This wasn't the King Sunday when the Bulls were demolished 129-102. It was the Kings, the Sacramento team that has missed the NBA playoffs the last 12 years, averaging fewer than 30 wins a season the last decade and now starts a lineup that mirrors the Bulls' with four players with three years of experience or less.
And even in their first game back home after a Thursday/Friday back to back on the East Coast, the Kings looked like an Indy racer lapping the Bulls at every turn. The Kings had 30 fast break points and an astonishing 80 inside points on a vast collection of unchallenged layups and fast break dunks. They became the fourth consecutive opponent to drop more than 40 points on the Bulls in the third quarter, a stretch in which the Bulls league poorest defense over the last few weeks is giving up 128 points per game.
Bulls at Kings game recap.
Monday the Bulls are in Phoenix for the second of a back to back, which perhaps is something of their playoff moment.
It's one thing to get up for the league's elite. But when you are starting over as the Bulls have been your principal tests have to be against your fellow teams in the race to respectability. It was looking good for the Bulls with recent wins against Brooklyn, Memphis and Atlanta. A turnaround seemed reasonable. Hope was viable. But with the Bulls seventh loss in the last eight games to drop to 19-52 and a second domination this season by a developing Kings team, the Bulls suddenly are facing troubling questions with just 11 games remaining of whether this is an anomaly or an outlook.
On the board in the Bulls locker room in bold numerals for everyone to stare at as they dressed were the figures:
They represented the plus/minus totals of the starters, the numbers indicating the deficit the team endured when they played.
"I thought their speed and athleticism, physicality and toughness overpowered us," admitted Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "Our starters need to play better; they know it. Can't have every starter a minus 15 or worse. I think they are disappointed. We have to pull up our bootstraps and get ready to play tomorrow. We practiced yesterday; I thought we were locked in. It looked like it got too hard for us."
"We were a step slow all night and that was frustrating," Boylen added. "I think our guys want to do it; they're learning what it really takes to play in this league for 82 games, how competitive you have to be every night, the edge you have to bring every night."
It was a disturbing vision to wonder if the Bulls were capable of facing up to the challenge of even a developing team. It was one thing to be bullied Friday by a tough, veteran Clippers team with playoff intentions. But coming off a 16-point home loss to the Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron James, the Lakers only win on their four road game trip thus far and a 23-point loss to a Detroit Pistons team that lost its next two games by 30 points, the Bulls suddenly after such an optimistic stretch are finding themselves in need of an improved effort to at least keep some momentum into the offseason.
"We didn't bring the appropriate edge," said Zach LaVine, who led the Bulls with 18 points, though trailing by 28 after three the starters sat out the fourth quarter. "They came out ready to win and we didn't. I just think it started from halfway through the first quarter. We lost hold of it and it was downhill from there. We have another tomorrow; we have to be ready. Phoenix has been really hot. That's another we've got to go up against, a young and up and coming team and we have to establish ourselves."
Though after such an encouraging February with seven wins in 12 games, All-Star like play from Lauri Markkanen, a revival built around the acquisition of Otto Porter Jr. and quality wins in Miami and Brooklyn and against Boston and culminating with the historic quadruple overtime win in Atlanta, the Bulls do seem drained.
Markkanen had 11 points, his last three games averaging about 10 points and five rebounds, which is less than half his February production. Porter has had some scoring spurts, but in the last two games is averaging two rebounds and less than one assist.
"Lauri is a young, developing player and he has to power through," said Boylen. "I think it was three rebounds in 22 minutes. I want him to rebound the ball better. That seems to get him going. He has to get back to doing that."
Markkanen repeated his recent mantra of remaining positive and working his way through the difficult times a young player will have.
Timothy Luwawu-Cabarrot and Shaquille Harrison each had 11 points off the bench, but it was another poor reserves' sequence to start the second quarter that put the Bulls in a hole after trailing 24-23 after one quarter. The reserves were outscored 20-4 in the first six minutes as Boylen brought the starters back to suddenly be facing a 17-point deficit. It remained 56-40 Sacramento at the half.
Though there were some moments that went against the Bulls, producing frustration. One was a questionable offensive foul call against Ryan Arcidiacono that should have been a three-point play. Instead, the Kings got the ball and scored for a significant turnaround when the Bulls trailed by 10. It produced some very rare Arcidiacono debate with the officials.
Porter and Robin Lopez had eight points each, Lopez also participating in a a double technical foul after he was caught adjusting the jersey of Harry Giles after being held down and violently hooked by Willie Cauley-Stein. Though after being ejected in Sacramento last March and throwing a chair on his way out, Lopez said he promised family members who came from nearby he'd finish this game.
Though he might have been in the locker room again for all the Bulls were doing this time.
Arcidiacono and Lopez still displayed that fury late in the first haAlf. But then came the third quarter and it all collapsed for the Bulls. Not only did the young Kings make a mockery of the game with 43 points, 67 percent shooting and 11 fast break points in the quarter, there was a possession when Arcidiacono was one of five Bulls back with five Kings players on the break. The Kings scored on eight dunks or layups in the quarter. And then the Kings started the fourth quarter scoring 13 of the first 17 points to get a 37-point lead.
Markkanen looked up at the minus numbers on the board as he dressed afterward.
"You see the plus minus right there," he agreed. "Yes, we (starters) have to play better."
They get an opportunity immediately. Everyone should know quickly whether they're anxious to make a distinction between an aberration and an archetype.