Bulls fall to Pistons despite Zach LaVine's career-high 51 point performance

The season the Bulls won their first NBA championship they opened 0-3, thus putting this Bulls edition one game ahead of that pace despite Saturday’s 118-102 loss to the Detroit Pistons.

C’mon, stay with me here.

Time for these guys to order their solar panels. You know, keep the sunny side up. No way these guys work in a photo lab. They’re not about to embrace the negatives.

Heck, there even was a reference Saturday to equal opportunity offense. Time for the triangle? 

Maybe get out of this 1-2 box first.

“We’re trying this new thing out to have a complete, cohesive offense with equal opportunity,” said Zach LaVine, who broke out of his mini, two-games-to-start-the-season slump with a career-best 51 points and seven of 13 threes. “It’s going to take some figuring out. Preseason looked good. But preseason is preseason. We got a lot of our stuff (earlier) in transition. Throughout the first couple of games, me and DeMar (DeRozan) were in the corner a lot. Now we’re trying to figure out how to get involved with more touches. But we all have to figure out how to help each other. It has to work like a well-oiled machine.”

Not one in need of repair so soon.

“We don’t want this to snowball where we really have our backs against the wall,” said LaVine. “Guys are out there fighting; we are working each and every day. We have to figure it out.”

To have more than a snowballs chance, and all that.

We can say it’s just three games.

Zach LaVine came out on fire, scoring 19 first-quarter points.

But the Bulls were awfully close to losing Friday to Toronto while the two defeats were by double digits, and to young, uber-athletic teams.

The Bulls have proven All-Stars in LaVine, DeRozan and Nikola Vučević, and they’ve done some star stuff with DeRozan’s transcendent game saving fourth quarter against Toronto and LaVine Saturday.

“Obviously, I wasn’t happy with the way I was performing and the way the offense was looking,” said LaVine about his seven of 30 shooting start in the first two games. “So I came out wanting to be real aggressive. Obviously, I got it going. It’s upsetting you have a performance like that and lose. It sucks.”

Bulls coach Billy Donovan marveled at LaVine’s easy brilliance with 19 of the Bulls 26 first-quarter points, and then 20 more in the third quarter.

“For him to do what he did scoring wise is incredibly remarkable. He is such a pronounced scorer and teams are putting him on the top of every scouting report. But we still lost by double digits,” noted Donovan. “We’ve got to be able to play in a way where it flows. Zach got it going early and it kept us hanging around, but we’ve got to have it sustained where guys keep trusting the pass, trusting each other, trusting the ball movement and trusting guys when they are open.

“We should know what’s not going to work, (which is) holding the basketball, not moving the basketball, not playing downhill, not getting to the free throw line, not getting to offensive rebounds,” lectured Donovan. “We have to be able to if we want to be the team we are trying to become. There needs to be a unified vision of how you play, there has to be a unified style that for our group gives us the best chance to be successful, and that’s where our focus has to be.”

Which wasn’t to fault LaVine, who did little wrong in his fluid fashion and attempted half the Bulls' 16 free throws. But that’s also the Bulls Catch-22, chicken-and-egg, and at least on this night no-win situation.

DeMar DeRozan finished with 20 points against the Pistons.

LaVine kept the Bulls in the game to start, the Bulls leading most of the first quarter until a late Pistons close to take a 29-26 lead. No one else got much going as the offense was limited with just two assists. But LaVine wasn’t missing his isolation chances. It’s not like without DeRozan, who was coming off that huge overtime, there’s been many offensive options on this defensive-oriented Bulls roster.

Donovan keeps emphasizing that equal opportunity as a salve. But does it heal or just cover up?

The Pistons have been easy pickings the last few seasons in their rebuild. But they’ve recently accumulated several impressive and explosive young athletes and the return of former No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham, who was blowing past Bulls guards to begin the game and thus compromising the middle. When help came, Jalen Duren, Isaiah Stewart or Marvin Bagley, the latter off the bench, rolled in for dunks. Or Jaden Ivey wearing No. 23 simply flew down the lane and slammed the ball like Him.

The emerging Pistons dominated the Bulls on the boards 53-32, had 29 assists to 16 for the Bulls, doubled the Bulls in second-chance points as the Pistons size on the defensive boards kept the Bulls off their offensive boards and never let the Bulls pull off another miracle comeback after the Bulls got within six points with eight minutes left. Even as the Bulls played a mostly clean game with 10 steals and just eight turnovers.

DeRozan had a modest 20 points for the Bulls and Vučević had 12 points, but just four rebounds as he often was out of position helping guards. Coby White and Patrick Williams were scoreless, though with just three shots for Williams and four for White, the latter who struggled with Cunningham’s size. The Pistons bench dominated 41-19.

“You can’t really compare year one,” DeRozan said when asked why the Bulls started much better the first season the trio played together. “We had Lonzo Ball. He made a helluva difference running the show. Without that, we’ve been constantly trying to figure out what works for us. Some nights we show individual ways of it working, but as a collective we’re still working to find a balance We’ve showed spurts here and there. But it hasn’t been as consistent as we want it to be. None of us are selfish. We are all trying to figure out how we can be better and make it easier to help the team. We just haven’t been consistent with it.

“I think we’re going to get it,” DeRozan insisted. “It’s frustrating because so much time went by that you think it should be second nature. But it’s one of those things you try to compensate for one another because we want it to click so bad; it’s just us trying to have one another’s back as much as we can and I think we overthink it at times. We show it for quarters, we show it for spurts. Once we get it rolling and translate to another game and another game, that’s when the rhythm will come into play. We’ve just got to stay with it.”

What the Bulls are also fighting against is this escalation of young talent on especially Eastern Conference teams that have been losing for so long. The Bulls have that edge in experience and know how, but they have to win through execution more than athleticism. Look, you don’t get to the NBA without being an great athlete. But so many of these kids and also recent Pistons first-round selection Ausar Thompson are long, explosive players. Donovan pointed out the Toronto size isn’t much different than Detroit’s, and the Bulls matched the Raptors on the boards. But the main Toronto players are long-armed more than shot-from-a-cannon types, and Toronto without great three-point shooting presents a crowded lane. The Pistons did a nice job of adding some stretch shooters, which opened up the lanes for driving and getting to the boards. Also, the Pistons guards were so quick off the dribble in screens it led to their big men rolling in and dunking numerous times.
Those few years of experience for the Pistons kids and the stability being added by new coach Monty Williams enabled the Pistons to hold off any significant Bulls runs despite LaVine's marvelous shooting.

Zach LaVine scored a career-high 51 points Saturday night against Detroit.

Detroit led 57-44 at halftime but was unable to pull way with LaVine’s big third quarter that got the Bulls within three points and trailing 84-77 going into the fourth quarter. But with four blocks and a monster 18-7 advantage on the boards and nine offensive rebounds, the Pistons led by double digits the last six minutes. Alex Caruso, after his virtuoso Friday, was limited with two points, though he did have four steals. Ayo Dosunmu got minutes in place of Jevon Carter and Torrey Craig had just one offensive rebound unable to counter the Pistons’ interior size. Williams played just 21 minutes, the fewest of the starters. Craig had four points and Carter three.

Cunningham led Detroit with 25 points and 10 assists. Duren had 23 points and 15 rebounds and rookie Thompson had 12 rebounds. The Bulls starters combined for 15 rebounds. Detroit’s had 41.

It was the second game of a back-to-back for the Bulls, though it also was for the Pistons who were on the road Friday. The Bulls now continue on the road to Indiana and Dallas before returning to the United Center Nov. 3 against Brooklyn for their first in-season tournament game.

Like Willie Nelson wrote, "On the road again, like a band of gypsies we go down the highway, we’re the best of friends, insisting that the world keep turning our way."

And so it is for the Bulls.

LaVine, by the way, had that back issue Friday that initially made him uncertain for Saturday’s game as the Bulls took their medicine, too.

“I took a lot of Tylenol,” LaVine said. "Talk to me tomorrow. Obviously, we’re all frustrated on why it’s not clicking the way it should be. Time to put pen to paper. I said this from Day 1: This is our third year here together. We all love eachother, DeMar and I are best friends, we talk all the time. We have to figure out how to make this thing work. Even sneaking a game out yesterday by what DeMar and AC did; we don’t want to live that way.”

Or let this thing expire before its time.

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