The Bulls lost to the Dallas Mavericks 115-109 on Monday.
"We were dribble happy and tried to do it individually," acknowledged Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "We talk about especially when teams go on runs to get into a set and execute a set. We had a couple of guys who really had it rolling, but to go down and individually take a shot without a pass, we're not very good when we do that. When we get the ball shifted side to side, when we had three or more passes it generally resulted in a good possession. Only 18 assists tonight. We've been pretty good with that number, but tonight we took a step back and a lot of that was isolation ball late in the third and into the fourth."
The result was to spoil a terrific, exciting and spirited first half in which the Bulls led 61-59 behind 18 points from Zach LaVine and 16 points from Jabari Parker, each running what seemed like a leg of a scoring relay in handing off the scoring baton.
LaVine would finish with 34 points in his third consecutive game of at least 30 points and a 32.3 per game average among the league's elite. Parker finished with his best scoring game of the season with 20 points. They were a combined 19 for 29.
But with a second half littered with a dozen turnovers and Dallas with a 9-1 edge in offensive rebounds and 13 second chance points, the Mavericks pulled away to a double digit lead early in the fourth quarter and retained much of it until a desperate late Bulls rally drew within five with about 20 seconds left. Wendell Carter Jr. then rebounded Wesley Matthews' miss. But Mavs rookie sensation Luka Doncic stole Carter's outlet pass to effectively end the game.
The Bulls fell to 0-3 for the second consecutive season and host Charlotte Wednesday.
"I feel like I'm a pretty unselfish guy to when Jabari had it going, I was yelling, ‘Get Jabari the ball,'" said LaVine. "He did the same for me a couple of games ago. I think you have to go through the hot hand and play through them and let them make the plays. You don't have to shoot every time, but let them make the plays because you are a threat at that time, move the defense and I think we should play through that hot player at that time. I think we have to do better at it."
And so perhaps there's the rub with this group of Bulls players, especially with Lauri Markkanen and Denzel Valentine out injured. Both LaVine and especially Parker tend to be isolation oriented players. Plus, Bobby Portis, regarded as the best inside scorer with Markkanen out, also doesn't move the ball much. The trio combined for three total assists in almost 100 minutes played Monday among them.
The conundrum is you need a player like that, and LaVine has proven exceptional. Sometimes one is enough. LaVine had several surcharged dunks during the game that drew gasps and huzzahs from the Dallas crowd, especially a powerful double pump through the defense in the third quarter when the Bulls still held a narrow lead.
LaVine's fearless play in the three games has been inspiring given his serious knee injury less than two years ago. He's been playing like that elite, athletic star the Bulls have been without since Derrick Rose's 2012 knee injury.
"Like that dunk out there I did?" LaVine said with a smile when a Dallas reporter asked about being in another dunk contest. "That was a nice one. My legs are back. You guys can see that. I'm a pretty mentally tough dude. I got over that (injury fear) pretty fast. I don't have any second guessing. I'm going to try to get up there still."
LaVine as done so in the three games with as much panache as any player in the league.
But there's a delicate balance between riding that hot player and continuing to engage an entire offense, which tends to occupy the opposing defense more effectively. Instead on Monday, the second half for the Bulls deteriorated into something resembling an ice skating exhibition. There were great jumps and spins, and a lot of eyes following the action.
LaVine was lobbying some for the ball when he had a streak of amazing three-point shooting going in the first half, and he was right that he was then getting ignored too much. But the complication seemed to be players coming in who believed it should be their time as well. It's sometimes the curse of exceptional offensive talent. These Bulls players have often said this young season they have sufficient offense, and it seems they do. The defense was better, but the flaw Monday was the failure to finish the defense with the rebound as Dallas grabbed a discouraging 13 offensive rebounds.
The Bulls also got 16 points from Justin Holiday and 12 from Portis. Rookie Chandler Hutchison made his NBA scoring debut being called in mostly for defense and Carter did lead the team with nine rebounds. But Carter had just four points to 18 points and 16 rebounds for DeAndre Jordan and that unfortunate turnover late.
"Each and every year I've been with the Bulls we've gone through stretches where we couldn't find our way," said Portis. "Obviously, for a young team it's hard to find a win in this league. We can do a lot of things."
The start was a mural of this new NBA, quick and long shots splashed across a basketball canvass like swaths of bright paint, both teams shooting 52 percent with a 31-28 Dallas lead. LaVine was making remarkable threes, falling back with defenders in his face. Which became his point after a first half in which he made every shot he attempted for 18 points. But he got just six of them.
Part of the reason was late in the first quarter, Parker came out firing. He doesn't pass much, but this time he was on target, scoring four consecutive baskets to close the first quarter. And then Parker opened the second quarter with a pair of three pointers and a three-point play. LaVine then came in with a fading three pointer, Kris Dunn back from paternity leave had back to back scores and Parker had a follow slam dunk in a brilliant offensive quarter in which the Bulls shot 60 percent and took that one basket halftime lead. Perhaps they could sustain. It looked pretty darned good. The Bulls would shoot 56 percent on threes, 13 for 23 with LaVine five of seven for the game.
"I thought the first half we were getting the ball up the floor very quickly," said Hoiberg. "Things were going very well for us on the offensive end. I thought we played with great effort."
The Bulls still led 75-70 midway through the third quarter for their biggest margin of the game. Dallas squirted ahead, but LaVine's second double pump slam gave the Bulls what would be their last lead of the game, 84-82 with 44 seconds left in the third quarter. The Mavericks led by Matthews with 20 and Doncic with 19 closed the third with six straight and an 11-5 start to the fourth quarter for a 10-point lead. They would attempt 47 threes. Then came what Hoiberg said was a loss of composure with multiple turnovers, but also repeated isolation shots. It seemed sincere to the extent scorers like LaVine and Parker believed they could continue their exceptional scoring. But that seemed complicated by a lack of trust in being willing to give up the ball and move, perhaps for an easier shot.
The Bulls also went to more blitzing of the pick and roll on defense in the second half, which LaVine indicated seemed to cause some uncertainty. Still, as LaVine suggested, they have enough talent.
"Our job is to play and their job is to coach," said LaVine. "Regardless of what the play call is out there, we should be able to do it. We have good players out there. I can see why he said we lost our composure. When you get down, as competitors and I speak for me, I want to go out there and make a play. I might even try to force the issue and that might not be the right thing to do. But in my head I am trying to go out there and do the right thing. So, yeah, there might have been some no pass shots or some forced action that led to a turnover. I think we settled down. We just couldn't catch back up; it was too late."
Though it is still early and Markkanen seems on schedule for a return in two or three weeks. In many respects, this season is more about finding a group of players who fit and work together. LaVine's early play has been a bonus in perhaps identifying an elite star. And it was just Dunn's first game back, a rookie at center and now rookie Hutchison perhaps getting more playing time.
"It's a new group of guys," LaVine pointed out. "I'm not putting it on Fred; I'm not putting it us. We're out there. We have to figure out how to win. I think I told you guys the first time we interviewed back at media day: None of us have really won anything. We have to learn how to win first. We have a lot of talent, a lot of good dudes on this team. But we have to learn how to win and we haven't done that yet. Once we figure it out, we can start talking about other goals and other things. But we have to be able to come back from a deficit and still get a win."
The experiment continues.