Bulls rally but can't complete comeback in Cleveland

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope. 

                  —- Martin Luther King Jr.

The iconic minister, philosopher and civil rights inspiration likely would not have been preaching about something as prosaic as basketball. Though his messages on this Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday resonate also for the Bulls, who lost 109-91 to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The defeat coming in an encouraging stretch in which the Bulls had won nine of 14 before Monday was disappointing, if not appropriate since the Cavaliers were the dominant team from the start making 20 three-pointers, controlling 13 offensive rebounds, forcing 19 Bulls turnovers and leading by 21 points midway through the third quarter. 

But that the Bulls tenaciously managed a one-point lead early in the fourth quarter despite such earlier diminished doubts and despair suggested continued possibilities if not immediate results.

“They outworked us, to be honest with you,” said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. “We really didn’t hit anybody. They came up with loose basketballs; just did a lot of those kinds of things (and) we dug ourselves a hole.”

The Bulls record dropped to 19-23, though they continue to show enough of the signs that they can retain that infinite hope.

Especially the way they climbed their way back into this game, a third in four nights after two overtime games last week and that track meet with the Golden State Warriors. The Bulls remained without Patrick Williams with an ankle problem, and Ayo Dosunmu wasn’t able to return late in the game after an invigorating third quarter helping propel the Bulls back into this game.

The Cavaliers were playing without injured starters Darius Garland and Evan Mobley, and this was their first game after playing in Paris last week. Though there was no lag for them as they shot the Bulls to a 40-21 first quarter deficit with 8-of-14 threes and such a dominance on the backboards that Donovan in that comeback part gave Nikola Vučević and Andre Drummond their longest tag team match of the season.

“We’ve got to compete better,” said Coby White, who had 18 points, but was 5-for-15 and one of eight on threes the last two games. “We knew they are a team that goes to the boards a lot. A lot of their threes came off offensive rebounds and kick-outs. Those are the daggers. We’ve got to be more locked in when the game starts, digging down and helping Vooch and getting Jarrett Allen out of the paint.”

Allen again like in Cleveland’s win in Chicago last month — the Cavs have won six straight against the Bulls — had 14 rebounds, five offensive, numerous resulting in three pointers for teammates. Four different Cavaliers players made four triples each. The Bulls sunk back to 9-of-32 from long range.

“We shot it really poorly again and we've got to be able to work our way through that when shots aren't going,” said Donovan. “If we had cleaned up the defensive rebounding, the blocking out, and some of it was rotations, we wouldn't have had such a hole. We kind of came out in the third pretty good, but then it went up to 18 or 19 and that’s when I felt I needed to try to do something different.”

That was Donovan giving in to the Vučević/Drummond pairing that had some mixed results.

Combining the two centers finally leveled the playing field for the Bulls on the offensive boards with the Bulls trailing 77-56 with about six minutes left in the third quarter. Donovan rode that group to the end of the third quarter and a 21-3 run that got the Bulls within 80-77 going into the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers had just two offensive rebounds in the quarter.

“I liked it,” said Donovan. “I thought they did a good job. But the disappointing part was I thought we worked ourselves back and kind of got over missing shots, but I thought the thing that was disappointing was when we got up by one (the mistakes) were self induced. There were some quick, rushed shots, turnovers, offensive rebounds; all stuff we did to ourselves. We worked so hard coming back to go up by one, and the next couple of possessions we had (turnovers and misses). I had to go away from that big lineup.”

Donovan did return to the twin Bulls bigs with the Bulls trailing 90-81 with 7:26 left. But that’s when the Cavaliers took off with Dean Wade losing Drummond three times for threes as the Cavaliers stroked six threes in the fourth quarter (one for the Bulls) to leave the Bulls with more hope than results this time.

The comeback will produce debate about twin titanics, though it’s not likely sine qua non for Donovan.

Because the sub-standard 91 points also makes a point. It’s difficult for the Bulls to score to match the league wide three-point shooting mania with two big men not adept at threes, Vučević 1-of-7 Monday and 27% for the season on threes.

Though when Donovan laments the lack of rebounding, it’s the polarizing roster predicament that sometimes trips up the Bulls. Donovan advocates an appealing style of play that relies on motion and speed. But to succeed because he chooses to play smaller at several positions, the success of the strategy often relies on extra possession through steals, blocks and hustle that players like Alex Caruso embody. But as the season wears on and now into the so called dog days drag to the All-Star break it’s difficult to summon that energy so regularly. 

Then that gives an edge to a team like the Cavaliers, taller at many positions. And huskier with the physical Donovan Mitchell, who led the Cavaliers with 34 points and seven assists. The Bulls also got 17 points from Vučević and Zach LaVine, but just six from DeMar DeRozan.

Caruso wasn’t able to exert his defensive magic against Mitchell with Mitchell's quickness and strength as the Cavaliers star repeatedly beat Caruso off the perimeter and had little internal resistance from the Bulls. Cleveland’s bench further led the discord for the Bulls 44-23.

“I feel they were comfortable all night,” said Dosunmu, who had all of his 10 points in the third quarter comeback. “We didn’t put enough resistance on them that allowed them to make shots at a high level. In this league when you are making shots like that it’s hard to beat anybody. We still  buckled down and took a lead in the third, but we weren’t able to sustain that effort.”

Nor was Dosunmu, who sat out the last 9:12 after suffering another so called “stinger” to his shoulder. The common sports malady is a sudden nerve jangling which causes pain or numbness. It usually diminishes quickly, and Dosunmu said he should be recovered for Thursday’s game in Toronto.

The Bulls hope to be well as well with a home game Saturday against enfeebled Memphis before a Western Conference road trip that includes Phoenix and Los Angeles. Perhaps the sun will shine on their aim as well.

It was poor to begin and that 8-0 hole became a 19-point crater before the first quarter concluded. Cleveland rocked to a 60-46 half-time lead.

By halftime even Tristan Thompson was rolling to the baskets for lob dunks, at least on his tippy toes, and certainly Allen as the Bulls attempts to thwart ball screens continually resulted in Allen diving for easy scores. Then came that third quarter with Dosunmu getting to the rim and Drummond often finishing. He had eight points and 10 rebounds for the game. Vučević scored in the lane and Caruso made a three, but the Cavs suddenly went cold from deep in the third and Max Strus was just one of eight overall.

The Bulls edged ahead early in the fourth quarter on a Drummond putback and a White transition play for free throws to give the Bulls an 81-80 lead with 10:01 left to play. Mitchell then kept getting inside and Caris LeVert lit it up from outside with threes. 

Unfortunately for the Bulls, the arc of the Cavs’ long shots bent unerringly toward the netting.

There seemed no justice for the Bulls, and particularly White, who had a tough stretch of misses and turnovers after the Bulls took that lead, finishing with seven give aways for the game.

“Coby has been so great, and he didn’t really have it tonight,” said Donovan. “I don’t mean that in a way of being critical. He just didn’t have it going. He was obviously trying to take it upon himself to step up; he has that kind of will and competitiveness. But it was one of those things, ‘OK we’re up one, let’s manage this, make sure we are getting to our stuff, we’ve got good spacing.’ I thought we left points on the board, turned it over, took a couple of tough shots on the break. It was more team induced. He wasn’t the only guy; we all contributed to it.”

Though it also seemed to signal this emerging changing of the guard for the Bulls with White instead of deferring, as he’s so often done, even taking on the responsibility of carrying the Bulls home. Kind of a tough ask less than a year after not even being considered a starter.

“Just got to be better overall,” said White. “In the fourth quarter, we got the lead. We’ve got to manage it better. I can’t turn the ball over. Got to be better if I'm going to be the lead guard for this team. I can’t have seven turnovers. But that’s all a learning experience. That’s what I’m here for. You love the adversity, the up and down; learn from it and be better next time.”

Like Dr. King once said, Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase. The Bulls believe they are keeping the faith.

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