Sometimes these kinds of games like the Bulls 135-102 loss Wednesday to the Denver Nuggets can be predictable. Light mountain air, a team at the end of a long road trip coming off a tough loss.
What, you mean that game was in the United Center? And it was the Nuggets coming off a double overtime loss in Miami in the midst of their longest road trip of the season while the Bulls were playing their third of the last five at home without a back to back set in a month?
That was bad. How bad?
So bad skunks didn’t want to get near? So bad fans were ordering air freshener at the concession stands? OK, maybe not that bad. But it was the Bulls third biggest margin loss of the season, but worst since the Nov. 24 debacle in Golden State and the worst loss of the season to a non playoff team. The Nuggets’ 77 first half points were an opponent most this season. And then even after players described what was a tongue lashing at halftime, the Bulls gave up their second largest scoring third-quarter of the season by just a basket from the poorest.
So, that defense, coach Fred Hoiberg, what was wrong?
“Everything,” Hoiberg said without immediate elaboration.
The Nuggets with six players scoring in double figures by halftime led by 46 points early in the fourth quarter before a playground game once again broke out for the Bulls, enabling them to shoot away without anyone caring much about defense and lose by a comfortable 33.
The Bulls had seven players score in double figures (four through three quarters) led by Cristiano Felicio with 16 points, his second consecutive game as team leading scorer. Bobby Portis had 15, Noah Vonleh 14, Cameron Payne and David Nwaba 11 each and Denzel Valentine and Jerian Grant 10 each. Denver was led by Paul Millsap with 22 and Nikola Jokic, drawing the loudest ovations from a huge contingent of Serbian fans, 21 points. Dozens from the Serbian group chanting for Jokic all game crowded around the Nuggets tunnel exit at the end of the game. Jokic stopped to take selfie pictures with many of the fans.
They appeared to be putting more pressure on him than the Bulls.
Jokic shot nine of 11, Millsap shot eight of nine and Will Barton was seven of nine. The Denver starters shot a combined 68 percent. There was one remarkable second quarter stretch in which the Nuggets committed turnovers in five consecutive possessions over 90 seconds. The Bulls scored two points in what was probably their best run through the first three quarters. The Bulls at that juncture cut a 25-point Denver lead to 23. Then Denver closed the quarter 13-5 and the closest the Bulls would be after that was within 26.
Denver is ninth in the Western Conference at 39-33. They shot a Bulls opponent season best 61.4 percent and made 20 of 35 three pointers. The Bulls fell to 24-47 with the interest now on the post season odds for the draft lottery. The Bulls remained with the eighth poorest record in the NBA as the Nets with the ninth poorest blew a 21-point lead and lost to Charlotte. The Bulls host the Bucks in the United Center Friday.
Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine remained out with injuries without any indications any would return soon. Robin Lopez was also listed inactive, though not hurt. So the Bulls started the same five from the Monday drubbing in New York of Felicio, Payne, Valentine, Paul Zipser and Justin Holiday.
The Bulls at least made some of their threes this time, five in the first quarter after just three for 30 in New York. But that was about all they could match the Nuggets at in the opening quarter as after a back and forth the first six minutes in which Denver led 18-16, it was all gold for the Nuggets after that.
Denver led 39-25 after the first quarter and then a shocking 77-46 at halftime.
“Well, we jumped their ass at half and challenged them,” said Hoiberg.
The Bulls players seemed to fight off that challenge, trailing 113-70 after three quarters.
It was an aberration because these Bulls players have competed seriously just about all season. It’s been something of a constant even in the 3-20 start and throughout the new year. Though with their three leading scorers out and the lottery odds discussed in the community these days more than success on the court, it does perhaps become difficult to exert yourself as you would chasing playoff seeding.
“It’s definitely challenging and harder with the circumstances we are given,” said Valentine. “But at the same time it’s a ball and a hoop.”
Yes, same 10 feet from the floor. Just five guys on the other side, and five who still are in ninth place.
“We’re down a couple of guys, three big pieces to our ball club, guys who can put the ball in the hole, get stops on the other end, too,” Portis added. “Against Cleveland (without them), we competed well. We’re a young basketball team. We should go out each and every night, play as hard as we can, get up and down and play both ends of the floor.”
That also was Hoiberg’s principal point.
Sure, this is hardly an ideal environment for success with so much of the community rooting for the team to lose for better draft lottery odds, the Bulls officially out of the playoffs and the team’s top players all out injured and starting center Lopez observing in order to aid the development of the bottom of the roster.
The goal given the circumstances is not unreasonable: Determine in regular play, against teams some of whom are desperate for wins late in the season, whether the young and inexperienced players on the roster could or should have roles going forward as the Bulls add more draft choices and, presumably, free agents.
It’s on court job interviews. Are you prepared and looking your best?
“These guys are getting an unbelievable opportunity right now, to come out and prove that they belong in this league, prove that they belong in the rotation, try to prove that they belong long term with the organization,” reminded Hoiberg. “We’re just obviously way too inconsistent with it. We’ll come out, we’ll have good moments. But when you come out tonight and just dig that type of hole — which has been pretty consistent with our first quarter starts — it’s very discouraging, and it’s disappointing and it’s demoralizing.
“Guys are getting great opportunities to go out there and get valuable minutes and valuable experience, especially guys that have not had a lot of opportunity over the course of the season,” Hoiberg noted. “It’s been tough with Justin and Robin, but they’ve handled it beautifully and understand what this thing is all about at this point in the year, to get these guys the experience. But you can’t take it for granted. You’ve got to go out, got to fight, got to scrap, do a lot of little things. We’re not doing that.”
The circumstances of being in a non competitive close, perhaps the first time for the Bulls in a decade, are unsettling. Still, it is an opportunity for players to earn their way toward next season and for observers to picture the elements of a rotation. Felicio finally is showing some offense, Payne with six assists is demonstrating an ability to be a backup point guard and Vonleh appears to have potential as a stretch four. But there’s been an obvious lack of, if not hustle, certainly physical play. That was evident against the Knicks and especially against Wednesday against the Nuggets as Jokic easily had his way inside and three-point shooters had ample space. Nine Nuggets players made threes. Maybe everyone was worried about getting hurt right before vacation.
“I don’t think,” Portis keenly observed, “everyone was locked in on the defensive end.”