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Bulls fall to Nuggets on the road 123-101

The Bulls Saturday were hoping to cook the Nuggets. But in a 123-101 loss they seemed to have the ingredients mostly for a Denver omelette, a scrambled offense, tears from the onions of frustration, a game still a bit unripe like a green bell pepper and a season that could use some curing like a ham that mixed together has led to a cheesy 2-5 start to the season.

Have some patience. I’m trying here, and so are the Bulls.

“Nobody wants to lose,” agreed DeMar DeRozan. “Nobody wants to lose the way we have been losing this early. It’s always easy to let go of the rope when things aren't going your way. But for the most part you just have to stay (calm). It’s all about how we get out of that. Where we are right now, it feels bad, it sucks; but a good week for us changes everything. We have to start there.

“It’s a work in progress changing offensive from the last couple of years of how we’ve been playing, tweaking that,” DeRozan explained. “It’s always easy to revert to a lot of things we did before, but a lot of things we did before didn’t get us to where we wanted to go. So understanding and sticking with another philosophy, and once that gets to clicking you’ll see the difference from that, us being more consistent, having the rhythm  and not just from us (DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević), but the whole team. You want to get a jump (on the season), but you can’t worry or stress too much about a slow start because sometimes a slow start can help you in the long run. We’ve got to stick with it as much it sucks, as much as it’s frustrating. As much as you lose early, we’ve got to let that build us up and be resilient and understand once we are playing our games and playing the right way on a consistent basis, it was all worth it to go through the struggles that we went through from the start.”

And it is difficult for now, though the Nuggets are defending NBA champions and their star Nikola Jokić is generally considered the best player in the game. 

Jokić demonstrated that again Saturday with 28 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists, so dominant and frustrating to the Bulls was he in one third quarter stretch the Nuggets blew open the game. The effectively clinching run culminating with three Nuggets’ offensive rebounds in the same possession, two by Jokić and a basket as Bulls players mostly standing by seemingly bewildered.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan immediately called a timeout with Denver leading 75-59 with 5:40 left in the third quarter after the Bulls led 53-51 at halftime. The Nuggets spent much of the rest of the game in three-point shooting target practice and keeping a double-digit lead.

Denver after a slow start missing eight of their first nine threes finished with 16 of 36 threes. The Bulls with their typical long distance deficit shot seven of 26 on threes. And that was with Jevon Carter making four of five. Jokić was simply breathtaking — as it goes for basketball — with 13 points and nine rebounds in the third quarter even without the injured Jamal Murray who didn’t play the second half. When Jokić begins to peer down from his seven-foot perch and shoots an azimuth, the Nuggets play is a delight to watch with the back cutting, baseline dashes for lobs and layups and X marking the spot of the criss crosses that befuddle the opponent. The problem other teams are having is there’s just one Jokić. Without him, well, you’re not losing your breath at a mile high.

Michael Porter Jr. then found the range in the fourth with 13 points as Denver’s lead climbed to 23 and the deep Bulls reserves got to play.

“You never know what he’s going to do,” said Nikola Vučević, who countered Jokić well in the first half. “No matter how much you know his tendencies, he kind of has counters to everything. And the tricky part is he gets his passing involved. Definitely one of the hardest guys to defend and figure out, big body, gets to his spots, patient with it, great touch, the whole package. So it makes it difficult. First half I did a pretty good job. I think second half I could have done a better job taking away some angles, make him catch it out further; hell of a player.”

And heck of a disappointing result for the Bulls even in Denver.

“We just haven’t been consistent,” said Vučević, who led the Bulls with 19 points. “First halves we’ve been good, a lot of really good stuff. We attacked areas we talked about and got a lot of good looks. For whatever reason, we kind of get away from it and if a team goes on a run we kind of try to get it all back at once instead of sticking with it. They’re a really good team and we came out kind of flat in the second half, but the consistency has been an issue for us for awhile. We don’t stay to what works and has given us positive results. It’s almost like we get bored with the simple stuff.”

Though a lot of the confusion is with the team’s usually most reliable players, DeRozan and LaVine

DeRozan had 17 points on another inefficient shooting game for him, seven of 16 and just four free throws. LaVine had 12 points on four of 12 shooting. Carter’s 16 points off the bench was a highlight, but even if we still get to agree it’s early in the season, the production of both LaVine and DeRozan is surprising, though DeRozan insists not worrying for now.

Both are at their poorest levels in scoring and shooting since they’re been with the Bulls, and in LaVine’s case in five mostly healthy Bulls seasons after his brief 24-game cameo after the Jimmy Butler trade.

DeRozan averaged 27.9 points and 24.5 his two Bulls seasons. He shot 50.4% both seasons overall and at least more than 30% on threes. LaVine has averaged more than 25 per game the last five seasons, never shot below 45% in a season and as much as 50.8% overall for a season.

They’ve both had huge games this season, LaVine’s 51 in Detroit and DeRozan’s game-saving 33 against Toronto. So they’ve shown it’s still there.  But this season DeRozan is averaging 21.4 per game and just 43.9% overall, his lowest shooting percentage in almost nine years. Also under 30% on threes. Shocking for a player adept at playing from his spots. DeRozan insists his heath and conditioning is excellent. LaVine is averaging 22.3 per game, 40.8% overall shooting that is his career low except for that 24 games in his return season with the Bulls. His 31.5% three-point shooting is a career low and even poorer than that first Bulls season when he had no lift recovering from ACL surgery.

The discussion seems to be about the system of play, Donovan emphasizing the need to spread the ball around and create more opportunities for others. We’ve heard the phrase equal opportunity offense, which still causes Michael Jordan to break out in hives. Good soldiers that they are, LaVine and DeRozan say it’s all part of the transition and learning process, and once it fits, they’ll all be stylin’.

“Just trying to get it down pat, everything that coach is showing us, teaching us, how he wants to play, how we know we can play on both ends,” said DeRozan. “We’re just trying to play the right way. Playing the right way sometimes calls for sacrificing shot attempts. Like I said, we move the ball well, (but) we don’t necessarily get the end result of us making shots. From there we try to find our rhythm, trying to get guys going making the right play, the right pass. Sometimes we’re all kind of out of sync with that. But we understand we’re doing the right things, making the right plays. We’re collapsing defenses and getting shots we want. Now it’s seeing those go into the basket. It’s a new process for us all.

“It’s going to get there,” DeRozan emphasized about his part of it. “Like I say, it’s gonna come. I’m not worried about it one bit at all. It’s gonna come and when it comes, it’s gonna be here for awhile. So I’d rather go through my struggles now and figure it out in the process.”

Which all sounds reasonable, except you don’t want to get too far under water in this NBA ocean of talent.

“I like the shots Zach got, I got DeMar into the mid-post and he played around there,” said Donovan. “I think they are getting pretty good looks, no different than they’ve had before. If it (only) goes around to those three guys, it’s really hard for us to compete and win. (But) I don’t think DeMar’s gotten that different of shots in my opinion. To me, the biggest thing for those three guys is their spacing for the other guys. We’re going to need to spread it out more to take another step. It does require Patrick (Williams) and Coby (White) and Jevon and other guys stepping up and shooting the ball better and making plays.”

There was a glimpse of that in a good start for the Bulls.

“I really liked the way we played in the first half, did a lot of really good things,” said Donovan. "I talked about it at halftime, about getting off to a good start. First two possessions are fouls (on the Bulls), put them to the free throw line. Zach got a good look and missed it, and from there defensively it snowballed on us (8-0, Bulls timeout, and 26-6 through that Jokić multiple offensive rebound sequence). They took the lead and after that defensively we didn’t do enough and didn’t score enough. Once that happened it was a double digit game and we were fighting an uphill climb from there.”

Alex Caruso was impressive as usual in the first half with multiple consecutive impressive sequences, first a pass to a wide open Torrey Craig for a layup and then forcing late shots, and toward the end of the half a runout slam dunk and three-point play after Craig stuffed Jokić on a shot attempt. Patrick Williams off the bench also had some good moments with a block from behind against Jokić that led to a fast break and his own driving hammer slam dunk. Carter had back-to-back threes late in the first quarter to get the Bulls with 23-22 after one quarter and then another early in the second. Vučević had some nice drop step moves around Jokić, and with Murray hurt early in the second quarter the Nuggets seemed vulnerable with a LaVine three on an offensive rebound closing the first half for a 53-51 Bulls lead. Ayo Dosunmu remained home ill.

About a scoreless minute later to start the second half the Nuggets had eight points, the Bulls were back in discussion, and after DeRozan came out of that timeout with a short jumper, Denver reeled off 10 straight and a 16-4 addition with Jokić moonwalking and the Bulls crashing.

“We have (positive) spurts and I think when we do do it right we sometime don’t get the end result we would like and it kind of steamrolls and knocks us off rhythm a little bit,” said DeRozan. “Bleeds to the defensive end, and the next thing you know we are pressing being down trying to get back in the game. I don’t think it’s from a malicious standpoint at all. Just everybody is overly doing the right thing and sometimes it forces overthinking.”

Though Donovan also insisted that the principal players are getting the same shots they always have despite the subtle changes.

“The biggest thing to me is can you get downhill and attack the paint to generate more threes, generate more fouls, offensive rebounds and that kind of stuff?” asked Donovan. “Was every shot ideal? No, but I think we’re doing a pretty good job of generating some good ones. When you’ve got elite scorers, I don’t think any shot over 50 percent tonight, but I feel good when Zach shoots the ball, DeMar shoots the ball, Vooch shoots the ball. They’ve scored wherever they’ve been.

“Zach has been in high pick and roll his whole career and Zach was was in a ton of pick and rolls tonight,” said Donovan. “DeMar, he plays at the elbow and boxes and is great in pick and roll; he was in a ton of those situations tonight. Vooch caught the ball in the post and distributed. We got him in the pocket and he made some shots. I don’t know if they see it that way; that’s how I see it.”

Just what we’re all seeing now is the issue. They’re sure they can come out of it and get cookin’ without being burned. After all, it’s all still just simmering. Hey, anyone hungry? For a win.

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