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Bulls get blown out in Boston 124-97 in In-Season Tournament game

How’s that familiar catchphrase go... "Nothing to see here. Keep moving, keep moving." You know, from the police dramas when there is something so hideous that occurred that the authorities don’t want to alarm the public by seeing it. 

In basketball parlance, like Tuesday’s Bulls ignominy in which the Bulls lost to the Boston Celtics 124-97, the Bulls fifth straight defeat, eighth in the last nine games to fall to 5-14 on the season, 0-4 in the new In-Season tournament and maybe most damning only needing to lose by 22 points to at least be a spoiler for the Celtics chances to advance in the tournament.

And the Bulls sadly couldn’t even do that, trailing by 19 points by halftime, 29 after three quarters and as much as 35 points midway through a fourth quarter littered with the detritus of this Bulls season.

By then, Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan were sitting with injuries, and Nikola Vučević joined them in not playing the last quarter. That as the Celtics because of the NBA’s decision to break ties with point differential was successfully trying a hack-a-Drum with Andre Drummond, finishing up making 21 mostly uncontested three-point shots, pushing around the Bulls for a 15-rebound margin despite being without their center Kristaps Porzingis. 

And then as things only deteriorated for the Bulls, the Celtics were outhustling the Bulls supposed hustle second unit with a memorable fourth quarter sequence that blew the roof off the TD Garden. 

Patrick Williams committed a turnover that led to a three-on-one fast break Boston layup with few Bulls retreating. Bulls rookie Julian Phillips threw away the inbounds pass, leading to a Jayson Taytum missed three that undrafted 6-6 Sam Hauser with 10 rebounds, more than any Bulls player, rebounded and slammed home in the same motion for, sigh, yet another Bulls timeout.

C’mon, what else can he say?

"As a professional player, there should be effort out there,” agreed Bulls coach Billy Donovan. “We'll deal with those (film) clips. There was definitely some I saw and those were addressed in timeouts, about the effort we were giving on a couple of the (closeouts on threes). I tried to address it the best we could. I’m not a big threatening guy. I generally don’t do that. I try to confront whatever is there; if something is an issue I try to address it.

‘We’re going to have to put in great effort to dig ourselves out,” said Donovan. “Every possession offensively and defensively you want the effort to be at a high level. I also know Vooch, DeMar and Zach, all these guys, are important to the success of the team and we need them to play at a level effort wise and skill wise like they are capable of. For me, putting it out there and confronting it is what I try to do. If we have to make changes in the game, I try to do that as much as I can. For me to go in there and start threatening, ‘If you don’t do this…’ I’d rather look at the guy who is going to go into the game and (say to) give me the best that’s he’s got. And if it’s not we have to make changes or adjustments.”

Donovan may be running out of options as the Bulls, basically healthy all season, now have some medicals to examine in addition to Alex Caruso’s lingering toe problems that seemed to act up again. Caruso returned but played off the bench with Williams starting again and finishing with 14 points and seven rebounds.

LaVine finished with two points on one of nine shooting, his Bulls low since a scoreless three minutes when he was hurt against Golden State in January 2022. Donovan said LaVine has been playing with a sore foot since missing the Oklahoma City game last week for that issue and could miss some games.

“It's sore," LaVine said. "I felt it a little bit and it progressively got worse. So it didn't make sense to continue to risk it.”

DeRozan sprained an ankle early in the third quarter. He stayed in the game and quickly scored on a step through move. But the Celtics immediately attacked him, and he was blown by for a quick pair of layups and shortly thereafter left the game for good. He had 19 points to match Bulls high scorer Coby White with 19.

Nikola Vučević had eight points, his third consecutive game scoring in single digits. It was a first for him as a Bull and the first time in seven years with three such sub-double digit games as he continues to often be ignored in the Bulls offense.

There was one sequence midway through the third quarter when Vučević after a screen became defended in the paint by 6-4 Boston guard Derrick White. DeRozan had the ball just above the free throw line, but instead threw out high to LaVine at the three-point line.

“I don’t know what kind of time would be missed (with LaVine),” said Donovan. “DeMar, I don’t know how severe it is. I don’t know in terms of playing Milwaukee (Thursday in the United Center).”

Tuesday’s games marked the end of the group play rounds of the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament in which the Bulls finished 0-4 and at minus-48 with the fourth biggest points deficit. It had angered DeRozan last week when Toronto was shooting with seconds left in a game that they easily controlled. Though with the points differential tiebreaker—even though in the confusion of the first phase the Raptors didn’t even know they had been eliminated—they had to keep scoring if there was a possibility to remain extant. Then Tuesday, Donovan objected during the game to Boston coach Joe Mazzulla when the Celtics began intentionally fouling Drummond with 7:30 left in the game and Boston leading by 29.

But the Celtics needed to win by 23 points to qualify for the single elimination round beginning next Monday. And the way teams shoot threes these days—well, most teams—that margin could have dropped by 10 easily. Drummond missed four straight free throws and the Celtics moved out in that stretch to a safer 116-81 lead.

Donovan during the episode walked toward the Celtics bench to ask Mazzulla about the tactic, which, frankly, has been done for years in the NBA. Donovan agreed afterward he understood.

“I told (Mazzulla), 'What are we doing here?'" Donovan related. "I get it on keeping your (starters) in. The league has made it a big deal. But for me, it was the fouling. They're trying to get to Vegas (for the tournament finals). It's a tough situation. He has to coach his team and do what he feels is right. Play (the starters) all the way to the end. I got no problem with that. But I just thought it was putting Andre in a tough spot in a 30-point game. I didn't like that. (But) this is what the league has done with the point differential. I feel bad for them from this standpoint: God forbid in a game like that (someone gets hurt). When you're up 30 and there's five minutes to go in the game and you have all your main guys in there and potentially someone gets hurt over the in-season tournament because of points? But I understand the league has made a big deal of it.”

There are rules no one likes, but everyone knows them. Just like the points differential tiebreaker, which likely will change next year because of criticism. But like when everyone did the hack-a-Shaq and didn’t apologize, including the Bulls often, the response was to make your free throws and we’ll stop. As for that holding the ball at the end of the game, I have long resented that having been a bad basketball player. That was the only time I got to play. Why couldn’t I shoot? I feel for Terry Taylor and Dalen Terry. Let ‘em play!

You kind of wish the other Bulls would have Tuesday in, frankly, what was surprising for this group.

It’s obviously a flawed roster with a lack of three-point shooting and size, but it’s always been one with a big heart, players who generally outcompete their opponents even if they have trouble outscoring them.

But not this time, and pretty much from the start, though the Bulls did lead by three points in the first few minutes. Before the Celtics began causally dropping in threes, eight in the first quarter led by Jaylen Brown, who finished with a team high 30. Tatum had a quiet 21.

It began to look worrisome in the first quarter when DeRozan stopped to admire a loose ball that Brown scooped up and ran half court for a layup. No Bulls followed, so when Brown missed only a teammate was there to follow it in. The ungainly stork, Luke Kornet, then came in for Al Horford and took an offensive rebound over Vučević and then blew by Drummond on a drive for a dunk.

The three-point thing can be confusing since the Bulls added players in the summer with good three-point averages. But there’s a difference between a three-point shooter and someone who can make threes. The Celtics, and Nets the other night, have players who catch and shoot quickly. The Bulls best three-point shooters, other than basically LaVine, seem to shoot best off the dribble. So when an opponent closes they have to move the ball instead of getting off the quick shot like the Celtics players. So Boston ended Tuesday with 21 more three-point attempts and 12 more three-point makes.

It just became that snowball gathering speed downhill.

Williams took the ball on one possession full court and dribbled more than 20 times without passing to anyone, and then attempted a shot and had it blocked. Brown back cut White—more colorful sounding than looking—for a dunk. The Celtics won a challenge leading 51-35. It still was the first half.

“You’ve got a lot of season left,” said LaVine. “You don't play the scoreboard. You look at the standings, obviously. But you try to win every game you step into and that's what we're going to try to do.”

Not much game left, though the Bulls did win a challenge to start the third quarter to stay within 21 points.

And then shortly down went LaVine and then down went DeRozan, both for the game.

Earlier in the day at the team’s morning practice, Executive Vice-president of Basketball Operations Artūras Karnišovas told Chicago reporters traveling with the team, “We see what everyone is seeing and are just as frustrated. We’re disappointed, but I’m not running from it. It’s my responsibility.”

Sometimes lately watching this team I’ve been reminded of the song they wrote for one of those big disaster movies that were popular in the 1970s, the Poseidon Adventure about a cruise ship that was overturned by a tsunami. Everyone was upside down a lot in the metaphor for this team.

There's got to be a morning after;
If we can hold on through the night;
We have a chance to find the sunshine;
Let's keep on looking for the light.

It’s got to be out there somewhere for these Bulls; it’s just got to be.

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