LaVine and Butler duel, Bulls can't hang with Heat

Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 30 points, six rebounds, and six assists while Lauri Markkanen added 20 points but the Miami Heat pulled away in the fourth quarter to give Chicago the 101-90 defeat. Jimmy Butler led Miami with 28 points. Heat guard Goran Dragic scored 20 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter. Up next, the Bulls (16-20) host the Toronto Raptors (17-20) on Sunday night.

You know what they say sometimes, that it's not the Heat, it's the timidity.

Well, not entirely for the Bulls Friday in a disappointing 101-90 loss to the Miami Heat, the second consecutive double digit loss in the second consecutive game the opponent's All-Star center was not playing.

But in another weak offensive performance despite 30 points from Zach LaVine, the Bulls attempted just seven free throws, which was five fewer than Jimmy Butler who led Miami with 28 points. Lauri Markkanen had another good shooting game, but again failed to attempt a free throw, playing 60 minutes the last two games without one attempt. The Bulls missed 21 layups. And then in the fourth quarter trailing by a point with 10 minutes left, the Bulls could not stop Goran Dragic from scoring 20 points, two fewer than the entire Bulls team. Miami, holding off the Bulls the last seven minutes like a boxer with an extra long reach, maintained at least an eight-point lead the rest of the game.

"We just really couldn't match the scoring of Dragic there when he opened the game up," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "He made some really difficult shots over outstretched arms. We just really didn't have anybody that could handle him. I thought we got really stagnant. The other thing that happened for us…we didn't finish at all.

"I thought our guys battled," insisted Donovan. "There were loose balls we went after. We got extra possessions. I thought we scrambled to shooters. I thought we helped. I thought we responded really well, certainly much better than last night (in the 22-point loss to the 76ers). There's no question there was an awful lot of contact at the basket. I think our team needs that. That's where we have to get to to become a good team.

Billy Donovan spoke to the media following the loss to Miami.

"There's no question the physicality on some of the plays around the basket impacted us," said Donovan. "There were some plays that we needed to finish better. There was a lot of contact on both ends of the floor; a lot of stuff was let go. You've got to be able to play through that and finish. This kind of physicality is, hopefully, what these guys understand they have to bring each game. That's an identity you want to be able to create."

As the Bulls reached their mathematical halfway point of the season at 16-20, it's apparent they and we don't know who they are quite yet.

LaVine is an All-Star, and he showed that again, holding off Butler to a statistical draw, leading the Bulls in assists as Butler led Miami and playing some defense with a pair of blocks while Butler accumulated four steals. But Butler was able to hand off the baton of responsibility in the fourth quarter, playing just six minutes and attempting one shot while Donovan had to rush LaVine back in the game with eight minutes left following an 8-0 run by Dragic that broke open the game.

"We just had a hard time guarding him," said Donovan.

It came basically at the expense of the Bulls young starters, Coby White and Patrick Williams unable to contain Dragic, who faced little resistance on multiple three pointers until being defended by LaVine. Donovan had switched to a lineup of LaVine and four veterans with Garrett Temple, Thad Young, Otto Porter Jr. and Denzel Valentine much of the third quarter. They held off Miami as LaVine outscored Butler 15-12 in the quarter. It was 70-68 Miami heading into the fourth.

Zach LaVine (30 points) and Jimmy Butler (28 points) led their teams in scoring on Friday night.

It still was Miami by two with 10 minutes left when Donovan left LaVine resting some more since he'd played the entire third quarter, and went back to the young starters. Then came Dragic's eight straight. Donovan rushed LaVine back in, and he quickly set up Markkanen for a pair of scores. But without the veterans and even with going back to Young with six minutes left to finish—Young had 13 points and a team high 10 rebounds—Miami ruthlessly and relentlessly ground out enough Dragic scores and defensive resistance to avoid sweating.

"I thought when Garrett went out with the ankle injury (early fourth quarter), we had matchup challenges in certain spots," Donovan acknowledged. "I threw Patrick back in there maybe for a little bit of size. I played Zach the entire (third) quarter. He had mentioned about coming out a little bit earlier to me, maybe with three minutes to go, maybe play another minute or so (so he could play the entire fourth). But he made a couple of threes and he's one of those guys who can rip off shots. Points were certainly hard to come by. Then you're thinking about having hopefully Thad somewhat fresh coming down the stretch and maybe Zach a little bit fresher coming down the stretch.

"We've got to be able to kind of hold the fort, so to speak, for a period of time," Donovan agreed. "We weren't able to do that. Got away from us a little bit. I put Zach back in a little bit earlier than I would have liked to. There's no question the game changed when we started to sub. But we had to. Thad was out there for a good eight straight minutes and so were some other guys. Game's close; you just didn't want to gas those guys all the way through the end of the third quarter, beginning of the fourth."

What's a coach to do? He did the right thing.

But it's worrisome for the Bulls that the young players they are counting on have faltered. Williams continues to have problems putting the ball on the floor, repeatedly stripped again. He's scored four points or fewer three of the last five games. He's seemed more comfortable playing closer to the basket. This season he's averaging more turnovers than assists per game. Markkanen has shot remarkably well, 11 of 18 on threes, in his two games back from his shoulder injury. But he's drifted around the perimeter and failed to provide much support for Carter.

Lauri Markkanen scored 20 points on 8-for-18 shooting in the loss to Miami.

Who almost seems traumatized, averaging 5.8 points the last five games with quotidian inefficiency, scoring in single digits in every game. And now in consecutive games being outplayed by third string centers barely recognizable to most basketball fans. First with Joel Embiid out Thursday it was Tony Bradley, and Friday with Bam Adebayo out it was KZ Okpala. Carter did have nine rebounds, but he was one of five for four points.

Miami's defense constantly switches on screens, which often left smaller guards on Carter. But he rarely got the ball despite waving frantically for it a few times. Donovan agreed Carter was overlooked several times. Then later when Carter did get the ball, he didn't look to shoot and passed immediately.

Carter generally isn't the most ebullient, if always friendly and cooperative. But in his post game Zoom session with reporters, his lugubrious remarks and glum manner almost made you want to give him a hug and assure him it would be all right.

"These last couple of games have really frustrated the (deleted) out of me," Carter said more in exasperation and confusion than anger. "I don't look at my numbers, but the day after the game it's like, ‘Damn, that's all I did for my team tonight?'

"I feel like I've regressed in that area of being more aggressive on the offensive end," Carter admitted. "Just trying to play the right way, do everything that everybody is telling me to do. But at the same time I understand that me being aggressive will be better for my team. I just got to play a lot better. Now for five games straight, especially on the offensive end, it's tough to see that. I have to understand we have another game coming up. I can't really be a downer and worry about one game. But it has been five games in a row. I'm very capable of making these shots. I don't even have an answer."

It wasn't supposed to be like this. At least that's not what anyone was expecting with six wins in nine games coming into last week's All-Star break. But despite being as healthy as they've been all season and facing debilitated teams without some of their best players, the Bulls' hoped-for start has mirrored instead the horrors of the first two games back in December.

"Our whole team had a really hard night around the basket," noted Donovan. "Whether it was physicality, whether it was lack of strength, we did not finish enough plays around the basket. We got it there; we just did not finish them."

That sort of thing can finish a team if it doesn't change.

With Indiana's loss the Bulls are tied for 10th. But some of those early season somnambulant teams like Miami and Atlanta are awakening with the Bulls facing what's rated as one of the tougher closing schedules. It will take more than LaVine and some support from Young.

LaVine this time came out scoring, eight first quarter points to offset Butler's nine.

Zach LaVine highlights vs. Miami.

"I wanted to try to set the tone because I knew they were going to be physical," said LaVine. "That's their whole identity. I just tried to match it and tried to get us off to a good start. I'm just trying to read the game the right way."

Turnovers again were an issue for the Bulls with a half dozen in the first quarter. Miami is a smart, hard playing team, a rare NBA team aware of how to box out and active with hands in passing lanes. LaVine shot three of four in the first quarter; the other starters were a combined three of 13 and Miami led 29-21 after one quarter. The Heat screen hard and at some point the Bulls weren't cutting or moving with as much alacrity. But with a second quarter defensive assist from Young and Temple, the Bulls pulled even at 42 at halftime, Miami with 13 second quarter points. It wasn't Bulls/Heat animosity of the early 2010s, but it was intense. Temple, for example, drew a rare technical foul debating what seemed a certain foul in the third quarter. Bulls radio statistical expert Jeff Mangurten said it was just Temple's second technical in more than 600 games.

"I thought it was a perfect game for us coming out of what took place against Philadelphia and the way we played last night," said Donovan. "Just playing against a team that plays physical, plays tough."

The Bulls weren't particularly dynamic, but then their vets weren't allowing Miami to be, either. It felt a bit like the NBA 1990's at 70-68 after three. And then the Bulls melted.

"In certain points of the game you've really got to kick it up a notch if that's with scoring, with defense, with facilitating," said LaVine. "Whatever you got to do to get the win."

Next chance Sunday against Toronto. Another tough team. And we don't even know who is their center.