The Detroit Pistons Sunday finished the weekend home and home sweep of the Bulls with a deft 131-108 victory, completing a full season domination of the Bulls and seventh consecutive victory.
"We've got to learn from the Pistons," Bulls coach Jim Boylen said after the unusually early 12 Eastern start. "Their bench guys come off with force. They take pride in their minutes and they play them the best they can and they sit down and root for the other guys. (Blake) Griffin (with 28 points) and (Andre) Drummond (with 16 points and 15 rebounds) are powerful guys and they pounded on us a little bit. They've got a couple stars, they've got some good role players and they've got guys that can play their minutes. They have maturity. I think they were down 20 in Minnesota and won, they were down 20 to us (Friday) and won. So they're a good example of maybe who we have to grow to, and what we need to learn."
Bulls vs. Pistons game recap
Please Jim, no! Not the Pistons! The Bad Boys' descendants as the Bulls' model? Oh, I am slain! I am poisoned! Anyone but the Pistons!
Here we go 1980s again?
Perhaps it has to come to that for these baby Bulls just like it was for Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier's Bulls and as it was for Michael Jordan's Bulls, that their barrier as it almost always has been in Bulls history will be Detroit. There are more glamorous rivals to have, like the big city Knicks or Lakers, or any team that has LeBron. But for the Bulls, for Chicago really, it has aways been Detroit, that place a little more frozen, a little less urbanized and perhaps somewhat less appreciated by our coastal neighbors. But equally uncelebrated. It's always almost been who can fight themselves out of the Midwestern freeze onto the NBA's stage.
The Bulls won their first playoff series ever over the Pistons, which was their entree to a first conference finals in 1975. For the championship Bulls, it was three years of brutal playoff disappointments in Detroit that became the rite of passage for excellence.
So perhaps Boylen with his gloves off—literally not until May in Chicago and Detroit—approach stumbled upon the Bulls path. Maybe even with a little bit of a wink since you know he had to be a Pistons fan growing up in Grand Rapids and starting his coaching career at Michigan State.
These Pistons, not nearly as ruthless and vulgar as the 80s crew and somewhat more versatile than the 70s crop with Dave Bing and Bob Lanier, are one of the league's hottest teams, winning 12 of their last 14 to reach 34-31. They are sixth in the East and should get to the playoffs for the second time in 10 years. No, it's not that easy as the East becomes stronger and deeper. The Bulls lost for the fourth time in the last five, dropping to 19-49.
The Bulls were led by Wayne Selden Jr. with 18 points, though 11 in the second half mostly after the Pistons took control with another third quarter domination with 42 points. The Bulls were missing lead scorer Zach LaVine, who sat out with a sore knee. Otto Porter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen each had 17 points, though no starter scored a fourth quarter point. After averaging 26 points in February, Markkanen hasn't reached 20 points in the last five games.
And while the Bulls are bullish on Markkanen, the East and particularly the Central Division is becoming a more difficult place for big forwards.
"To Lauri's credit he's a young kid, he's a heck of a player," said Boylen. "We've got the Greek kid (Giannis Antetokounmpo, likely MVP) in this division, Blake in this division. He's got his hands full. He's battling and trying and he's doing a good job."
And then there's Myles Turner with the Pacers, don't forget Kevin Love and youngsters like Atlanta's John Collins in the conference. The East is starting to grow them bigger and stronger. And once again, like on Friday, the Bulls didn't have enough as they tried to work in those second unit lineups that had players like Selden and Shaquille Harrison trying to switch defensively on Drummond or Griffin.
"We played a good first half, second half not so good," said Porter. "That's a playoff team. Playoff teams, they're locked in, they're together as one, the starters and the bench. Everybody comes in and plays their role and does their job for the sake of the team and for the sake of winning. We've definitely got to learn from that, how they control the game, how their coaches put them in positions where they can be successful and how they respond. They responded well to a couple of the runs that we had and they were able to get it going."
Et tu, Otto?
The Bulls Sunday despite the exceptionally early start with Daylight Savings kicking in were alert, especially Kris Dunn. The somewhat embattled point guard took a swing pass early and didn't hesitate on a three and sent the Pistons into the first timeout with a full court romp, fake pass and driving dunk for a 16-11 lead.
Kris Dunn dunks against the Pistons
It raised the theory some have suggested that Dunn plays better without LaVine. Though Dunn does have the ball to start and faded this time.
Dunn came into the game averaging 11 points and six rebounds on 43 percent shooting. In the six games he played without LaVine, Dunn averaged 17.2 points and 6.3 assists on 58 percent shooting. Plus, Dunn had his two best games in the December stretch LaVine missed with a sprained ankle, 24 points twice in a win over the Spurs and loss to Nets. Dunn Sunday finished the first quarter with seven points and two steals as the Bulls led 32-31.
The second quarter was still going well for the Bulls, especially when Markkanen came flying in on a Harrison miss and slammed for a 46-44 Bulls lead with 5:04 left in the second quarter. Though that seemed to awaken the Pistons, who went on a 17-9 run to close the half leading 61-55. Then it was another barren third quarter start, Dunn with a pair of turnovers as the Pistons had an 11-2 ignition and were leading 103-80 by the end of the third. Again it was that group with Selden, Harrison and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot trying to match up with Detroit's big men that doomed the Bulls in a 26-11 Pistons close to the third after Markkanen and Porter went out with 5:53 left. Dunn and Robin Lopez remained in. Lopez got six shots and made four. Dunn was scoreless after the first quarter.
"I thought it kind of slipped away from us the last three minutes of the second," said Boylen. "We were only down six at the half. They made a couple of threes, threes that kind of hurt us a little bit. We started the second half with a couple of opportunities in the paint. I think three of the four shots were in the paint, but they didn't go down and the game kind of flipped from there."
And as has often happened this season, especially because of those threes.
While the Bulls talk about needs for next season, perhaps as important as any is three-point shooting.
The Pistons with reserve Langston Galloway making all six of his threes sunk the Bulls with 19 of 35 threes. The Bulls made nine, a deficit of 30 points which easily accounted for the margin. Detroit's improvement this season under new coach Dwane Casey has coincided with franchise record three-point shooting. The Bulls have been outscored on threes in 16 of their last 19 games. LaVine's absence clearly hurt, including interior scoring as the starters combined for just eight free throw attempts.
Boylen didn't indicate LaVine's issue was serious. And LaVine certainly wants to play against the Lakers and LeBron James Tuesday in the United Center. But Boylen said he is cautious. LaVine turned 24 on Sunday.
"I'm always concerned when a guy misses a game when he's playing at a level he's playing at," Boylen said. "It means he's not feeling well because he's been kicking butt."
The Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter Lionel Richie is said to have a doppelgänger in Porter. Richie has famously sung his lyrics:
Oh that's why I'm easy;
I'm easy like Sunday morning yeah;
That's why I'm easy'
I'm easy like Sunday morning.
So were the Bulls, though especially in the early afternoon.
Darned Pistons again!