It was the anatomy of a shot Monday, a Zach LaVine three pointer with 4.4 seconds left with the Bulls trailing by one point. It missed, and then a desperation steal and potential winner by Ryan Arcidiacono came up short at the buzzer and the Bulls lost 108-107 to the San Antonio Spurs.
The Bulls fell to 5-16 and now play Milwaukee, Detroit, Houston and Indiana on the road with injured Lauri Markkanen starting scrimmages and expected to return late on the road trip, perhaps in Indianapolis Dec. 4. The Spurs returned to .500 at 10-10. They got 21 points from DeMar DeRozan and 20 from LaMarcus Aldridge, the veterans combining for 18 fourth quarter points and a run of 10 straight after the Bulls had taken a 101-98 lead with 5:58 remaining.
The Bulls were led by LaVine with 28 points, though on 10 of 26 shooting with eight rebounds and a team high seven assists and six turnovers. Arcidiacono had a career high 22 points, including his near miracle save and back to back threes to bring the Bulls within 108-107 with 48.1 seconds left. Jabari Parker added 18 points and 10 rebounds, and Justin Holiday made five of eight threes for his 17 points and now holds the franchise record for most consecutive games making a three point shot.
But the court drama of a wonderfully contested game with 15 lead changes and 13 ties was that last LaVine three-point attempt, the Bulls leading scorer waving off a screen from Wendell Carter Jr. to isolate above the top of the three-point line and pull up over DeRozan.
The Spurs failed to get the ball inbounds with 3.6 seconds left as Arcidiacono smartly came off his man and cut in front of Aldridge receiving the ball. The ball skipped away from Arcidiacono, hitting Parker in the leg. Arcidiacono picked it up along the right baseline with .04 left. He hurried up a fadeaway shot from about 18 feet that hit the side of the rim and bounced off as the game ended.
"I felt it was good," said Arcidiacono. "Especially making the last two, I had all the confidence in the world and thought it was going in."
It would have been a remarkable ending, though the story for the Bulls of 183 combined field goal attempts was LaVine's last one, the fifth straight that he missed after making four in a row when it seemed like the veteran Spurs might be taking control.
Drive to the basket for a potential layup or try to get fouled trailing by one point?
Drive and pass the ball with the Spurs ready to collapse on LaVine?
Try to split the screen and then pass or finish?
Call timeout after retrieving the Bryn Forbes miss with 28.8 seconds left and trailing by one?
Take the screen and shoot the mid range after three of four of LaVine's earlier fourth quarter jumpers were in the 20-foot range? After all, the Bulls trailed by just one.
They were most of the possibilities in that penultimate sequence. The jury seemed to be leaning toward drive. Though that was hardly an assurance of success given the Bulls were outscored in the paint 56-32.
"By the way the game was going, I thought I could have made it," LaVine said. "I'm a confident shooter, shot that a lot, made a ton of shots like that. I could have had an opportunity to go to the hoop. I didn't want them to double team me. That's why I called the pick away. I'm going for the win regardless; that's my confidence. The way LaMarcus Aldridge is playing, I'm shooting a three (because he then has time for a two-point winner). If I make it, it's a different result. If I don't, bad shot. I think I can make it and I will make it in the future"
"I made the shots (earlier) coming off the pick and rolls and then they started blitzing," LaVine explained. "I could of done a different play. But it comes back to square one. If the ball goes in the hoop, it's a totally different result. It's on me. Coach puts the confidence in me to make the right play. I appreciate that. I just have to put the ball in the hoop to get the win."
It was the Bulls seventh game decided by three points or fewer, which is tied for league most. It's exceptionally high for a team with just five wins, and the Bulls are a respectable 3-4. Which suggests they've remained mostly competitive despite the significant absences in he lineup.
"It's hard to continue to talk about how close we are, how close we are, how close we are, but there's only one way we can go and I believe that's up if we continue to play with the same effort," said Holiday. "And then when we get our guys back who knows what can happen."
Though the Spurs are perhaps at their low point in talent in the last two decades, they still had a deep enough bench to outscore the Bulls 44-14 among reserves. Again, the four primary Bulls starters with Carter again in foul trouble all played at least 35 minutes, which was more than any Spurs starter. The Bulls rarely enter a game with a reasonable roster match. So they have to push their regulars longer than the opponent. Which makes closing that much more difficult.
Still, they were a shot away from victory. So how should Zach have handled this case?
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg certainly was going to back his leading scorer.
"The ball was in our best player's hands who had it going, especially early in the quarter," said Hoiberg. "I thought that he kept us in that game the way he started that quarter. The one thing that I would have liked was the attack (to the basket). I have confidence in Zach; that's why I didn't call the timeout. The Spurs sub to get a defensive lineup out there. So we rolled with the group we had out. The one thing I would have liked to see (was for Zach to) try to split if they were going to try to double team him or get the switch. But I've got confidence in Zach LaVine; he's been great for us all year. Tough ending."
It was reasonable of Hoiberg not to call the timeout so the Spurs couldn't go to their defensive lineup. Though Spurs coach Gregg Popovich before the game said his team's defense was so poor he felt pretty much anyone, even aging media members, could score against his team. Popovich said it's the first time in his Spurs coaching career his team was giving up more points than it was scoring.
LaVine has proven to be the Bulls' best scorer, and perhaps if Markkanen, Kris Dunn or Bobby Portis were playing the options would have been clearer. The hottest player Monday was Arcidiacono with four of six threes and eight of 12 overall. But he was coming off a scoreless game in Minneapolis and shooting 10 of 33 the last five games in his first sustained play in the NBA. Carter had just missed twice, one a point blank layup from about a foot away. Perhaps Holiday, who may never have been called on for a game winner in his career. Or Parker, who also seemed to be tiring as he played the entire fourth quarter and had missed his last two shots, the last a wide open three.
LaVine wasn't about to say, but undoubtedly he was calculating all that. He's a tough shot maker, though perhaps tiring as well as evidenced by missing his previous four. He didn't want to go more quickly to give the Spurs time, and figured the way the Spurs were scoring so easily with 60 percent fourth quarter shooting they'd have about four seconds and would need just a field goal or two free throws to win.
And perhaps LaVine had just watched Jimmy Butler for the 76ers take a long, probably ill-advised step back three pointer to win a game Sunday. So LaVine called off the screen. It's called a one/four flat, and it's the offensive set former coach Tom Thibodeau often used for Derrick Rose. Though Rose did drive frequently when he attempted game winners after missing several jump shot attempts early in his career with the Bulls.
Arcidiacono coming off that scoreless game in Minnesota started the game looking to shoot, which was unusual for him. And LaVine had his jumper and three pointer finally going. They combined for 15 points in a 27-27 first quarter tie.
"Threes haven't been going in lately," noted LaVine, who was down to 29.6 percent on the season. "I don't know why. Been in and out or off the front rim; my mid range has felt good. I know I'm a good shooter. You are going to go through stretches where it's up and down. It felt good to have some go in. I think you saw me throw my hands up in the air (making his first three), like, ‘Thank god, one finally went in.'"
Holiday continued his excellent three-point shooting in the second quarter as the Spurs led 52-50 at halftime. There were no desolate quarters this time as the Bulls with adept three-point shooting with 14 in the game led 83-80 after three quarters. And then it was a shootout to start the fourth with the Spurs scoring in eight of their first nine possessions while LaVine matched them shot for shot. Until the last shot.
"It's tough going back on it," LaVine said. "You want to change a lot of things, but we had a chance to win the game. LaMarcus Aldridge did a great job closing out for his team. DeMar DeRozan did the same thing. Just have to make some more shots."