Not enough went right for the Bulls Wednesday. Which is what generally occurs in a loss, this time 107-98 to the New Orleans Pelicans to drop to 3-9.
The Bulls shot below 40 percent overall and below 30 percent on threes. They were out rebounded and fell behind by 17 points in the fourth quarter before rallying within 98-92 with 3:35 left in the game. "Our energy was outstanding after we got down," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "We had a chance to cut that thing to four. Took a bad shot. So we have a lot of work to do."
That was a tough shot by Justin Holiday with the shot clock about to expire that led to a Pelicans offensive rebound and Jrue Holiday driving bank shot. Zach LaVine then missed a hard drive into the citadel of the Pelicans defense. New Orleans followed by getting Julius Randle basically going full court for a layup and 10-point lead with under two minutes left that effectively ended the Bulls late hopes.
"We've been in every game (since Golden State) and found a way to win a close one against New York," Hoiberg noted. "We battled back tonight; it all goes back to playing the right way from the beginning of the game."
The Bulls didn't often enough. Hoiberg actually appeared to call out Jabari Parker for jogging back in transition against a fast break. Hoiberg afterward said it was about overall team offensive execution. Wink, wink. Hoiberg also went to Robin Lopez and Ryan Arcidiacono for extended play in the second half, when Hoiberg noted the effort was much better, after Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio were unsound in the first half.
LaVine led the Bulls with 22 points, but was nine of 26 shooting as the Pelicans constantly swooped multiple defenders at him while teammates too frequently stood around to admire the Pelicans defensive prowess. Parker played his best offensive game for the Bulls with 20 points and 13 rebounds, but frequently would dribble for 10 seconds and then hand to LaVine and stand aside, at least early in the game. One second quarter sequence was almost a microcosm of the season as LaVine got hot with four consecutive tough scores to get the Bulls within 39-36. Then after he missed one jumper, teammates took five shots before he got another touch. By then the Pelicans had taken a 12-point lead. LaVine also was pretty much ignored in the crucial third quarter sequence when the Pelicans made a 12-0 run for a 77-59 lead. LaVine's driving layup finally stopped that out of a timeout. Likely Hoiberg introduced LaVine to the team at that point, perhaps noting is was pronounced La-vene.
Though like they have just about every game this season despite the many injuries and discouraging word Wednesday that Denzel Valentine had a setback and now is out indefinitely, the Bulls didn't quit, forced and fought their way back into the game. If they aren't good enough they usually play like they don't know it. With Anthony Davis getting 32 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists and Jrue Holiday one assist short of a triple double, the Bulls lacked the talent if not the overall desire.
And what the Bulls did have going for them was impressive as Wendell Carter Jr. battled Davis relentlessly and finished with 17 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks, quickly becoming the Bulls most vital resource other than LaVine.
Somewhat dismissed in the preseason Rookie of the Year projections, Carter has elbowed his way into top contention for rookie honors despite being just 19 years old. Carter is averaging 11.6 points and 8.3 rebounds for the season. But in the last five games as Carter has expanded his offensive play, he is averaging 15.6 points and 10.6 rebounds. He has made four of seven threes and is averaging 2.4 blocks. It's probably placed Carter barely behind Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton among the top rookies with Trae Young putting up good scoring numbers on poor shooting. Overall among rookies, Carter is sixth in scoring, second in rebounding and first in blocks.
Carter, especially amidst the detritus of the early season injuries and resulting losses, has been commissioner Gordon's beacon in the sky. Carter has been that bright light of hope that gives you the feeling of relief and perhaps optimism that things will get better.
Tasked with defending yet another all-NBA player, Carter went right at Davis to start the game, and he was blocked by Davis. But then moments later, Carter finished a fast break score and called Davis with an I'll see your block of his own. They are the games within the game, and perhaps more important for the Bulls to win those, especially with Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis still apparently weeks away from returning. It becomes more an extended developmental period, and Carter is speed reading his way through. Not exactly like when Woody Allen said he'd taken speed reading and just finished War and Peace. It was about Russia, he said.
Carter's course is taking him in depth and detail about the NBA, and already the 6-10 center is becoming almost irreplaceable, as much as LaVine given the absences. The Bulls held former Bull Nikola Mirotic in check with nine points—though 15 rebounds—and were tied at 23 when Carter took his first rest with 1:35 left in the first quarter. Until then, the mighty Davis was two of six. He scored the next two baskets immediately as soon as Carter departed to give the Pelicans a six-point lead.
New Orleans hiked it up to 48-36 in that second quarter sequence when LaVine appeared to his teammates to be mimicking Claude Rains and Hoiberg stopped play to gesture to Parker about stopping to read a newspaper during the Pelicans run out after LaVine was stripped. It seemed to enliven Parker, who playing out of the post more instead of pop-a-shot had 10 points and four of five on free throws in the second half.
"It was an execution thing," Hoiberg insisted about his and Parker's discussion.
LaVine, meanwhile, had a sharp drive and lob to Carter for a slam dunk and driving score after the timeout. Hoiberg even drew a technical foul after Carter was elbowed in the head by Davis with no call. Hoiberg seemed to be inquiring of the officials about male cow excrement.
Holiday had 17 points, but was three of 12 on threes, several times seemingly motivated to play one-on-one against his Pelicans brother, Jrue. Though with these Bulls there is so much isolation play it's difficult to determine when it's intentional or habit. Arcidiacono added 11 points and three of four threes, playing his usual feisty defense. His shot is so much better and smooth from three, he's one of the players you hope will shoot more, though he remains too reluctant.
Carter had a wonderful baseline drive and reverse for a three-point play at Davis after he made a steal and hit a 17 footer to get the Bulls within 65-59 early in the third quarter. Over the next four minutes as he got one attempt and LaVine none, the Pelicans increased their lead to 18. Lopez again gave the Bulls a toughness boost with his third straight game with two blocks in a strong close to the third to get the Bulls within 85-72.
Antonio Blakeney was just three of 11 and it's perhaps unfair to consider him a playmaker. He likely doesn't. Clearly on one possession late in the third, the play was called for LaVine. Blakeney had the ball on top dribbling. The Pelicans overplayed the pass to LaVine. It was a tough pass. But no one moved and Blakeney hoisted up a shot. LaVine turned to the bench and signaled with his hand up. Blakeney came out and the Bulls closed the quarter on a 10-5 run. They hit the Pelicans with nine straight points midway through the fourth with New Orleans in a four of 18 shooting stretch. Blakeney back in started to go to the basket and had two impressive driving jumpers in that run. LaVine matched a Jrue Holiday three-point play with his own long three pointer to stay within 94-88 with 5:38 left. Carter had a dunk on a Parker pass and Parker went full court for a driving score to get within 98-92. The Bulls didn't have quite enough left to finish.
But with the way Wendell Carter Jr. is starting, the finishes eventually should be more fulfilling.