The Bulls with Sunday’s debilitating 125-122 loss to the Indiana Pacers reminds me of that cat in the poster, eyes wide with fear and uncertainty, both paws barely grasping a threadbare rope.
Hang in there!
Which is getting more tenuous by the game as the Bulls slipped into a tie with the Pacers, but in losing the season series and tiebreaker to the Pacers dropping to 12th in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls are a game and a half out of 10th and now three games behind ninth place Toronto and without the tiebreaker. The Bulls at 29-36 matched their season’s nadir seven games below .500 with what even Bulls coach Billy Donovan calls a tough remaining schedule.
Can it all be really slipping away?
It’s their current cognitive dissonance. Although the Bulls committed to a playoff run by trying to be a buyer at the trade deadline, they’re moving closer to the lottery and perhaps reclaiming their protected top-four draft pick from the Nikola Vučević trade.
Which isn’t what anyone, at least inside the team, intends to discuss with 17 games remaining and the Bulls this week in Denver and Houston before eight games in 12 days with five on the road later this month into April.
“You’re not going to go out there and say the season is over with,” said Zach LaVine, who again carried the Bulls with 42 points, his fifth game of at least 40 this season and second in the last three. “I don’t know how you (media) guys think, but we don’t think that way.”
Not that you’d expect anything else, and it’s not a team that gives up or doesn’t play hard. Which makes it all that much more enigmatic because this level of hoop truculence is supposed to translate to success. The Bulls did a lot impressively in an entertaining game with 13 lead changes and ties, mostly late, 61 percent overall shooting, 46 percent on threes albeit with too few attempts, as usual, though a surplus in free throws.
But these hard playing Bulls seem built so much more for the 90s than now without the corps of shooters, too many of those hard nosed workers who sacrifice athleticism for action and pugnacity for proportion. So the Bulls again were swamped on the offensive boards, Indiana with 13 offensive rebounds that led to 20 more field goals. And the mostly rebuilding Pacers made six more threes and attempted twice as many, 44.
Still, the Bulls were right there again, tied at 122 after LaVine at the free throw line making two of three with 22.6 seconds left finished the last of his 14 fourth quarter points. Pacers young star point guard Tyrese Haliburton shook off a timeout possibility from his coach, Rick Carlisle.
“Told him I got it,” Haliburton told Pacers TV after the game. “He trusted my play call and it worked for the best.”
Ah, to have a true point guard.
The Bulls gave Haliburton what they believe is their best for now, Patrick Beverley focusing in ferociously. Beverley came up near half court to pick up Haliburton, who began to dribble right, and then turned back left into a 30 footer with 2.7 seconds left. Which was right through for the 125-122 Pacers lead.
“Haliburton made a really, really, really hard shot,” agreed Donovan with an extra really more than usual. “If he doesn’t maybe we get the ball back and score or go to overtime; but that’s what happens.”
At least this season.
The Bulls have gone fun house mirror on closing games this season, from one of the leaders in game winners and closing shots to among the worst in the league.
“We had a season last year where a lot of these games we won,” Donovan noted. “We have not closed games well this year; it’s different things. This year some teams made shots against us and last year we were the team that did that.”
So there was still a chance for overtime, but the Pacers blew up the play with Beverley uncharacteristically disengaged.
The play was set up for LaVine, the hot man with the hot hand, to pop outside over screens for a three. Perhaps Beverley shouldn’t have been inbounding since he is not a shooting threat. So when Beverley passed the ball in, his man helped create a suffocating double team on LaVine. So he could not get the ball.
“Tried to get me to the top to get a three,” said LaVine. “But there was a lot of clutter up there.”
DeMar DeRozan was too far on the other side of the court, and no one was throwing it to Beverley, who became a spectator at that point. So Vučević made a clever cut just to get barely open for a shot. But it was a bit off balance and short to end the game.
“We were trying to get Zach and DeMar open,” Vučević noted. “I got a decent look. It was straight on. My only worry was it was a little bit short because I faded on it. It had a good trajectory. I thought it had a chance to go in; felt good coming out of my hands.”
Just bad leaving the arena.
Though not without hope the threadbare possibilities for the rest of the season will hold for the Bulls. Donovan says he still has reason for optimism.
“The thing I would be more discouraged about is if we were losing by 25 or 15 or 18 night in and night out,” said Donovan. “I don’t feel we’re getting blown out is my point, that (it’s like) we’re not even in the ballpark and it’s every night we were getting run out of the building and how can you sit there and say you can compete? We’ve been in all of these games. We’ve just got to figure a way to get that one game and get a spark and get going.”
To ignite some fireworks. But not burn down the house.
Because when you are having this kind of a season that DeRozan after the game admitted has him surprised given the level of talent and so few missed games among the three top players, you could be looking at an existential crisis.
“We still have the opportunity to make the most out of it,” DeRozan insisted. “We’ve just got to dig deep. We all have got to find something within ourselves to make something happen; the opportunity is still there. As long as you’ve got time, you’ve got a chance. That’s where we’re at.
“Obviously, it’s beyond frustrating that we lost again, the way we lost, especially a must win when we’re saying it’s a must win.” said DeRozan, who had 23 points. “I felt like we fought and put ourselves in a position to be able to pull that game out. We’re making our own bed. We can’t complain about it. We’ve got to figure out a way with these last whatever many games to dig ourselves out of this hole and put ourselves in a position to be able to make something out of it.”
Donovan went back to starting Beverley and Alex Caruso, and Vučević had limited shot attempts again and had 12 points and nine rebounds. The Pacers bench was critical and creative, especially in the second quarter when Indiana turned a first quarter deficit into a 67-60 halftime lead. The Pacers reserves had 31 of the team’s 37 second quarter points and a 57-30 margin over the Bulls reserves for the game. Patrick Williams with 14 points was the only Bulls reserve to score in double figures, and perhaps he needs to return to the starting lineup.
But at small forward?
I often get readers’ suggestions about Williams as a small forward because he’s 6-7. I’ve often deflected them due to Williams’ lack of coercion (I get tired of hearing the word aggressive in the NBA). He still only attempted six shots Sunday. But he made several dribble drive moves instead of just pullups. And while the Bulls get aggressive (oops, sorry) defensive efforts from players like Beverley and Caruso, they’re often defending players much taller. Beverley played excellent position defense on that Haliburton game winner as Haliburton had 29 points. But Haliburton is five inches taller. The Bulls often come down the stretch smaller at just about every position.
But what if Williams went to small forward with LaVine and DeRozan in the backcourt? Vučević and who else? Donovan said he didn’t think the Bulls were defending penetration well enough, so he played Derrick Jones Jr. for Andre Drummond in the second half.
“Try something different,” Donovan explained.
And the Pacers were mostly controlling the game and the Bulls were trailing. And Jones did finish with a positive plus/minus. So it did make sense.
It’s just that minus on the scoreboard at the end of the game.
“It’s upsetting,” said LaVine. “Obviously, we’ve got to do better defensively, get stops and find a way to win that game. I think we’re both competing out there for the same thing, obviously, standings wise. A tough way to go out.”
It didn’t look like it would be the way the Bulls started, 13-5 and 20-10 leads, though Haliburton was lighting up both Caruso and Beverley with 16 first quarter points and four of four threes. He even showed off one of those 30 footers. Saved one for later.
The Bulls took a late first 35-27 lead when LaVine (point guard?) made a beautiful interior pass for a Drummond dunk. But in what would become a series of last second makes for the Pacers, Chris Duarte shook loose for a three at the buzzer. The Pacers would get another three at the halftime horn, nine points on last second gasps with the Bulls mostly until the last one beaten on a fake.
That Pacers second unit led by T.J. McConnell with a Globetrotters-like dribbling drill for setup passes pushed Indiana ahead 67-60 at halftime. Indiana’s only starter to score in the second quarter was Myles Turner, who if you never saw Bill Russell that’s what he did. Turner came back into the game with four minutes left in the first half. In a three-play sequence, he made a short jump shot, got back to block a DeRozan drive and then beat everyone down court the other way for a layin. That’s what it looked like for eight straight Celtics titles.
The teams toggled back and forth in the third quarter in a modern sort of NBA game with excellent shooting, if not the quantity of threes for the Bulls.
“Obviously, we don’t have the team that takes a lot of threes,” LaVine acknowledged. “I think we have a couple guys on the team that take multiple threes a game. But if a team is shooting two or three times more threes than you, it’s tough unless you’re making a lot of twos (35-32 on twos for the Bulls). We did enough to win the game, but it was more the defensive end than the offensive end.”
LaVine closed the Bulls third with a powerful driving slam dunk.
“I told you once I got healthy I’d get back to playing the way I was supposed to,” LaVine said. “It takes time to get back to full strength. I feel I’ve been playing well. We’ve just got to win games.”
And then with two tenths of a second in the third Haliburton scored on a runner.
But Indiana only led 95-89 to start the fourth quarter. Pacers reserves got the Indiana lead back to 107-97 before seven straight points by LaVine got the Bulls their first lead since the second quarter, 111-108 with 4:48 left in the game. Like Donovan noted, last season you knew it was over for the Bulls. Now you wonder also if it’s over for the Bulls, though in a different way.
“Obviously, the flagrant foul was tough, but the things you can control, the offensive rebounds, transition, turnovers, we could have been better knowing where we had to put our focus,” said Donovan.
Yes, the flagrant. Sometimes that happens with Beverley. It’s part of what’s made him the player he is. But can skew results.
The Bulls were leading 114-112 on a LaVine three with 2:47 left when Haliburton made a 20 footer. Beverley obviously slid his foot under Haliburton’s coming down for the flagrant foul, which gave Indiana a shot and the ball. Which Haliburton turned into a five-point play for Indiana when he passed to Turner for a cutting layup. And now it was Pacers by three.
It was a tough close for Beverley that featured a bit of irony when a earlier a switch was called out with he and Vučević. But Beverley ended up not going to either player and the Pacers got an easy jumper score. Vučević remained quiet.
But even after that five-point play, the Bulls not giving in or giving out did get the lead back, 118-117 on a DeRozan 20 footer with 1:44 and a LaVine 19 footer with 49.7 seconds left for a 120-119 Bulls lead.
But this is the NBA, and offense generally wins.
Buddy Hield, one of six on threes until then, made a tough three from the corner for a 122-120 Pacers lead with 34.1 seconds left. LaVine then suckered rookie Bennedict Mathurin into a three-shot foul, making two.
And then you know what happened next, slipping, slipping, slipping. The hope is these guys have some lives left, too.
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