A tough no call down the stretch may have cost the Bulls, but it was a poor finish to the game that leaves the Bulls in familiar territory.
The Bulls Wednesday in Indianapolis finally got that elusive third consecutive win with a…what! They lost that game?
Even watching, it was difficult to believe as the Bulls after leading 100-93 with 4:11 left missed their last six shots, five by Zach LaVine, committed a pair of turnovers, watched Victor Oladipo in his first game in a year make a 28-foot three-pointer to tie with 10.3 seconds left and then grab LaVine's arm as the Bulls closer was trying to finish. Nobody reacted, including the officials, and then the Bulls were finished quickly in overtime in a 115-106 defeat.
But even as the NBA's report will likely agree that last LaVine drive could have been the game-winning free throws, even LaVine didn't have the conviction to blame someone else.
This seemed like yet another sure victory the Bulls inexplicably let get away in a season marred by them. But not so much lately. Until, well, Wednesday.
"I'm upset with myself," LaVine acknowledged. "I missed shots I should make. I made a bad decision, missed the wide-open three. I just couldn't close the game for us today. They (officials) know what happened (on his last attempt with 2.2 seconds left in regulation). It's basketball. It shouldn't have gotten down to that point. It was a no-call. It was a foul and they just missed it. That stuff happens throughout the game; just sucks that it was at the end of the game. There are missed calls throughout the game, goes to us, goes to them. I don't think it should have gotten down to that last-second shot, anyway. We let the game slip out of hand. I was upset with myself for not being able to close it out "We're fighting for a playoff spot," LaVine added. "This is a game that I think we had won and we let it slip through our hands again. Now we have an opportunity to go against a team that we are trying to catch in the standings in Brooklyn in a couple of days, so we've got to get ready for them."
Which made the defeat all the more painful on the eve of the release of the results for the All-Star team reserves. The Bulls play in Brooklyn Friday in a rare meaningful game this season. Beating what seemed like a tired and ripe Pacers team for a third straight win would have sent the Bulls to Brooklyn with a chance to draw within game of the last playoff spot and with one more win than the Nets. But at 19-31, the Bulls fell three games behind both the Nets and Magic for the last two playoff spots in the East. The Pacers rose to 31-17 and it's difficult to analyze where the talent difference is between the two teams. JaKarr Sampson again started for Indiana.
"Up by seven with two minutes to go," reiterated LaVine.
In some sense, it's remarkable that the Bulls have maintained a high level of competition and spirit despite so many debilitating defeats. Which doesn't get you a trophy in professional ball.
"I thought we battled, I thought we played really hard, had the game under control," noted Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "Thought we had opportunities to make plays at the end. Couple of those looked like they could have been called as fouls; they weren't. Happens in our game, so move on. I think we had some opportunities that didn't happen for us. It's a road (complaining about officials) I don't want to go down, a path I don't want to go down. I can't get into all that."
Because the league punishes coaches for those observations. It is a private enterprise, after all. It's not a free country or free league.
"Tonight we played really well and lost," said Boylen. "Some nights we've played poorly and won; that's all it is. We'll just keep moving forward; that's all you can do."
But you'd like to get a bit more reward for the effort at times.
It was a particularly difficult game for LaVine, who may finally be experiencing the wear of carrying so many 225-pound men so far. The Bulls offense pretty much to close games is Zach and clear out. It worked often when the Bulls had Michael Jordan. But not as often as everyone thinks, especially in Jordan's early years with the Bulls.
LaVine has been an exceptional finisher lately, especially without the injured Finn, Lauri Markkanen, who joined Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and Daniel Gafford injured. Indiana was without Myles Turner.
The Pacers repeatedly double-teamed and trapped LaVine, and he was patient, finishing with a season-high nine assists. LaVine with 20 points did reach the mark for the 16th consecutive game, but he needed overtime to get there. Chandler Hutchison with a career-high 21 points on 10 of 14 dunks and layups led the Bulls. It was the first time in the last 13 games someone other than LaVine led the Bulls in scoring. It was also the first time in 36 games someone other than LaVine or Markkanen led the Bulls in scoring, and Markkanen did just five times.
It's been a season of LaVine highlights, but he never got enough going Wednesday. It didn't seem to matter until the last four minutes when the Bulls were scoreless. Not that the Pacers were special, missing three three-pointers and committing a pair of turnovers before Oladipo's oh-what-the-heck three from the far left-wing tied the game. It was Oladipo's only success in seven three-point attempts in his return from a knee injury last January.
"It was a great shot by a great player," said Boylen. "It will be a learning moment for all of us. We've played well, we've played poorly, played hard. We've had nights when we haven't played as well as we'd like, nights when we've played really well. That's what a young team is. We'll do what we always do: Learn from our mistakes and keep developing this team."
Now they're up to 46 minutes.
Hutchison had his best game as a Bull and Cristiano Felicio looks like the guy the Bulls wanted to give a long contract. He had eight points and eight rebounds and a team-best plus rating again and was in the game to close. Tomas Satoransky had 11 points and the Bulls last basket of regulation with a pull-up 13 footer with 4:11 left for that seven-point lead. In a fourth-quarter with nine lead changes and ties, the Bulls finally seemed to have shaken the Pacers. There were 32 lead changes and ties in the game.
There also were some unaccustomed lineups at the end of regulation with long-forgotten Denzel Valentine playing the most fourth-quarter minutes of anyone and Kris Dunn sitting. Dunn didn't play in the fourth quarter and overtime after making his three shots through three quarters. Thaddeus Young had 16 points on seven of 11 attempts against his most recent team. But he played just five minutes in the fourth quarter and didn't get a shot attempt in the fourth quarter and overtime.
The Bulls growing emphasis on LaVine to save them, which has worked well the last month, failed this time. Though even with the different rotations, necessitated by the multiple injuries, the Bulls appeared certain of victory.
The Indianapolis audience was lively in anticipation of the return of All-Star Oladipo, who attended Indiana U. He played off the bench but didn't show much of the explosive play he became noted for before his injury. It was not unexpected. The Pacers led 25-24 after the first quarter with Young scoring six points for the Bulls and then 55-51 at halftime after Indiana built double-digit lead several times. But the quicker Hutchison, taking advantage of former Bull Doug McDermott, was slashing and cutting for scores, getting out on the break and finishing strong with an assortment of post basket flexes and primal screams. Often injured in two seasons, Hutchison finally is starting to show the open court play expected of him as a former first-round draft pick.
"Every game I try to take something from it and move on and try to improve," said Hutchison. "For me offensively, I feel the best is yet to come. If I stay aggressive the averages will play out and eventually, I am going to get there. I've found comfort with playing hard because I pride myself on giving effort and I'll be a positive on the floor if I do that. I just have to keep working and eventually, it will work out."
Though still not shooting well, Dunn has been penetrating to score and had double-digit scoring games the last six. He seemed headed to another until he played 16 minutes Wednesday.
And though the Pacers kept trying to pull away, they never could get much momentum, Coby White with nine third-quarter points and Young with seven had the game tied at 80 entering the fourth quarter. The Bulls also seemed the more energized group, Hutchison diving for a loose ball and getting it to White for a three while Pacers players observed, Luke Kornet rolling down the lane for a pair of dunks and Felicio even with a spin and drop step move in an actual attempt to try to score. And he did!
The Pacers with Domantas Sabonis with 15 points and 11 rebounds had a 46-34 rebounding edge and multiple second chances with 13 offensive rebounds, more than twice the Bulls total. T.J. Warren led Indiana with 25 points. But this time it was the Bulls weak with the ball with 20 turnovers. And though the Bulls had 76 inside points, their three-point shooting again was fatal at six for 33.
Still, it seemed like they'd get that second victory against a team with a winning record when Hutchison scored three times in the fourth with driving dunks and Valentine followed a running score with a lob to LaVine for a dunk. That gave the Bulls a 94-90 lead with 5:59 left. The Pacers didn't like the judging, either, as T.J. McConnell got a technical foul. Then Satoransky made a three on sharp ball movement from LaVine to Young. After Sabonis made one of two free throws, Satoransky's jumper with 4:11 left in regulation seemed enough. Especially when Sabonis was blocked out by Felicio on the next Pacers' possession and then LaVine stole a Malcolm Brogdon pass with just over three minutes remaining and that seven-point lead holding. Unfortunately for the Bulls, their 100 points would also hold for the rest of regulation.
Bulls vs. Pacers Recap
After LaVine missed his fourth straight attempt, three of them threes, sandwiching Valentine and Satoransky turnovers, the Pacers called time trailing by three with 15.3 seconds left. Foul? Probably too much time left. The elongated Hutchison was defending Oladipo, who had run to the inbounds pass. Oladipo was holding the ball like he was thinking what to do so far from the rim. Then Oladipo in a sort of what-the-heck moment just shot. He'd barely hit the rim on most of his shots. So as the Bulls luck has gone this season, the ball floated gracefully through the net. Talk about your scripted finishes.
"Obviously Vic hit that tough shot," said Hutchison. "We've got to get a stop there in that situation. My feet were above the three-line. I just have to be aware. He's an elite player and I felt like I gave a pretty good contest. But I just have to make him put it down in that situation when the three is the only thing that could tie us."
Not really Hutchison's fault. You give a guy who hasn't played in a year a 30 footer. And not that Hutchison did. His defense was reasonable.
But with nine seconds coming out of a timeout, that's usually enough for Zach.
Just not this time.
He drove right and veered left into the lane, where Oladipo from behind appeared to grab LaVine's arm in what looked like it could have been a strip. LaVine lost the ball to end regulation and was waving his arms furiously. Which let you know there was a real foul since LaVine rarely complains. Though, like LaVine said, the Bulls never should have needed that.
This time the Bulls had nothing left as the Pacers opened overtime 9-2 with Brogdon and Justin Holiday threes, the Bulls missing four more threes without any success and again asking for someone to get the license plate number of that truck.