Bulls fall to Cavs in OT, Donovan Mitchell scores 71 points

On the bright side for the Bulls Monday, this time it required one of the greatest scoring games in NBA history to beat them.

And, oh my, was it painful, not including having to spend extra time in Cleveland as the Cavaliers finished the mini sweep of the Bulls this past week 145-134 in overtime. 

So much more agonizing because Cavaliers star Donovan Mitchell scored 71 points and 13 in an overtime period rout after I’d say a miraculous put back of his own missed free throw to send the game to overtime if it hadn’t also happened a week ago. That was to the Knicks, and so the Second City became the next victim of not only the corrosively demoralizing regulation play, but then a paralyzing overtime period that saw Mitchell nail shut the casket on this Bulls defeat while even surpassing Wilt Chamberlain with the biggest scoring game ever against the Bulls.

Maybe karma for all the delight we got out of the Knicks diffidence and confusion at the moment of truth or consequences. All amidst what became a post game Bulls objection about foul calls, Mitchell apparently committing a violation to get that offensive rebound putback to tie the game—unfortunately, a toxic habit throughout the game and recently that poisoned the Bulls’ effort to win. 

Though Mitchell’s incineration of the Bulls did fire up one of the most historic nights in NBA annals.

Cleveland's Donovan Mitchell became just the seventh player in NBA history to score at least 70 points in a single NBA game.

Mitchell became the seventh NBA player ever to score at least 70 points in a game, joining Chamberlain, who did it six times, Kobe Bryant, David Thompson, Elgin Baylor, David Robinson and Devin Booker. It was the largest scoring NBA game since Bryant’s 81 points in 2006. It matched the eighth highest scoring game in NBA history with Wilt having most of those. But the 6-1 Mitchell even came close to matching Wilt with the first 70-point game ever with at least 10 assists. That resulted in only Wilt’s 100-point game in 1962 with a player accounting for more points for his team.

The Bulls, now 16-21, were appropriately respectful of Mitchell’s scorched earth effort, if not in complete agreement about the way they believed they got burned. And not only by what appeared to be Mitchell’s premature entry to the lane shooting that second free throw trailing by two points with 4.4 seconds left in regulation after the Bulls with a three-point lead had fouled intentionally. 

It seemed, at least to me, the correct strategy.

But then there also was 20 of 25 free throws from Mitchell and 45 for the Cavaliers to 34 for the Bulls, though with the Bulls being a better free throw shooting team the margin at the line was three. In what has been a destructive habit all season, the Bulls gave up 24 second chance points, 13 offensive rebounds and six more made threes for the Cavs. Those margins are difficult to overcome so regularly.

The frustration for the generally composed Donovan did finally seem to overflow, and it’s understandable with the NBA’s late game report last weekend stating DeMar DeRozan should have gotten a foul call and chance to win the game with free throws on his game winning attempt New Year’s Eve.

Donovan also referenced an earlier season game when the post game report noted DeRozan should have had free throws in Washington to perhaps win that game. Sure, there have been those reports that have favored the Bulls at the end of games, two incorrect calls that could have resulted in a Bucks win in the Bulls overtime victory last week. And I recall going into the Cavaliers locker room in 1989 when Michael Jordan scored his career best 69 points against the Cavs then in Richfield and hearing a lot about those 23 free throws Jordan attempted in the regulation game.

Still, it did look like Mitchell got a head start on that play that extended the game into overtime even as much as Donovan agreed the Bulls still were in position for the blockout. And Mitchell did have to grab the ball between multiple Bulls and put it back in for the layup tie. 

DeRozan missed a three at the buzzer. 

And then in overtime the Bulls understandably were still in shock about giving up a 21-point first half lead, the largest in a loss in the NBA this season, and seeing some of their best play of the season in an almost perfect first half deteriorate into yet another shattering experience.

“Obviously, we’ve got to block out better regardless of the situation,” Donovan agreed. “We know they're going to miss. We’ve got to go in there and get it done. Whatever it is we’ve got to overcome things. I'm a big believer in that. I think a lot of times you can look around and look at what everyone else is doing wrong instead of looking at yourself and what we can do better and have control over. So there’s clearly a lot we can do better. What did we have control over, we could have gotten that basketball at the end of regulation, and we could have not fouled as much.

"I want to go back and look at the film because overall the game and just watching it live was, to be honest, hard to watch at times,” Donovan said. “The thing I'm anxious to see is the consistency of the fouls. I very, very rarely argue a call for another team. But when our guys are getting fouled... I think the free throw was a huge, huge factor in the game. DeMar got to the free-throw line (10 of 12 in his 44 points). But we clearly didn't get to the free-throw line as much as Mitchell. That was a big issue.”

DeMar DeRozan led the Bulls with 44 points in the loss to Cleveland on Monday.

Cleveland's first lead of the game was Mutchell's three to start overtime.

Zach LaVine had 26 points and Nikola Vučević had 20 points and 13 rebounds. DeRozan had four steals, all in that excellent Bulls defensive first half when they held the Cavs to a season low for the half. LaVine led the Bulls with six assists, but even with Darius Garland and Evan Mobley out for Cleveland, the Cavs won the bench scoring. The Bulls certainly could have used their injured Lonzo Ball, as the powerful and prompt Mitchell blew around both Ayo Dosunmu and Alex Caruso, putting both in foul trouble and leaving the Bulls in multiple help situations which led to fouls.

“We threw Alex on him, he had four fouls, Ayo had four fouls,” noted Donovan. “We put DJ (Derrick Jones) on him for some length; we were trapping him. He went around our traps and made some tough shots. It’s 25 free throws; that's where it is. Our help was constantly fouling, fouling, fouling. The fouling was a major, major contributor to his points. He an an unbelievable game, incredible performance and made a lot of tough shots. But we contributed to it with the fouling.”

The Bulls will have some legitimate grievances, but lead official Tony Brothers is one of the NBA’s most senior officials. And officials tend to reward the aggressor. The Cavaliers play a physical game with their size while the Bulls tend to be more finesse with their elusive scorers. In addition, Mitchell is one of the more aggressive physical scorers in the game, a Jimmy Butler type player who creates contact.

Though, as Donovan noted, sometimes he steps over the line, figuratively and literally in this instance.

“It’s a clear violation, unequivocally [Mitchell] crossing the line on the basket before the ball ever touches the rim,’’ Donovan said. “He beat Patrick (Williams), but kind of the reason was because he went in there early. In that situation, we have to find a way to come up with the ball. It's been two games in a row. DeMar obviously got fouled the other night against them. The two minute report will come out and say he crossed the line. I could be wrong and if I'm wrong, I'll apologize. But at least what I saw on film, it made it hard for Patrick to block him out because he was certainly across the free throw line before the ball hit the rim. And if that's the case, it's a violation.

"It doesn't do anything (saying) 'We're sorry,’” Donovan added. “It could be three games now (turned around). It could be at Washington, it could be the other game (Cleveland) and it could be this game. That's unfortunate because I felt our guys battled and competed. Again, we have to control what we can control.” 

It’s true that history isn’t always as enjoyable as it is memorable.

If ultimately unsatisfying considering the maxim that you are what you record is, these last few weeks have produced some of the most remarkable and thrilling games and moments in years in both the losses and wins, like the buzzer winners on both sides with Atlanta, the Bulls winner in New York and these stunning defeats. It’s all left the Bulls staggering a bit in the East standings with the mathematical halfway point of the season coming next week.

But if there’s been a not-enough-wins conclusion, there’s been a heck of a never-quit attitude with the play of DeRozan, LaVine and Vučević in this stretch, the threesome more often validating themes of excellence.

Though the frequent size and long distance differentials have been difficult to counter despite the excellent individual play.

The start of the game—and the first half—was for the most part a clinic for the Bulls, superior defense and disruption and offensive  excellence and excitement. The Bulls relentlessly moved to a quick nine-point first quarter lead and 34-27 at the end, outbounding and outshooting the home team. Perhaps more remarkable in retrospect was how poorly Mitchell was playing, one of four in the first quarter and missing six of his first seven shots. He had 11 points at halftime and with a technical foul for his belief—and then commentary—about the inequity that seemed (to him) like the officials were trying to even up the two-game series for the Bulls.

A second half effect?

It perhaps shouldn’t have mattered with the Bulls leading 60-39 late in the second quarter and then easing into a 65-47 half-time margin. DeRozan had 18 points and already nine free throw attempts, LaVine finding Jones for a lob and Coby White for a three, the Bulls with more rebounds and even on threes than the Cavs in the half.

But then came the fouls by the Bulls to start the third quarter, two by Dosunmu 40 seconds into the half, and the Cavaliers were into the bonus quickly. And whether some calls could be contested, a team puts itself at risk when a bump in the night means free throws. Sort of a murder of the game for the Bulls, most foul, if you will. Perhaps some strange and unnatural fouls with little opportunity to avenge in what became this Shakespearean type tragedy.

It became a mind boggling (and numbing) third quarter with Mitchell scoring 24 points with a dozen free throws, the old saw about every team making a run cutting off the limb the Bulls were on. And suddenly game on. The Bulls held a 96-91 lead going into the fourth quarter after the Cavaliers cut the deficit to a basket just earlier.

The Cavs kept coming, but the Bulls continued to hold them off with some terrific efforts, Jones tipping in a miss, LaVine with a four-point play making a three and DeRozan fading away, driving and even making a second three. DeRozan had started the game with a three in an unusual first quarter aggression that suggested enough is enough. It seemed like it might be. But Caruso committed a pair of lane violations (the officials caught those) on Donovan free throws in the fourth. The Cavs got six fourth quarter offensive rebounds, three by Mitchell including that you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me last one.

“I think I had a game like that once playing NBA2K, but I don’t think I shot that efficiently (22-34),” Mitchell joked to reporters afterward. 

The Bulls just didn’t have it after that gut punch with the Cavs closing on DeRozan and LaVine, the Bulls missing all six of their overtime three-point attempts, half by Williams and Dosunmu. Mitchell nailed all three of his attempts to finally hammer the Bulls into submission. 

“When they send a crowd, the biggest question is whether you’d rather have your best player take a heavily contested shot or would you rather have someone else take a wide open shot?” asked Donovan. “They ramped up their pressure. I thought we should have gotten to the free throw line a lot more. They were getting there non stop. They turned up their defensive pressure and it probably took us out of some rhythm.”

And turned into another dance for the Bulls in which the spotlight was on another.

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