Who says this Bulls season isn’t worth watching? What would happen, say, if the team’s highest paid player who was inexplicably benched and taken out of the rotation a month ago got a cameo appearance due to another player’s injury and then was the best player on the floor for the Bulls?
That’s right, welcome to the Bulls 110-102 loss to the Utah Jazz Saturday.
“I was proud of our bench,” said Bulls coach Jim Boylen. “I thought we got a lot from a lot of guys tonight in the loss.”
Most especially the banished Parker, who in his first run of the game led the Bulls back from a 12-point early second quarter deficit to within one point before being subbed out. And then in the fourth quarter, Parker helped the Bulls take their only lead at 89-88 before stepping aside for the starters, who immediately combined to miss five straight shots and never got closer than five points the rest of the game.
“Second group had it going,” agreed Zach LaVine, who led the Bulls with 21 points even as he shot seven of 21. “They did a really good job. It just comes down to plays and us not making them at the right time. We had a good game, but we just didn’t make enough plays to win. But we’re going out there fighting.”
Lauri Markkanen added 16 points, but again with a somewhat sluggish performance. Chandler Hutchison was more alert offensively with 11 points and Kris Dunn had a comeback effort with 10 points, eight assists, five rebounds, three steals and two blocks. Parker and Wayne Selden both had 11 points off the bench as the Bulls reserves had a rare 37-29 edge. Parker, Selden and Robin Lopez were the only Bulls with positive plus/minus statistics for the game.
It was a substantially better effort — though just being alive would be close to that as well — after Friday’s awful defeat in Golden State. The Bulls flew into Salt Lake City in the early morning hours Saturday, and though they had a slow start in trailing 29-19 after the first quarter, the Bulls continued to push back against the Jazz in a game with 16 lead changes and 11 ties. The Jazz only gained separation in the last six minutes of the fourth quarter. And even then the Bulls with a frenetic late trap, which might have been used earlier, forced multiple turnovers after Utah lead 105-92 with 2:23 left. But the Jazz, led by 34 points from Donovan Mitchell and 15 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists from Rudy Gobert, had too much head start by the end.
“We talked about courage before the game after a difficult loss, coming into a tough building,” said Boylen. “We battled from down 12. We didn’t fold; we competed, we took control of the game. In the fourth quarter, I thought we missed some opportunities we needed to make. They made the plays that we didn’t. But I like the way we battled. I thought we responded from a difficult game.”
The Bulls did record multiple positives after a negative night.
Wendell Carter Jr., fought valiantly inside, at times battling three and four Jazz players on the boards, and leading the team with nine rebounds. Dunn can back from a devastating minus-45 on plus/minus to make multiple steals and deflections. LaVine and Markkanen ran an effective two-man game that had the Jazz hesitating after Markkanen made some early shots. Though the Bulls seemed to go away from that alignment. LaVine and Markkanen are the team’s two best shooters and the best pick and roll pair to keep the defense from pressuring the shooter. Hutchison didn’t run away from his open shots and Dunn continued to connect with Carter rolling to the rim.
But the puzzler in all this was not only the surprise appearance of Parker, but Parker’s inspired offense and the best pace the Bulls showed on offense lately because of Parker. Though Parker’s defensive play hasn’t been invited to any teaching videos and there always are rumbling about internal issues, Parker’s size and speed enables him to be one of the few Bulls players able to rebound the ball and get himself in transition. It’s the pace of play element the team often is missing, and again Saturday, mostly when Parker was out with Dunn at point guard, the Bulls reverted to a more deliberate offense.
“I feel like we get too comfortable out there,” said Carter. “We took the lead at one point and I feel like we didn’t keep our foot on the gas. Not necessarily on the offensive end, but we didn’t continue to get stops like we did when we got the lead. It’s just a learning experience and I feel like we’ll do better as the games go on.”
The Bulls lost their seventh straight and dropped to 10-33 on the season. They continue the road trip in Los Angeles Tuesday with LeBron James not expected to play and close in Denver Thursday. The Jazz is 23-21.
The start, at least in energy if not margin, was concerning for the Bulls with a 17-12 deficit when Parker and Selden were surprisingly inserted with 4:13 left in the first quarter. It went to 29-19 Utah at the end of the first quarter. Parker got a chance, apparently in part because Bobby Portis didn’t play after his elbow acted up from his engagement with Kevin Durant in Friday loss to the Warriors. Portis suggested it was a dirty play on Durant’s part. The Jazz, meanwhile, were missing their two point guards, Ricky Rubio and Dante Exum.
But then to start the second quarter after Utah went ahead 31-19, the Bulls were a lively, running team with Parker making a jump shot and a driving score and then getting Selden a score on a break. Parker added a three and with a Lopez spinning score the Bulls claimed a 35-33 lead after about four minutes. It all enabled the Bulls to hold onto a 53-51 halftime lead.
This game began to look promising for the Bulls when they didn’t flinch after halftime as has often happened.
Markkanen made a three in that pick and pop with LaVine. And then with the defense fearful of leaving Markkanen, LaVine had room for a driving score. But Mitchell got his shot going as the Bulls continued to go under the screens for him without enough defensive resistance on shooters, at least until the last desperate minutes.
“We’ve got to get that killer mentality,” said Boylen.
Gobert does provide a defensive anchor at the rim for the Jazz, but he drops so many passes and fumbles so many dribbles you also suspect the Jazz is a much overrated team. Late in the third quarter both Ryan Arcidiacono and Selden dove for a loose ball on the same possession to keep it in Bulls possession until it tricked to Shaquille Harrison for a score. That was the sort of hustle the Bulls lacked in being, if not intimidated, certainly overwhelmed by the Warriors. Though, to be fair, the Bulls experienced plenty of that in the 1990s when their mere presence left players on young teams mostly anxious to relate later to their friends just whom they played against.
NBA players like to say everyone deserves to be there because they are NBA players, sort of an adaption of a hooper’s syllogism. But just because all NBA players are special and the Bulls are NBA players, it doesn’t mean all Bulls players are special. At least in the way many Warriors players are.
Parker didn’t get much scoring going with his group to start the fourth quarter, though he again had a sweet assist for a Selden three-point play. The Bulls still clung to an 89-88 lead with 7:56 left after a Lopez follow dunk on a Selden miss and Markkanen retrieving a miss and making a 15 footer.
The starters then returned icy cold, the Bulls with just one LaVine driving three-point play in nine consecutive otherwise empty possessions and suddenly a 13-point deficit with just over two minutes remaining was too great. Though perhaps it was some progress not to face the unconquerable until then.
The Bulls again also were victimized in the margin of three pointers. The Bulls had a 54-32 lead in inside scores, but the Jazz made 16 threes to seven for the Bulls. Utah attempted 45 threes. All five Bulls starters combined to make five threes; Kyle Korver made four for Utah.
Talk about painting the town. It was all those Jazz.
“It is disappointing,” said Boylen. “We’ve got to make those plays. I thought we had the plays to make; we didn’t make them. I thought we had some opportunities to score the ball and we didn’t do it.”
And once again the Bulls are confronted with the issues around Parker. The belief is he was removed from the rotation a month ago for a lack of accountability on the defensive end as new coach Boylen sough to bring more defensive responsibility and unity. But the Bulls staggered with scoring and playing pace, issues Parker can address with his shooting accuracy and transition play and passing. But presumably Portis will return from his injury Tuesday since Portis was just a late scratch before Saturday’s game.
Are Parker’s offensive contributions enough to offset his defensive deficiencies? Not that the defense has been that outstanding in his absence. But if he’s not on board with enough team issues, what sort of message does that send to everyone else? And if he’s not going to be with the team next season, as anticipated, is playing him necessary? Yet, the team wants to get its young players in the habit of winning and not accepting losing. But the losses can lead to a higher draft pick and presumably a more talented player.
So many questions; so much to wonder about even at 23 games under .500.