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Bulls fall to Thunder, Coby White scores season-high 23 points

It didn’t look better without Zach LaVine.

It all, actually, looked about the same Wednesday as it has for much of this thankless Bulls season, mashed early with poor shooting and a dozen point deficit after one quarter and roasted by a 34-16 deficit four minutes into the second quarter. But these guys don’t get the stuffing knocked out of them often as the game was tied by late in the third quarter with what seemed like a chance for the Bulls to get on the gravy train with a win to begin this four-game road trip.

Twice in the last six and a half minutes — and once shooting for a tie — the Bulls got within, as the broadcasters like to excitedly declare, a one-score game. But a casserole mix of fouling three-point shooters, a lost challenge on a block, a 24-second violation with several players wide open and the brilliance of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with 40 points so impressive even Alex Caruso was baffled enabled the young and becoming Oklahoma City Thunder to finish their season sweep of the Bulls with a 116-102 victory.

The Bulls, now seeing their record drop to 5-11, have to leave the country.

Though not for lack of effort as the road trip continues in Toronto Friday with still a way, way, way outside chance of qualifying in the in-season tournament.

“For all 48 minutes, I felt we played really hard. And to keep getting the same result is frustrating,” admitted Coby White, who continued his hot shooting with 23 points and seven of 12 threes.

White is shooting 15 of 30 on threes the last three games as with LaVine out with a right foot injury, DeMar DeRozan led the Bulls with 25 points. Nikola Vučević added 16 points and 12 rebounds.

“Being negative and frustrated isn’t going to solve any of the problems we have,” said White. “Got to continue to grind and get better and trust each other and uplift each other and stay positive. Obviously, there were a couple of games back we should have won, but it is what it is. We have to look forward, keep grinding and keep our head held high and we’re still here competing. We’re all on the same page, staying positive and uplifting each other. We trust each other. It’s not going to be easy, but we’ve got to fight through. We’ve got three more games on this road trip, so try to go 3-1.”

Which would be a nice cherry on top for a season that’s been a bit of a turkey so far.

I am getting hungry for some reason, so it’s good I have time to finish this. The hope is that the Bulls also have the opportunities.

“Next man up mentality,” said DeRozan. “More opportunities for the next person to take advantage and be ready to play.”

The Bulls did get some good contributions with LaVine’s rare absence. He indicated that he hoped to play Friday in Toronto after trying during the pregame to shake out the discomfort and difficulties.

Caruso had his seventh consecutive double-digit scoring game with 12 points, though that’s how good Gilgeous-Alexander is that he took on Caruso’s best and repeatedly got to the basket, was fouled making 17 of 18 free throws and likely had even DeRozan admiring the space he was getting with mid-range shots.

“He (Gilgeous-Alexander) makes a lot of tough shots in today’s game that most people would think are bad shots,” said White. “Contested twos, fadeaway twos, couple of times he’s shooting over three hands; hell of a player. You can’t take away everything, and to me he has everything in his bag. He’s been on a tear this season. He’s been having big games all season. He’s a hard task. Obviously, tonight he had another big game.”

Right from the start again in another here-we-go from the Bulls as Gilgeous-Alexander repeatedly beat Bulls off the dribble for layups and then executed easy step-backs for 10 first-quarter points and a 26-14 Thunder lead.

The Bulls were behind only 6-5 about four minutes in. But they were digging back out of that familiar deep hole again to the sunlight of competitiveness following four of 23 shooting in the first quarter, two of 11 on threes. Though this time the Bulls had the edge in threes for the game thanks to White, the Bulls making 17 to Oklahoma City’s 11. But the young Thunder with Gilgeous-Alexander and the emergence of rookie giant Chet Holmgren (18 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks) dominated inside with flashy movements and cutting that repeatedly netted easy layups and fierce dunks.

And as for those starts….

Do we have to ask again?

“Got to be aggressive and get something easy instead of just settling (early),” said DeRozan. “We kind of like settle into the game, put some shots up and once we miss a couple in a row, it kind of plays on you a little bit. Get something easy, something at the rim, something say close and see the ball go in. They aren’t bad shots. I feel like we can be more aggressive and get something easier and see the ball go in first and not worry about those consecutive misses in a row; (then you) kind of start pressing hoping for a bucket to come around.”

And so it was again much of the first half as the Bulls trailed 50-39 at half in another of those mysterious offensively challenged first parts.

“You’re going to get down the way we get down when you don’t shoot the ball well,” said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. “That’s kind of been the issue for us. We’ve had a couple of halves where we’ve had 39, 40 points, and then you look at some of the second halves we’ve had it’s been 63, 65, 64. For whatever reason, we haven’t been able to shoot the ball consistently throughout the game. They kept batting, fighting, got themselves back in the game. I felt we tried to move the ball, generated some good looks; just didn’t shoot it at a high enough clip in that first half. But I liked what we were trying to do in generating shots for one another.

“It’s a struggle when you lose,” said Donovan. “But I see them fighting and trying. We just have not been consistent enough shooting the ball.”

Other than White late in that second quarter when he kept the Thunder from the horizon with five of six threes in the quarter and 15 points.

The Bulls do try to move the ball, though more to swing it around the perimeter. Donovan has talked all season about penetrating into the paint (what we used to call the lane), that downhill thing. Oklahoma City does it well and it got several good shots for Thunder reserve Isaiah Joe with 20 points and the effective clincher four-point play when fouled by White on a three with 1:59 left in the game. The four points made it 111-99 Thunder.

But the Bulls don’t seem to get the same deep penetration into the lane. So when they drive and pitch out the ball, the defenders have a shorter distance to close, which makes the shots more difficult. Actually, Caruso is one of the better Bulls players getting closer to the rim and passing.

With the Bulls still trailing 62-45 a few minutes into the second half after another short Gilgeous-Alexander score, Caruso livened things up with a score off a Vučević steal, his own steal leading to DeRozan free throws — eight in the quarter — White with another three, and like that it was Oklahoma City by three. And then tied at 69 with 4:29 left in the third quarter after that 17-3 Bulls run.

“It’s hard to overcome a four for 23 (start) at a certain time,” said Donovan. “But they are battling and trying and competing. Obviously down a really good scorer in Zach, but I give our guys credit. Sometimes it gets deflating when they miss shots, but give them credit for staying in and battling their way back in the game. Just couldn’t make enough plays to get over the hump, so to speak.”

The Thunder made those plays, like Joe with a three with Gilgeous-Alexander doubled after that tie at 69. And then with the Bulls in the penalty an Oklahoma City parade to the free throw line to enable them to lead 84-77 after three. The Bulls kept creeping back in the fourth quarter behind DeRozan and Vučević, and a nice effort from Patrick Williams in the game, 10 points and seven rebounds starting with LaVine out. Williams’ three got the Bulls within 98-95 with 4:33 left.

White earlier had a chance to tie the game with a three with 6:15 remaining and the Bulls trailing 95-92. But the Thunder seemed to score at every crucial time. Gilgeous-Alexander trapped found a cutting Holmgren for a basket after that Williams three. And then when the Bulls passed around as the clock expired for the shot clock turnover, Gilgeous-Alexander scored on a drive. And after some Thunder free throws matched Bulls scoring efforts, Joe closed it with that four-point play.

Thanks to the wily Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder had 38 free throws to 17 for the Bulls, 13 for DeRozan. But barely entering the paint and passing out for threes doesn’t get you to the line. The Bulls also haven’t disrupted opponents quite as much lately with seven steals this time, though the Bulls did get 25 points off 14 turnovers. Oklahoma City dominated inside 42-28 and had 12 blocks.

Is help on the way? Rookie Julian Phillips Wednesday continued his hot G League play in a Windy City victory. He is averaging 20.3 points and 12 rebounds, the latter tied for second in the league, and 47% on threes in three games with Windy City. 

“They made more plays down the stretch,” said White, “and we just didn’t make enough.” 

Happy Thanksgiving, by the way. If this is not a season to be thankful for yet, it is a game to still be thankful for. Gobble it up.

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