Once upon a time, there were a dozen Chicago Bulls who came upon a Moda Center. One Bull, Zach LaVine, said, "We've been sorry in the first quarter," opponents "see it's soft out there." Another Bull, Denzel Valentine, said the team seems "kind of dazed right now." But one Portland Trailblazer, guard C.J. McCollum, said those Bulls looked just right to him as he scored 50 points through three quarters Wednesday and those Bulls just had to run away after a 124-108 loss to the Trailblazers.
Chicago Bulls should know you never wander in and explore while you are unprepared and indifferent because you'll only be chased into the night with fright.
"I looked up and I was like, 'I can get like 40,'" related McCollum, who outscored the Bulls 28-19 in the first quarter. "And Dame (Lillard) was like 'Get 50,' and I was like 'Ok, I'll get 50 then if you guys want me to.'"
Just as simple as eating your porridge and taking a nap, which Bulls players seemed to do at the start, offering little resistance and less competition in their fifth consecutive loss.
They are now 18-33 with games on this road trip Saturday in Los Angeles and Monday in Sacramento.
LaVine led the Bulls with a season high 23 points. Valentine had 15 and Cristiano Felicio 12 points, 11 in the fourth quarter. Jerian Grant had 11 points. Bobby Portis had eight points and 10 rebounds.
Though the big, bad story around the team remains the three Bulls who stayed away, Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen and Nikola Mirotic, the team's three leading scorers coming into the game accounting for 45 percent of the team's points. The Bulls are 5-15 when Dunn doesn't start. He is recovering from a concussion and now has the flu. He is in Chicago. Markkanen is in Chicago on a personal family matter and Mirotic is being held out of games until the Feb. 8 trading deadline as the Bulls work on possible deals. Memphis, similarly, is sitting out Tyreke Evans, also to avoid a potential injury during trade talks. The Bulls are 15-12 when Mirotic plays.
So the Bulls weren't going to be able to make many mistakes against a Portland team that beat the Bulls in Chicago in overtime earlier this month with the Bulls at full strength. Instead, the Bulls this time pretty much took care of whatever drama there might be in yet another lethargic start, falling behind—if that even was possible in an NBA game—by 21 points just over five minutes into the game.
McCollum, the 'Blazers second best player, made some tough shots. He did make some long shots, six of nine threes in the first quarter, some physical ones with eight free throws, though often lonely ones with Bulls defenders more often taking an artist's view and seeming to step back a few feet to admire his play.
"Just got to try to make it tough on him," said LaVine in what seemed like more a proposal than an action. "But dudes get going in this league, it's over."
It was pretty much over after an unfathomable 43-19 Portland first quarter. The Bulls cut the Portland lead below 20 points for just 15 seconds until the last minute of the game. The final score was the closest the Bulls were since trailing 20-2 with 7:27 left in the first quarter.
"That's kind of been the story of these slow starts, letting teams get comfortable and get into a rhythm," lamented once again Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "Our game plan was to blitz him (McCollum); he was splitting our double teams and, obviously, made tough shots. Give them credit for coming out of the gate and setting the tone. You lose the first quarter by 24 points, you dig yourself such a hole. It's hard to get out of it and you lose the game by 16. The difference right now if you look at the last few games is the first quarter. We've won the last three (quarters) in the last three games. It's just the starts that we're getting off to right now."
There was a lot of that "if only" talk about the slow starts, which is sort of a fool's gold of competition. Teams don't play quite as seriously and desperately with a 29-point lead, which Portland had, or more than 20 from late in the second quarter to late in the fourth quarter and still by 26 with under three minutes left.
Though there's not evidence this Bulls group doesn't care, has given up or accepts the losing.
"I think we have good enough guys and strong enough players and people that we can come out and compete no matter what the deal is," insisted Valentine. "They're coming off screens, not getting hit, taking whatever shots they want. We're just kind of like 'Ah,' then we trot down the floor. Sometimes you just go through these droughts. We're competitors. We're not just going to lay down because we are missing three players and say we have no chance to win; we had a chance to win. Those last three quarters we pretty much beat them. We can compete with any team in the league; we've shown that multiple occasions. It doesn't help with our three players being out, but that's no excuse. We still have players who can compete."
It's, nevertheless, looking like a tough weekend with Dunn and Markkanen uncertain about rejoining the team and Mirotic waiting. He spent the game back at the team hotel. Hoiberg said he didn't know if Mirotic would return home Thursday when the team leaves for Los Angeles.
The players don't appear much shaken by the events, most understanding the myriad uncertainties at trade time. Blake Griffin went from Clipper-for-life in July to galoshes and stocking cap by January. There are no guarantees. And now it seems like it's Mirotic's turn to move on after his preseason fight with Portis and the reports this week of a trade with New Orleans failing. The Bulls seemed to make clear by removing Mirotic they will look at other possibilities while trying to renew the talks with the Pelicans as well as Mirotic to accept a trade.
"We're more than capable of being a competitive team and we haven't been competitive the last couple of games," noticed LaVine. "So it will be good to get (Dunn) back and Lauri and see what happens with Niko. But we just have to figure it out."
At least LaVine took some positive steps in that direction with his best offensive game in his return from his anterior cruciate surgery. He shot eight of 13 mostly on jump shots and three of four on threes in 22 minutes. He didn't play the fourth quarter.
"I played the same way," said LaVine. "Shots just went in instead of going in and out. Felt good, but regardless it's not about how I perform. It's the W or the L. So we as a collective group have to do a lot better. I've been going two games good, two games bad or inconsistent. So I'm just trying to build through that process. I'm working every day at that."
It's about individual development.
The Bulls now have the sixth poorest record in the league. Atlanta is 30th, but just three games behind the Bulls. The Bulls only have these two road games before the Feb. 8 trading deadline. Then Feb. 9 they host Minnesota in the return of Jimmy Butler, the first of two games with the Timberwolves in two weeks. In between are games with Washington, Toronto and Philadelphia.
"We'll get those other guys back at some point and it'll be fun to see this team when we're full strength and when we put these guys out there on the floor together," said Hoiberg. "We do miss Kris, but we can't use that as an excuse for continuing to get off to these slow starts. Take this season in chucks from where we started at 3-20. We really made strides and grew and got better and found a way to put together a great stretch of basketball. Now we're sliding the wrong way again. But we have to stay positive, find things we did well, which there were some tonight, but obviously we have to get much better as far as consistency. There is very little margin for error with this group."