The Bulls’ 96-90 loss Wednesday to the Los Angeles Lakers was what the critics contended before the season with the Bulls. Could they make enough shots? Where were the points going to come from? Mostly so far, the Bulls have defied the doubts and disbelief with competent shooting along with physical play, competitiveness and the excellence of Jimmy Butler.
The Bulls competed against the Lakers, they tried and played hard even though the general response after bad losses—and this was one to a Lakers team on the second of a back to back with the Bulls off four days—is a lack of effort. The Bulls forced 24 turnovers for 26 points, and were tied on a Butler three with 90 seconds left. They didn’t give up or give in.
They just didn’t have enough with a Lakers’ double team on Butler, who had 40 points when the Bulls won in Los Angeles 10 days ago, a reserve group searching for an identity—and points—and hardly anyone who could make a shot.
It happens to every team, and happens somewhat routinely in the NBA. Make or miss league, and all that, we hear from coaches and players.
But it looks worse when such an opportunity seemed there to perhaps get on another run with the Lakers’ starting backcourt out injured, the Lakers having lost five of their last seven and the Cavaliers with LeBron James in the United Center Friday.
But with the Lakers playing that second of a back to back on the road, Friday facing the Cavs playing their third in four nights and then going to Dallas, where the lowly Mavs would be in their third of four nights, it seemed a prime opportunity for the Bulls to begin to create some space in the Eastern Conference after the successful 4-2 road trip.
Instead, the Bulls fall to 10-7, shooting 35.2 percent and four of 21 on threes, outrebounded 60-46 by the baby Lakers and watching them parade to the free throw line for 41 attempts. This with their reserves outscoring the Bulls reserves 56-16.
“We just didn’t play as well as we thought we were going to,” said Butler, who led the Bulls with 22 points, but shot four of 18. “I don’t believe in that (first game home problem). Long season, lot of games left; you have to stop letting them slip away because these are the ones that count at the end. They were aggressive. I missed a lot of shots, that’s for sure; that’s what the gym is for. Just one of those nights. You take shots you normally make, you continually take them. I don’t like the outcome of the game, but I like the shots everyone took. I think we guarded. We did our job; we did foul a lot, which we don’t normally don’t do. But it’s not like the score was 150 to 155; we’ll be all right.”
It’s, of course, still to be determined so early in the season, and whether Wednesday’s loss was an expected aberration with the combination of the let down of the return home after a successful trip and the rust of the long weekend off. Still, once you lose, teams take notice. Butler has been so spectacular this season, averaging 25.6 points, that teams are going to try to take the ball out of his hands.
The Lakers showed him a strong defender in former teammate Luol Deng with 6-9 Julius Randle, who had 13 points and 20 rebounds, providing a double team. Butler generally operates more on driving strength—he was 13 for 15 on free throws—than half court quickness. But once he rotated the ball out of double teams, the Bulls could not make shots.
The reserves, with Doug McDermott and Michael Carter-Williams still out injured, were a combined seven for 25 and one of 11 on threes.
“Those guys have been out three, four weeks,” noted Rajon Rondo, who played a sound game with 14 points, eight rebounds and six assists. “We’re not going to blame the bench now when we lose a game like this; it’s a team effort. We’re not going to point the finger. We’re all going to take responsibility and get better; it’s a team. There are going to be ups and downs. When guys aren’t playing well other guys have to step up. I believe in those guys and I’ll continue to believe in those guys.”
It’s admirable of Rondo to say so, and typical of the attitude around the Bulls this season, a likeable chemistry and internal support. But the lack of production from the reserves has been a growing issue.
There have been exceptions, like Nikola Mirotic’s 17 points and three of four threes in the Bulls Nov. 12 victory over Washington. That was the last game before the road trip, and the reserves have been outscored every game since by an average of 24 points per game. That was with that 61-13 domination in Denver when the reserves gave up 24 straight, 33-15 to the Clippers and 59-32 to the Lakers when the Bulls got that 40 from Butler. And then by 40 Wednesday.
Dwyane Wade had 17 points, Taj Gibson 11 points and 10 rebounds and Robin Lopez 10 points, nine rebounds and a career high eight blocks. But the plus/minus was illustrative Wednesday with the starters a combined plus 26.
“I’ve tried to get a few of our starters out a little earlier and get them back in with that second unit,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “We’ve gotten some solid minutes from the bench in the early portion of the season; obviously, tonight we struggled in that area. We’ll keep battling.”
Hoiberg has tried different combinations, Wednesday bringing back starters Rondo and Gibson earlier in the second quarter to go with Wade, who heads the reserve group. It’s a philosophy that worked well the first few weeks with Wade providing veteran stability and savvy. But with McDermott out with that second concussion and Mirotic eight for 30 on threes since that Washington game, the reserves haven’t shown much offense. Hoiberg gave Jerian Grant a look Wednesday, though he pulled Denzel Valentine early after a tough stretch. The Bulls have taken to relying on Isaiah Canaan for shooting and offense off the bench even as he was brought in mostly as an emergency player. He shot 26 percent on threes in November after a fast start the first week of the season.
“Just one of those games,” said Wade. “You are going to have a few of those in a season and when you are home you need to find a way to win those games; you’re not going to play pretty all the time. It was an ugly game for us. We got outrebounded, which we haven’t done; we put them on the line a lot, which we haven’t done, and we didn’t make shots and we didn’t find a way to win the game. No excuses; we have to find a way to win those games because there are going to be a few of those in the season.”
He’s right; no time for panic or great concern.
Even though the Bulls had a stinker, it’s also part of the landscape for everyone, like Tuesday when the Cavs, Spurs and Clippers also lost, the Clippers to the rebuilding Nets, the Spurs to the staggering Magic at home, the streaking Cavs to the sub-.500 Bucks.
What remains encouraging for this Bulls team is that even in an uncharacteristically poor game, they competed seriously and were in the game to the end. They’re a team that’s going to contest games instead of giving up on them when things go badly. It should carry them far, though there are flaws.
“I did like our energy, our pace out of the gate,” said Hoiberg. “And then they went on a run in the second quarter, got the momentum back and we could never find a way to get it back from them.”
Hoiberg has made a point of emphasizing fast starts, and the Bulls had another Wednesday, and they usually have won those games.
Even with sub-40 percent first quarter shooting, they had 10 assists on 11 baskets, four by Rondo, three blocks from Lopez enforcing the middle and a 28-14 lead with less than a minute left in the first quarter. But with the usual rotation of substitutes coming in at that point and to start the second quarter, the Lakers pounded inside and were all over the boards. Without Lopez and with Gibson not coming back in—and earlier than usual—until two minutes into the second quarter, the Lakers had the deficit quickly down to five and then within 35-34 before Butler got back.
Then it was a mish mash of lead changes the rest of the way with 14 lead changes and seven ties as the game was tied at 47 at the half. The Bulls led 73-70 after the third quarter as Rondo, of all players, stepped up with his shot, making a pair of threes and scoring eight third quarter points.
“We’ve had nights like this in the past, but we still found ways to win,” said Rondo. “Tonight we did a poor job keeping those guys off the boards.”
And those guys weren’t going to let Butler beat them this time.
The Lakers harassed and smothered Butler, switching on him and then bringing a long armed defender like rookie Brandon Ingram or Randle. When Butler rotated the ball to the weak side, no one could make the Lakers pay. Plus, Wade generally isn’t a three-point shooter, though he has been sufficient in spot attempts this season. Still, the Bulls kept hanging in with good defense. The Lakers average 27 threes attempted per game, but the Bulls ran them off the line and they attempted just eight. Though their frequent shooters in Russell and Young were out. The Lakers only shot 40.7 percent overall, and a large part of the rebounding edge was so many missed Bulls shots, 59 overall and 19 from three. Plus, the Lakers reserves did play about twice as many minutes as the Bulls reserves. So it is difficult to score when you are not in the game.
And the Bulls were in the game, ahead 87-86 on a Wade dunk with 3:23 left after a Lopez steal and Gibson assist. And then tied at 90 on a Butler three—finally!—after a Wade offensive rebound with 1:30 left. Butler was enthusiastically approving going to the bench with a timeout.
It seemed like one of those bad nights that were going to end happily, anyway.
Especially when the Lakers came out of the timeout with Butler forcing Jordan Clarkson into a turnover. The Bulls pulled the double away, giving Butler an isolation drive on rookie Ingram. Butler missed. But with Gibson out on fouls, the Lakers got the rebound. Randle then overpowered Mirotic for a score for a 92-90 Lakers lead with 45.1 seconds left. The Bulls went to Butler, who missed a step back 12 footer as the Lakers collapsed into the middle with three players. Lou Williams, with 18 off the bench to match Clarkson for high scorer, was fouled by Rondo, making one of two. The Lakers led 93-90 with 19.5 seconds left. Still time.
The Bulls got a good look for Butler coming off a nice Lopez screen. But Butler’s attempt to tie hit just the net, the bottom of it without going through, and out of bounds. The Lakers inbounded with 15.7 seconds left trailing by three and barely got the ball to Randle, who made one free throw. The Bulls were out of timeouts and Butler missed again as the Lakers added two more free throws to end the game.
“Team found a way to play better than us,” agreed Wade. “We were a little sluggish, but you have to fight through it; you’d rather have rest than not have rest. No excuses. You want to break out of the rust and find a way; the good teams find a way. We’re still going to be there. We’ve got four in five nights (now). You deal with it tonight and move on and that’s what we’ll do.”
To be continued.