Spurs spoil debut for new-look Bulls

Chicago cut a 36-point deficit to nine in the fourth quarter but it was too little, too late.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later
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The new look Bulls found themselves in a 36-point deficit, eventually ending in a 120-104 defeat against the San Antonio Spurs. Nikola Vucevic led the Bulls with 21 points, nine rebounds, and four assists in his Chicago debut. The Bulls (19-25) will look to bounce back on the road against the Golden State Warriors (22-24) on Monday night.

We figured the Bulls weren't going to go undefeated once they acquired All-Star center Nikola Vucevic.

So maybe it's good they got that out of the way Saturday in a Texas-sized 120-104 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Talk about being overrun at the Alamo. Like for the historic Defenders, the fortress walls gave away for the Bulls.

The Spurs shot 63 percent in the first quarter, led 33-20 after one, by 31 points midway through the second quarter and by 36 points late in the third quarter before a Thad Young-inspired pep talk combined with some lackluster Spurs bench play enabled the Bulls to get within nine points with five minutes left. At least Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had to bring back his starters to make the Bulls feel a little better.

Vucevic had 21 points and nine rebounds in his Bulls debut, though with nine points during that fourth quarter scramble. Zach LaVine scored 18 points, but sat out the fourth quarter more, said Bulls coach Billy Donovan, because the Bulls reserve group had changed the momentum. But LaVine seemed somewhat uncertain with a sprained ankle. He said he intends to keep playing even though he's not at his ankle joint best. Coby White has 13 points and Young had 10 points and a team high nine assists.

Vucevic scored 21 points and grabbed nine boards in Chicago's loss to San Antonio on Saturday night.

But about those Bulls redoubts. Donovan may be having some doubts.

"I didn't think we had enough presence at the basket for a good portion of the game," said Donovan. "I think it started out top. Our ball pressure and our guard pressure in the pick and roll has to be much better. I thought the ball went wherever it wanted to go. Then I thought when it came downhill we didn't have enough presence at the basket to contest.

"We went through three or four minutes (to start the game) and I was just watching. We ran some more movement and cutting just to see them play off each other," said Donovan. "I didn't think Lauri (Markkanen with 10 points) was that involved the first four minutes. We have to find a way to get him a little more involved. That group you would think with Zach and Lauri and Vooch (Vucevic), you sit there and say, ‘OK, this is going to be a high-powered offensive group.' The problem was we didn't shoot the ball particularly well. And that group is going to have to defend a lot better than what we did in that first quarter."

Which may become the next big question for the Bulls and Donovan to face after playing like a team with four new players, including a starting center. Which the Bulls are, like a new team. Everyone has been warned since the blockbuster Thursday trade for Vucevic this—well, not exactly that—was coming and there would be an adjustment period.

"Obviously, it didn't go the way that we wish it did, but it's always difficult when you make major changes like this team did and you bring in players that will have a major impact on the team," said Vucevic. "So I think just early on we were just trying to figure each other out. And I think we were just trying too much not to step on each other's toes, so we were a little passive. And on the other hand, the Spurs played great and they scored very well. We couldn't get stops and we missed a lot of shots. So it was tough when you get in that big deficit it's hard to play. But we stayed with it. I think it was good for us to kind of make a run in the second half to build up some momentum, have some positive things that we can carry on and learn from, watch film. So I think there's some good and some bad, but that was to be expected."

Nikola Vucevic

Vucevic shot 9-of-16 from the floor for 21 points in his Bulls debut.

What was uncertain is how players would mix. One game, no matter how discouraging—and especially with mostly playing auditions taking place—doesn't equal a result as the Bulls record dropped to 19-25.

But the trade for Vucevic, a high level offensive talent who isn't as greatly regarded for defense, could have Donovan reaching back into his lineups and rotation mixed bag, if not necessarily for the next game Monday against Golden State.

Some have wondered how Markkanen and Vucevic would fit together, two more offense oriented players. Vucevic is an aggressive and tougher player, though not exceptionally athletic. Markkanen tends to be more receiver than initiator, though he did break out his old drag step move for a score. More of that! Encore! But as Donovan noted, Markkanen good man and teammate that he is perhaps predictably began deferring to LaVine and Vucevic.

In theory it should work well for Markkanen, though that's why there are a lot of theories in all fields. The rest was a plethora of crevices toward the basket for Spurs players. Certainly LaVine and Vucevic looking for one another and learning to work together will be the priority for the offense. It could result in a player like Markkanen getting lost. And since he's not the aggressive type to demand his output, it inevitably might see Donovan going for a bruiser like Daniel Theis, the fifth new Bull who joins the team for Monday's game, to better complement Vucevic. Theis was more in a physically intimidating role for Celtics players who hated to lose him as their starting center the past few seasons.

Concomitantly, it might benefit Markkanen to be in a group with a clever facilitator like Young.

Coach Donovan answered questions followings the Bulls' tough loss to the Spurs on Saturday night.

"That's the one thing that is so unique about Thad," Donovan marveled yet again about the point center/forward. "You dump Thad out there with anybody. He just kind of functions and knows where to get to, where to get to his spots and how to play."

The Bulls didn't look, perhaps predictably, like they knew how to play to start this one with the Spurs essentially making it their game after Vucevic's opening post up score and a 7-5 lead. The Spurs then traumatized the Bulls with a 14-2 spurt as the Bulls would go on to a three of 19 first half shooting on threes. There were turnovers trying to sneak passes into Vucevic, mismatches ignored, ball movement stalled. This as the Spurs, not a big three-point shooting team, repeatedly ventured inside for scores and short jump shots.

"I was talking with Zach I felt like at times him and I were a little too passive and trying to figure out each other and we made it easy for a defense to where I feel like if we were maybe a little more aggressive, little more aggressive, their defense would collapse on us and be able to open up more things," said Vucevic. "It's all just repetition, playing together.

"We knew it was gonna be a process and it wasn't just gonna happen overnight," said Vucevic. "I'm happy that we did make a push at the end and that we did make that effort. As far as me personally, it was also a game for me where I needed to figure everything out and there was a lot of things going on the last two days. But I think overall it was pretty good for a first game. I was trying to find my teammates and get a feel for everything and everyone new. It is a little bit more fun to figure out the offensive part, but also what's important is we figure out our defense. Obviously, tonight it wasn't good."

The more worrisome issue is defense is more difficult than offense. Not so much harder to play, but that it relies so much more on repeated team concepts. With the outcome seemingly decided, Donovan interviewed several of the new applicants. Troy Brown Jr. looked the most determined with eight points in 13 minutes in that late run, 25-11 to start the fourth quarter after 13-2 to finish the third. This was a Spurs team that made up a 13-point fourth quarter deficit to beat the Bulls earlier this month. The Bulls' turn?

It did get to 107-98 with anything can happen time in the NBA left. But the Spurs regulars got a couple of three-point plays to end the chances Popovich would blow a bigger lead than Vinny Del Negro (35 against the Kings).

Zach LaVine

Zach LaVine scored 18 points on 6-of-15 shooting and seemed limited by playing with an ankle injury.

LaVine unscientifically put his percentages in the 60-70 range, though insisted he's not sitting out. And there aren't any imminent back to backs. Zach plays! He's as committed a competitor as you'll find in the NBA. And hardly concerned the Bulls fortifications won't hold.

"We've just got to get our chemistry right," said LaVine. "First off, San Antonio is a tough team to come out and play with a new roster and trying to figure each other out. We couldn't get any stops, and I think that messed up the chemistry a little bit. You can see how skilled he (Vucevic) is. You don't even have to ask about that. In the third quarter, instead of us trying to figure each other out, us just going and playing our games. Then he figured it out himself. Tough loss. I'm very excited moving forward."

It's going to work. It's going to work. It's going to work.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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