion. But since All-Star, though playing with Felicio instead of Lopez, they are 0-4 playing together.
Somewhat indicative was that fourth quarter when LaVine and Dunn combined for eight shots and five free throw attempts. Markkanen was scoreless in six minutes with one shot. When LaVine didn’t play because of the back to back Monday, Dunn had 23 points in his best game post-All-Star and Markkanen had 19. In Minnesota Saturday, LaVine scored 21 while Markkanen and Dunn stumbled, a combined five of 20 shooting. LaVine had 23 points against the 76ers last Thursday with Dunn and Markkanen a combined three of 19. Both obviously had some All-Star hangovers in their first trips there. But the three, though it is fewer than 10 games playing together, can’t seem to get comfortable with one another for now.
“They hopefully will get it going on the same night,” Hoiberg said. “It hasn’t happened yet, but they’re all obviously fully capable of doing that. Kris Dunn had a great game last night, Lauri played well, I thought, last night. And with Zach back in the mix tonight, we just couldn’t get it going with all three of them. We get a good chance to get a practice before the next game and then two good opportunities for practice after the game with Dallas Friday. So now it’s about, hopefully, growing and getting some chemistry with those three guys. It would be great to get all three going, which I’m confident will happen.”
It’s probably a lot to ask for that to occur now with the unbalanced starting lineup that doesn’t enhance the spacing for Dunn and Markkanen. LaVine has shown himself to be an elite isolation player pretty much capable of getting his own shot whenever he wants. But that usually entails individual play. LaVine likes to pass, though mostly off the drive. It clearly didn’t work with Felicio.
Dunn made a wonderful transition pass to set up Markkanen for his highlight play of the game, a running dunk on a fast break. But the trio combined for 14 field goals in the game. That Dunn pass to make it a 58 tie in the third quarter was just one of the four field goals all game assisted among the threesome. Also, of the 42 points the three scored combined, just nine points came from plays assisted by another of the three.
And those transition plays were few in this new roster arrangement. The Bulls have reverted to more isolation play with quick shots and fewer passes, once again watching an opponent skip the ball around while the Bulls took in the view, often stationary. The Hornets had 28 assists in the game and shot 54 percent led by Kemba Walker with 31 points as he gave Dunn a good lesson in elusive play. Dwight Howard had 24 points with a half dozen dunks over Felicio and Portis.
The Bulls actually had seven players scoring in double figures as Denzel Valentine had 14, Portis 12 points and 10 rebounds and Felicio his best scoring game of the season with 12 points, all in the first half. The curiosity was that Felicio, who almost never shoots and had attempted fewer than five outside shots all season, opened the game with a pair of long jump shots. Howard was playing six feet off him, but he did make them to tie his season high in points.
“We didn’t anticipate Cris coming out and hitting 18 footers to start the game,” Hoiberg said with a laugh. “But he rose up with confidence and hit a couple late in the shot clock; those are the ones he has to take. I thought his rim rolls were much better tonight. His screens were more effective; he was good. This is one Cris can certainly build on. Cris needs to do the little things and I thought he did a good job with that for the most part tonight.”
Felicio was much better offensively, though he still tends to trot back in transition as the Bulls were beaten back defensively several times. They don’t seem to be playing as hard or with as much pace and speed as they did before the All-Star break. Which makes some sense with the way they are basically working in an entirely new rotation with the new starters plus Payne and their hoped for Big Three starting the process of finding one another’s strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes.
“We’re young, we’ve got some new guys in,” acknowledged Dunn. “In these last 20, we’ve got to try to get on the same page, try to find the chemistry as quick as we can to try to turn this thing around. I think individually we’ve all proved ourselves so far."
The Bulls finally got some buzz going Tuesday, if not right at the start. There was Felicio with the first six points, which you could have gotten big Vegas odds on. But Howard responded immediately with a pair of dunks as Felicio tends to lose his man often when trying to help. The defensive communication for the Bulls obviously has been poor. Charlotte going for its fifth straight win led 24-7 when the Bulls began an 18-2 run that included another Nwaba three as he improves his range and some nice driving moves from Noah Vonleh. He’s been surprisingly effective in each game despite limited playing time. Payne had six assists and one turnover and made three of four shots, again, like Felicio this time, satisfactory, at least on offense.
The Bulls extended to a 37-28 lead early in the second quarter and led 41-35 with seven minutes left in the half when Walker hit with another barrage. Still, it was tied at halftime at 51. Felicio even added a post up move with a bank shot. LaVine put his head down and got four free throws on drives. Though Felicio still may make one of those bloopers shows falling down as he tried to defend Walker on a switch. Walker then shot an air ball, apparently laughing as Felicio stumbled.
Hoiberg seemingly drew up some plays for Markkanen, who had a pair of driving scores early in the third quarter, but neither with assists from Dunn or LaVine. Then came that ghastly stretch of turnovers, a pair of Walker threes and Howard almost hammering Portis into the floor with three dunks and then a driving score for an 87-78 Charlotte lead after three. A 7-2 Hornets start to the fourth basically ended the 0-3 road trip. LaVine knocked in a pair of threes later to cut the Bulls deficit to 10, but they never got to single digits.
“I think it’s being young,” said Valentine. “We have to learn to play smarter and better together when we have leads. We can show sides where we can play well. But somehow, when the other team goes on a run in the second half, we just haven’t responded well the past couple of games.”
Now it’s three straight at home, two against teams with poorer records, the Mavericks and Grizzlies. The Bulls played one of their best games in weeks even with their new group against the 76ers, losing on that lost inbounds pass at the close. Though it’s not so much now about the number 1, meaning a win to break this streak. It’s about that triumvirate and how quickly and effectively they can play as one.