The Bulls let a 22-point lead in regulation evaporate as the Thunder escaped with a 127-125 overtime win over Chicago. Zach LaVine led Chicago with 35 points but the team continued their struggles with turnovers, committing 24.
Sometimes a basketball result needs an explanation, about strategy, about tactics, about crucial decisions.
Not this one. Not the Bulls' 127-125 overtime loss Friday to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"We straight up folded," spat Zach LaVine with more disdain than description. "It's not a lot to really talk about."
Zach did talk some more, if not much and much less than he ever has after a Bulls game. Coach Billy Donovan talked and so did Lauri Markkanen. There wasn't really much to say about what had to be one of the most painful and dispiriting losses for the Bulls not only this season but perhaps in several seasons. Which is saying a lot.
Because this was supposed to be different, and it has been, the Bulls after a shaky start to the season, though against top teams, seemed finally to be gaining respect. Zach LaVine's play was elite, Chris Paul even marveling on Twitter Friday about LaVine on to another 35 points with eight more threes. LeBron James was likening rookie Patrick Williams to another Kawhi Leonard as the Bulls pushed the favorite Lakers and Clippers to the brink of defeat in Los Angeles last week. Zach and Coby White, the latter Friday with 22 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, had outclassed the highly regarded Dame and CJ. The demons of recent seasons seem finally being exorcized.
Zach LaVine said the team was at a loss for words following the loss.
Until Friday when the rebuilding Thunder—not the Thunder of Russ and KD and PG13 and CP3, but of Luguentz Dort, Isaiah Roby, Darius Bazley and Shai Gilgeous Alexander, the latter with 33 points and 10 assists—came back from a 22-point third-quarter deficit and a staggering 16 points behind with 4:40 left to get to overtime when LaVine had to force up a bailout three with a second left. And then Oklahoma City won the game when LaVine again had to force up this time a winning attempt at the overtime buzzer in what seemed like a bumper car race with LaVine trying to shoot among four defenders and teammates.
"I mean, we're up 20 points," LaVine said, cutting off his answers as he toggled between rage and resignation. "We have to win that game. We're up by 20 and there's not a lot to talk about. I think we're all at a loss for words for how we played and how we ended the game. We were playing extremely well and we just folded. You can call it what you want to. I don't know, folded, home run shots. Whatever you want to call it. We just lost the game. Plain and simple."
There'll be a lot of soul searching with this one, if also searching for the ball because the Bulls, leading the league in turnovers, continued to pull ahead (behind?) the rest of the league with 24 more for 33 Oklahoma City points. Bulls coach Billy Donovan's post game comments after just about every game involve discussion of turnovers almost like a Gregorian chant.
"I thought it was all on us," said Donovan. "Personally, that's what I felt. I felt like we kept turning the ball over and could not generate and get into offense. We've gotten destroyed in the turnover battle the whole entire year. Until that gets resolved, it's going to be hard for us to really compete. I mean we'll compete, but it's going to be hard for us to win unless we can really execute, close out games, generate good shots."
Though the conundrum is the Bulls riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma riding on an elephant in the room. Huh? As much as the team wants to identify players as point guards, and Patrick Williams began the game running the offense with LaVine later after White with others like Thad Young and Otto Porter taking a shot, the Bulls just don't have a player who is a natural facilitator. Who slows things down and gets a good shot when needed.
The closest is Tomas Satoransky, who with Chandler Hutchison remains out with the Covid virus. Lauri Markkanen did return from his exposure after missing seven games and played well considering with 16 points. Ryan Arcidiacono often played that facilitator role last season, and though he also returned from Covid exposure he didn't play as he hasn't been in the regular rotation.
Lauri Markkanen scored 16 points on 5-of-14 shooting in his first game of 2021.
Donovan's immediate issue, and management's to come, is finding a solution. Or just accept the turnover mistakes and attempt to outscore them. No, says Donovan. The Bulls can be better than that.
"My job is to teach them what goes into winning," said Donovan. "I'm not asking anybody on our team to be anybody but themselves. I think they've all gotten better. They've all made progress, they've all made strides. But I just can't sit there as a coach and say, ‘Well, this is who you are, just keep doing what you do and be who you are.' I think that would be a terrible mistake and a disservice to the players. This is a hard working group, a good group of guys. They want to win. They don't know how to. They're learning how to. I was talking to Coby about this. I don't know if it was a couple games ago, but we're on a little bit of a run and he's made a couple of shots and then he wants to heat check (questionable shot selection after scoring). ‘We don't need a heat check right now, we're on a run!' So it's a long rebound (off the miss) and we break momentum. We've got to understand the things that break momentum, and I still believe we have control over some of the passes that we made."
It is unfortunate because the Bulls truly have been playing better. Donovan's messaging has been direct. Players have been accountable. They weren't giving up or giving in. They were making each game about entertainment and competition instead of inevitability. Perhaps LaVine's uncharacteristic monosyllabic postgame was an indication for them as well, that this is not who they are anymore.
If they're not, they can't have games like this. You can lose to a lesser team, though not like that.
It could have been a watershed moment for a team seemingly on the rise; instead it became a trip to the woodshed.
"I think that for the group and for our staff we've all got to pull together and try to figure it out because this has been something these guys have dealt with," noted Donovan of the past few seasons. "They've dealt with this for a while. I'm 12, 13 games, whatever it is, into this with them; they've dealt with this for a while, having situations like this. As a coach, you feel bad. You want to be able to help and I've got to try and find some different ways to try and help them as a group. And then we got up against the clock and we're relying on home run shots. Zach's last shot goes in and you walk out of here and you don't even think about it."
But now at 4-8, the Bulls will think about this one enough as they go to Dallas Sunday for an early afternoon game before hosting Houston Monday on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The depressing part for the Bulls was how dominant they were, as they should have been against a Thunder team the Bulls were three years ago, counting their future draft picks and playing out a schedule because they had to. There's no way Charles Barkley has heard of more that three of their guys who played Friday.
Zach LaVine dropped 35 points on 11-of-19 shooting in the Friday night loss to Oklahoma City.
The Bulls quickly justified that in a game in which they did so much right, every starter scoring in double figures, a 56-44 rebounding advantage, 27 assists with 17 in a flawless first half, eight blocks with three from Wendell Carter Jr. with a fourth double/double with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Williams made five of seven shots for his 14 points and added a pair of blocks. Though the usually reliable reserves were mostly outplayed as Otto Porter Jr. back from his bad back had eight points and Thad Young two.
Still, it didn't seem to matter as LaVine's shot was pure again, four of five threes for 14 almost excuse me points in a dominant Bulls first half. Actually, it almost seemed the Bulls ignored LaVine at times when he wasn't missing to involve others. Which is what a team should do. But White despite the seven assists spent much of the second half seeking out his shots as the selflessness of the first half deteriorated into the hero ball LaVine referred to, each player seemingly believing if they just could make one more play...
They really wanted to.
"We just have to do a better job as an entire organization because we can't lose games like that," LaVine reiterated. "We've lost a lot of games this year where we've been playing well. Our fourth quarter execution has to get better. I take that upon myself. I've made a lot of mistakes in the fourth quarter. It's extremely frustrating. Somehow, some way, even if you play bad, you gotta pull those games out. You gotta learn how to win a basketball game when you're up by 20. There's not a lot to talk about. It's about as plain as simple as it gets right there. You up by 20, you can't lose."
They were up 20, right? Twenty-two, actually. But who's counting.
Though it does happen as the Bulls did to the Portland Trailblazers. The Thunder?
The Bulls led 30-22 after the first quarter with White scoring in three straight possessions to close the first quarter. He added a three early in the second quarter and it was soon a 15-point Bulls lead. Williams' shot was arcing high and accurately, Markkanen was finishing for a three-point play, Carter was running slick two-player games with White and LaVine. Then LaVine dropped in a pair of threes late in the second quarter and Williams closed it with a follow up slam dunk for a 68-50 half time lead.
Patrick Williams continued to look solid, scoring 14 points on just seven shots while adding seven rebounds.
The Bulls were going nuclear on the Thunder. Who knew their fuel rods were going to leak? That became a heck of a meltdown.
It was equal opportunity turnovers in the third quarter with Williams, LaVine, White, Porter and Young committing turnovers in one stretch of seven possessions. It almost seemed the Bulls were looking past Oklahoma City, which is not an unusual occurrence for many travelers. But nine third quarter Bulls mistakes led to 19 Thunder points and shockingly Oklahoma City was within 83-81 with 3:34 left in the third.
"I thought maybe about seven minutes to go in the third quarter we got really, really careless with the ball and it wasn't even really against pressure," said Donovan. "I think I called two timeouts. We had a really, really hard time getting into offense and getting off screens. I thought we had a hard time inbounding the ball. Obviously, I've got to find better ways to try to help those guys try to initiate some kind of offense because we couldn't get to anything, couldn't get into anything."
Donovan sounded just as helpless as he related perhaps a half dozen times needing to do more to help the team. It was at that point LaVine grabbed the ball and got to the free throw line, sending the Bulls on a little run for a 95-87 lead after three. OK, we get it, they seemed to be saying. You want to play, we'll play. Markkanen made a pair of threes around what seemed like a defining hustle possession with he and Carter making big saves. Everyone was ready to talk post game about winning the 50/50 balls. Then LaVine led a 9-0 run with some free throws and another stirring finish at the rim for a score, 112-97 Bulls. Another Zach three and it's 115-99 with just under five minutes left. Whew, now they could relax? Nah, there were some more turnovers, guys named Dort and Muscala were making threes as the Thunder was excellent getting into the paint and then reversing the ball for wide open threes as the Bulls big men stayed inside.
It still was 118-108 with under two minutes left—seriously, they're losing this game!—when Carter fouled Muscala shooting a three and Gilgeous-Alexander made some impressive driving scores. But it wouldn't have mattered without White and Markkanen offensive fouls. The Bulls got the ball with 16.4 seconds left in a tie game. But Porter held it too long looking for Markkanen in a play for them, and then handed to LaVine as a bailout as the clock was expiring for an unrequited miracle.
The Bulls seemed stunned to start overtime, Markkanen with a short miss, White with a long miss and an offensive foul and LaVine finally getting a free throw. White dropped in a three to get the Bulls within 123-122 with 1:48 left, and you still thought the Bulls would win this one for as long as they dominated the game. The Thunder's next lead after midway through the first quarter wasn't until overtime. Oklahoma City gave them every chance with several brain freeze turnovers in overtime, including Gilgeous-Alexander dribbling out the 24-second clock on one possession. Yet, the Bulls seemed dazed into paralysis.
Markkanen and Porter missed threes after White's make. LaVine made another three to give them a chance as he did so often on the West Coast with 6.8 seconds left. Thunder 126-125. The Bulls fouled George Hill, who made one of two with 5.2 seconds left. But without a timeout, LaVine raced over midcourt where Denzel Valentine got in his way like two receivers getting too close in football and bringing extra defenders. LaVine's three had no chance, and the Bulls had few words for this one.
"You guys saw the game," LaVine said to reporters in the post game video conference. "I played in it. I think we all see the same thing. Whatever you want to call it."