The answer to the Bulls recent problems seemed simple. Just get off to a better start to the game. After all, in this recent disturbing run the Bulls have routinely been outscoring opponents in the second half after failing to lead in the first quarter the last seven games, early double digit deficits in four. So just score more sooner; seemed simple. And so Sunday in Brooklyn, the Bulls did just that in one of their best starts in years, a 21-point first quarter lead, eight of 12 three pointers and a sweet 62% overall marksmanship.
Before being outscored 77-47 in the middle two periods, watching the mini Nets drop 25 three-pointers on them in an absurd 53 attempts, and then unable to climb out of double-digit deficits most of the second half on the way to their seventh loss in the last eight games 118-109 and a 5-13 record on the season.
So it may be it was something else other than the starts.
Like a fork with one tine, a scissors with one blade or a ship without ballast, this just doesn’t seem to be working.
“It’s tough when you’re 5-13. It’s not what we expected, and it’s not what we thought it would be,” said Nikola Vučević, who had a difficult time against the small ball Nets with six points, nine rebounds and five assists. “It’s the reality of it and we have to face it. The only way out of it is stick together and find a way to turn it around. It’s not going to be easy. Our schedule doesn’t get any easier ahead of us. We put ourselves in this position and we’re the only ones who can get us out of it. There are games we show signs of what it can be. We’re just not consistent, and that’s why we have these huge gaps in games. I will say this: We do fight and don’t give up and try to stick together. Obviously, it’s only the results that matter. We have to find a way to get better.”
Or this season is going to be difficult to reconcile. No one was counting on a championship. Perhaps something a bit more benign. But not this, at least thus far.
“Guys are professional here,” said Zach LaVine, who had 20 points, one of four Bulls with at least 20 led by DeMar DeRozan with 27. “We support each other. We’re in the gym working every day, encouraging one another, trying to keep spirits high. Just have to get through it. We’ve been trying to get off the schneid and try to find some type of rhythm. Try to get a win. Obviously, it hasn’t come (lately). So we try to figure it out. That’s all we can control. We all care about each other here, and that’s what matters. We’re just not getting the result we want. That’s the sad part about it. Guys are out there talking and trying to help each other. You can only do so much when the ball (for the opponent) gets going in the basket.”
And it did for the Nets in their comeback with their superpower, which is the ugly reality of the modern NBA.
On some level it was an impressive game by the Bulls in being able to remain somewhat competitive — within eight points with about 10 minutes left in the game, five midway through the third quarter — against a team shooting threes like that.
The Nets had a 39-point margin over the Bulls in made threes.
Even while the Bulls did what they could for a bit, Coby White continuing White hot with five more threes and 23 points. White is averaging 18.8 points and 24 of 49 on threes the last five games. Patrick Williams starting for the injured (bad toe) Alex Caruso continued his consistent rise with his first game scoring 20 points this season after two last season.
But the Bulls mostly offensively challenged bench was badly outgunned, 40-13 by the Nets with reserve Lonnie Walker adding six threes for 20 points.
Mostly it was, sadly for many of us, what the NBA has become in this video game era with the Bulls starting out righteously with DeRozan throwing a lob for a LaVine dunk.
That proves they’re practicing.
And then it was 13-0 Bulls, 22-3 Bulls, 30-9 Bulls less than nine minutes into the game.
Improve the start. Check.
Though no victory lap yet the way games go in the NBA these days with the teeter totter of NBA shooting offenses. First you’re up, and then you’re down, and then watch out when you hit the ground. That bump can be disorienting.
As it was for the Bulls who despite that 36-19 first quarter lead suddenly found themselves tied with the Nets three-point makers midway through the second quarter.
Game on, Garth.
And the Nets kept it up; schwing.
Now this is something you should be able to deal with, though actually perhaps less so this time with the Nets missing starters Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton. Who don’t shoot threes.
So the Nets pretty much played five guards, and it was an endless cycle of drive, kick out for a three, rotate the ball, swing, swing, swing until someone attempted a three.
Did I mention they shot 53 of them among their 83 shots.
C’mon, that’s not basketball.
But when you’re doing that you are straddling some big swings in the scores.
Not that the Bulls were unprepared since the Nets are seventh in the league in three-point attempts at about 39 per game.
It’s just that the Bulls with Vučević and DeRozan aren’t built for a fast, up and down game as much as coach Billy Donovan yearns for such.
“I thought as the half went on, I thought we were fine; we generated good shots,” said Donovan. “We got hurt on the communication piece on a lot of their slip-outs. The big thing for us defensively is the contesting rate. (Former Bull Spencer) Dinwiddie (with a team-high 24 points) made a couple of tough threes where I thought we contested well, and there were a bunch of threes rotation-wise they were left open and knocked them down.
“We were OK offensively,” insisted Donovan. “I thought when the second unit came in that’s when things changed for us. Defensively, the communication piece (was the problem) and guys helping one another. It’s hard to overcome when a team makes 25 threes. Give them credit. There were shots they made from good offense, and there were shots we didn’t communicate and contest well enough. So it lies somewhere in the middle there. I know there was a lot more we could have done as far as helping.”
No, he didn’t mean yelling, “help.”
The Nets often sought out Vučević or Andre Drummond on switches and pop out threes since the Nets were basically playing all guards and small forwards. But in the antithesis the Bulls didn’t do much to find their big guys where they had the advantage inside. So the sickness that was three-point effluence just metastasized.
It also seemed like once the Bulls began making threes to start the game they enjoyed engaging in the shot making — and taking — with the Nets.
Like Irving Berlin offered, Anything you can do I can do better; I can do anything better than you; No, you can’t; yes, I can; no, you can’t; Yes, I can; no, you can’t; yes, I can.
That’s not a good formula for this Bulls roster, which is improved in three-point attempts and makes, but still in the bottom half of the NBA. Something of their offensive cognitive dissonance.
“When you get up big early it’s not always easy to play with a big lead like that, and it was a little unrealistic,” said Vučević. “We made everything (to start) and they missed everything. We knew it was going to balance out eventually. We just didn’t react well when that happened. They were trying to play catchup and play fast, and we should have been smarter about it. Then they started making everything, and we didn’t do a god job executing and it went downhill from there. That’s kind of been our season long (problem).”
It turned fast, and not just that the Bulls cooled while the nets barely vibrated with the Net shots.
It was an 11-1 Nets start to the second quarter, two Bulls timeouts within 10 seconds after a turnover and a fast break layup with many Bulls spectating, Donovan reinserting the starters just minutes into the second quarter and the Bulls trailing 63-55 at halftime after a 44-point Nets second quarter.
Which likely left plenty to talk about, though with frustration the recent word of the day it turned to communication for Sunday.
“We don’t do a good enough job communicating to each other what we have to do or honoring the call when somebody calls (coverage),” said Vučević referring to the surfeit of open three-point shooters. “Even if it’s wrong, we have to honor whatever that person who feels that that’s the right call. Got to do a better job being on the same page communicating what the coverages are and getting there. The initial coverage breaks down and we are in scramble mode and there is so much shooting now around the league it gets harder to make up for all that space.
“Playing well everything is great, everyone is talking positive about you;
losing you get criticized, rumors are going to start and that’s part of it,” said Vučević. “We have to deal with it and the only way for us to deal with it is to play better; that’s on us. It’s a mix of things, but communication is a big part.”
At least then coming out of halftime DeRozan began to communicate how he does best with his own 9-0 run early in the third quarter; and then it was LaVine piling on with a pair of step backs and some free throws proving at least a bit nettlesome for the Nets. The Bulls got within 86-78 with 2:42 left in the third quarter after LaVine dodged several defenders on the way to a full court layup as if he were an ancient Brooklyn trolley dodger down Flatbush Avenue.
But it soon became an old Brooklyn Dodgers lament of wait ’til next year, or at least Tuesday in Boston for the Bulls, when the headwinds from those threes blew the Bulls back in arrears by 13 after three, and by double digits just about all of the fourth quarter.
These, indeed, are turbulent times for the Bulls.
But Donovan says he believes in this group’s ethos.
“I would say I think the guys in the locker room are really, really good people; they are good guys,” said Donovan when asked about any fractures. “Obviously frustrated, disappointed, whatever word you want to use. We all feel that. But like yesterday, we practiced and I give them a lot of credit. They come back to work with energy and try to get better at the things we have to improve on. I’ve always talked about adversity and difficulties and challenges. I think there is a lot to learn through adversity.
“The solution to adversity is not to shut down,” said Donovan. “If you do that, to me, that would be the worst thing to do. That would speak to someone’s character. It’s easy to be all upbeat and positive when things are going well. When things are challenging that’s when you have to dig. We’ve got to pull ourselves out of it. It’s got to come from us, and we’ve got to do it collectively.”
And so on to the next act, but keep that curtain raised.
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