Henry Wadsworth Longfellow probably didn’t see much basketball since his wheelhouse was the 19th Century when he was America’s most popular poet. But there’s said to be an unpublished little ditty of his that makes you wonder. It supposedly goes something like this:
There was a little Bull,
Who could be a hand full,
Right in the middle of the NBA standings.
When he was good,
He was very good, indeed.
But when he was bad he was horrid.
You’d think Wadsworth was in Phoenix, Wednesday, when the little Bulls who could this season with wins against the Bucks, Celtics and Heat were horrid, indeed, in a 132-113 loss to the Phoenix Suns, which as the wise guys say wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.
Wow, this was a bad one considering that Suns star Devin Booker scored 26 of his 51 points in the third quarter and didn’t play in the fourth quarter even as the Bulls rallied to within 25 points after three quarters.
DeMar DeRozan led the Bulls with 29 points and Zach LaVine added 21. Nikola Vučević has 17 and Alex Caruso tried to rally the reserves with 14 points. But it was an across-the-board meltdown with what we thought was a Bulls mini-resurgence with three wins in the last four. But this was a back-to-the-drawing board game heading to play the Golden State Warriors on Friday with a faltering start, poor defense also against Deandre Ayton with 30 points and 16 rebounds, Suns starters Chris Paul and Cam Johnson out injured, and Jae Crowder still home catching up on Law and Order reruns.
And in what was a painful rerun for the poor shooting Bulls, it was another brutal perimeter shooting game, four of 25 on threes while the Suns strolled their way to 15 of 33. Booker, for his part with what Bulls coach Billy Donovan insisted was a full-on defensive effort, made 20 of 25 shots and six of seven threes, his 51 points in just under 31 minutes.
Booker’s primary defender to start, at least, Patrick Williams had two points on zero for eight shooting in 28 minutes, giving way to Caruso and Derrick Jones Jr. Booker apparently didn’t seem to notice.
“Obviously, they made a lot of threes,” Donovan agreed. “And then when you are giving up stuff at the rim like we did, the consistency was not where it needed to be against a caliber of team like this. We threw everything at him, trapped him, threw a box-and-one at him, tried to face guard him. And to his credit he had a great night and shot over us a lot. We put Derrick on him to get more length, we put Patrick on him, Alex, but he really got it going.”
And other than San Francisco, just where the Bulls are going at 9-12 after a loss like this always raises concerns.
Donovan, to his credit, isn’t the it’s-one-of-82 coach and says he’s not for the old, flush-this-one-down-the-toilet thinking, though this one could make you sick.
The Bulls never led, quickly trailed by seven in the first quarter and then 41-29 a few minutes into the second quarter. The Bulls got some thrust with a couple of transition baskets from Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu later in the second quarter. But the Suns, who are back on top of the Western Conference at 15-6, seemed to treat the Bulls like playing with your little brother.
They play a nice brand of ball with penetration and passing, but in Booker they have a DeRozan-like midrange specialist who also has range, and in Ayton a slick and agile big man with a reliable jump shot.
So after that mini run got the Bulls deficit back in single digits, it was Booker with short jump shots spanning the arc of the court. And Ayton getting easy passes inside when he rolled or finished with a slam dunk. It contrasted the Bulls offense that when they fell into that yawning maw of a deficit the answer was dribble, dribble, dribble and shoot. DeRozan had 18 points in the third quarter with some pretty shotmaking, but it resulted in that all too familiar stagnation that often besets the Bulls when they get behind.
“The disappointing part, the challenging part, whatever words you want to use, it’s consistently being inconsistent, if that makes any sense,” Donovan sensibly offered. “At times we can be two different teams. We can be like in Utah really helping each other and on a string and moving, and other times we’re not like that.
“The identity piece we are trying to build; any identity is grounded in sacrifice and a lot of times it’s giving yourself up,” Donovan pleaded. “And when the ball is not going in there are other things you can do to impact the game. Part of my disappointment is we can’t play like that (isolation). We have got to be able to move the ball more and help each other more. We’re not going to be able to beat good teams like that. We’ve got to be a team with five to seven guys in double figures and 25 to 35 assists per game; that’s how we’ve got to play.”
It obviously wasn’t that way against the Suns, but, after all, this was against a team ranked among the league’s top five in offense and defense, the Bulls on a tough, long road trip, no Lonzo Ball, of course, and those darned threes. The Bulls have gotten some games against the three-heavy teams when they go cold for a bit, but it’s just so much uphill the way the NBA is now.
“A lot of the players on our team are not three-point shooters,” LaVine acknowledged. ‘That’s not the m.o. Guys that do take those shots have to make them. Obviously, I have to shoot better and try to make more threes. We’ve got to do what we’re good at. If that’s eliminating threes if we’re not going to make a lot of them, we’ve got to because we can’t gave that much of a discrepancy.”
There was a bit of a changeup in that third quarter when DeRozan got going with LaVine playing more point guard, bringing the ball up and often finding DeRozan more quickly. “I felt like I’ve been running to the corner a lot,” said LaVine. “Trying to help the team get in rhythm. It looked all right, so maybe I have to be more aggressive with that.”
The Bulls did score 38 points in the third quarter. But Booker almost matched that as the Suns dropped 42 points with seven of 13 threes, Booker with a runout dunk for 50 and 51 after his steal with a minute left in the third and Landry Shamet with his fourth three to match the entire Bulls team total to end the quarter and send the home fans into delirium. And many to the exits for presumably the In n Out burger post game celebration.
While there was much to chew on for the Bulls, if not red meat.
It’s the close of the first quarter of the NBA season, and the Bulls remain an enigma wrapped in a mystery asking a riddle me this. It seems much remains on hold awaiting the return of Ball. There’s been ample progress with those wins over Boston—half the Celtics losses for the season—and the best one in Milwaukee on Thanksgiving Eve. There’s been the head scratchers against the Magic, Thunder and Spurs, and as much as Donovan has talked about it, seemingly a lack of a firm identity.
Just who are those guys?
“I think we can agree I thought that we would be in a better position,” said Vučević. “There is some work to do. It’s pretty clear when we are locked in we have good results, and when we don’t the results are something like tonight. It’s hard to take something out of it because we really didn’t do much out there. It has to come from us and we have to be better. It has to be the same approach every game, and we haven’t done that.”
And so said the Long Fellow most appropriately.
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