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Bulls start slow again in loss to Toronto, LaVine scores 36

Leaving the country didn’t help the Bulls, either.

Getting back in may be the problem in the wake of the gathering exasperation Friday from a 121-108 loss to the Toronto Raptors, the Bulls sixth loss in their last seven games and 10th of 13, the reckoning and elimination from the ballyhooed in-season tournament, and was that lava flowing from mount DeMar DeRozan ejected from the game in the waning seconds after an unambiguous diatribe directed at the Toronto bench. Though if he were being honest probably more so at himself and about this unexpectedly dissonant season.

“You’ve got to stay positive however much it is frustrating,” said a calmer DeRozan, typically the voice of reason and calm among the Bulls, later after a much needed cooling down. “We have opportunities, but it’s self inflicted. I’ll be honest with you; it’s beyond frustrating. It’s not like we can’t do it, not like we’re playing against the ’96 Bulls every night. We can compete with anybody, we can beat anybody. It’s just a matter of playing the right way, putting the IQ in the game and understanding what we need to do and how we need to do it. We’ve got to figure it out. I can’t fake it. I’m frustrated. Everyone in this locker room is frustrated. 

“That’s the frustrating part about it,” said DeRozan with “frustration” the go-to word of the night. “There’s enough here. It’s about finding that right combination for it to hit on all cylinders consistently. It seems like we’re all over the place. We show spurts of it. Put a couple of wins together and I truly believe it can shift everything forward. Just got to figure it out.”

Before the season slips away with the Bulls now 5-12 and with two more road games before a return to the United Center Nov. 30.

To face the Milwaukee Bucks; uuugh. Time to get going.

But again the gravitational pull of lonesome shots and indifferent defense against much taller opponents left the Bulls with a 36-22 deficit by the end of the first quarter, and treading dangerously close to drowning behind by 20 points four minutes into the second quarter.

I know; how many ways can we explain this script to make it seem different.

Fortunately for the Bulls, Zach LaVine was enough recovered from a foot problem to play after being listed questionable for Friday’s game along with Coby White. Both kept up their respectable play to at least allow the Bulls a chance to dream — about a win — LaVine with 36 points and four of eight threes and White with his shooting stroke sweetening and garnering at least four triples for the fourth consecutive game. He finished with 14 points.

It was LaVine with a dozen points in the last eight minutes of the second quarter that kept Bulls hope alive, trailing 62-48 at halftime. But also still with belief because of the way they came back from a 17-point fourth quarter deficit last month to win that overtime classic against the Raptors.

If also many of the themes, familiar and otherwise, emerged to sink the Bulls to start this time.

It’s been shooting and scoring often, and while Toronto did enough of that with 62 points and 58.5% first-half shooting, it was the collapse and plundering of the defensive fortifications that convulsed coach Billy Donovan this time.

It also didn’t help that with Alex Caruso starting, I guess, at power forward the Bulls were constantly run over by the wave of 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-8 players coming at them from the Raptors. The Bulls were basically smaller at every position but point guard with Toronto’s Dennis Schröder. And the Raptors kept sending more 6-foot-8 guys into the game, like Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher. It enabled Toronto to get 13 offensive rebounds, an edge in second chance points and a stunning — certainly to Donovan — efficiency at the rim that enabled the Raptors to shoot 53% overall.

It led to a bewildering Toronto series of layups and dunks off transitions and simple screens and cuts. Toronto had 14 first quarter assists and 32 for the game. The Bulls had 20 and remain last in the league in assists per game.

Though thanks to the shooting of LaVine and White, there were some positives for the Bulls with 44% on threes, forcing 14 turnovers for 20 points that leads the league in that category and nine offensive rebounds.

“Tonight I actually thought we were kind of in a good spot…,” Donovan was saying. "What disappointed me was they were 17 for 17 at the rim in the first half and 18 for 22 in the paint. We’ve got to be there to help one another. We made some shots. I liked what we were doing, but our defense we had no rim protection. There was not enough physicality at the basket. When a team goes 17 for 17 at the rim, that’s a lot of points.”

And destabilization.

“I thought it was the defense tonight,” said Donovan. “Prior to that the shooting; tonight I felt it was the defense. We’ve got to collectively be in there to help each other. I know it sounds like the same old, same old. But I’m just trying to tell you what I’m seeing, what we’ve discussed and tried to get corrected at halftime. We have got to put our body in plays. We’ve got to try to as much as we can against a big team take charges. We may not have the verticality to go up and contest all the time. But we can be there early to have a body in front of players coming downhill. The things that made us good defensively last year, we’re not at the level protecting the rim like we did. It’s not like we were getting killed from three; we were getting killed at the basket.”

Like the famous Saturday Night Live character Rosanna Roseannadanna said if not considering the NBA at the time but appropriately enough, "It just goes to show you, it's always something. If it ain't one thing, it's another.”

It began to look really bad again for the Bulls early in the third quarter with OG Anunoby, who led Toronto with 26 points, getting open for a corner three as Alex Caruso was picked off on a simple screen without help and then Annoy on a fast break dunk after a White driving miss when hardly anyone among the Bulls got back. Toronto led 93-77 going into the fourth quarter.

It was another big uh oh when in the midst of all that in the third White inadvertently stepped on the foot of Caruso where he had his toe issues that cost him a few games recently. Caruso didn’t return after telling Donovan he didn’t feel right.

“It was pretty painful,” Caruso admitted. “It was probably the right decision (by Donovan). There was probably only more negative that could have happened…,probably more detriment to the team putting me back out there than good.”

LaVine gave it one more shot at vindication with three straight good shots, two for three pointers midway through the fourth to keep the Bulls within a dozen. And then when White made a three and Patrick Williams with 12 points blew by Schröder for a slam dunk, the Bulls were within 103-96 with five minutes left.

Heck, got this one. Last time they were 17 points behind with about the same time left. Another masterpiece?

Maybe a bit of pointillism, a dot of a shot here and a stop there, and you step back and there’s the picture of a beautiful win?

But that was Caruso miracle night, and this time without that Hulka big toe it was going to be difficult to find enough leadership. LaVine missed a 20 footer and Jevon Carter shot a wedgie. Toronto won the ensuing jump ball, and another Anunoby three and Schröder drive for a score later it was back deep into double digit Bulls deficit and getting ready stage right for DeMar.

It’s been a difficult season for the Bulls steady hand the last two years.

DeRozan is having one of his poorest seasons in almost a decade, averaging 21.1 per game on 44.3% shooting. Not bad for most mortals, but this is a future Hall of Famer. Three of the last four seasons DeRozan has shot above 50%, and 49.5 in the other. His true shooting percentage this season is among some of the lowest in the league and he’s had difficulty putting together consecutive high scoring games. 

Following his highest scoring games of the season he’s had massive drop-offs the next game almost every time, 33 against Toronto in that overtime game and then 20 the next game; 24 against Brooklyn and then 17; 29 against Detroit and then 11; 23 against Miami and 15 in the second in a row; 25 Wednesday in Oklahoma City and then 19 Friday on seven of 16 shooting and a minus-31.

DeRozan’s putative anger at the end of the game was at the Raptors and Siakam for attempting a three with three seconds remaining and leading by 15. That’s supposed to be one of those unwritten, respect for the game rules about dribbling out the clock with less than 24 seconds left with no way to change the outcome. But Williams had shot a three with 18.9 seconds left just before, and because of the in-season tournament where point differential is the tiebreaker the Toronto bench was yelling for Siakam to shoot as he appeared ready to just dribble out the game.

You knew this was coming with that tiebreaker rule, though with the mish mash of the tournament even the Raptors didn’t know they were apparently eliminated even with the win.

Donovan understood.

“Obviously, I know Darko (Raptors coach and former Donovan assistant Rajakovic) really well, but it’s an NBA thing,” said Donovan. “It’s a tournament; how much you win by matters. The NBA has set it up where points and margin of victory matter. Score as many points as they can and I get it. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not. I understand where DeMar is coming from, but I also understand they are trying to advance and go to Vegas. They’re looking at we get a couple of extra points it helps us; it’s a tough situation.”

Not to DeRozan, who fumed at the Raptors bench and was ejected with 1.4 seconds left. But it seemed more than the denouement for him as he was seen on the team bench earlier in the game ripping up a towel and in the second quarter drew his first technical foul for advising in very colorful terms to the officials that their work perhaps wasn’t exemplary.

“I don’t care about no in-season tournament points or none of that; just respect for the game,” said DeRozan.

Now that may really have been a problem.

The tournament seems to be the favored child of commissioner Adam Silver, and based on the broadcasts from the league’s TV partners it seems like a very important priority. Could this result in a lifetime suspension for DeRozan? OK, just kidding, but, please, do not say bad things about the tournament any more.

That last shot? OK.

“I knew (they were eliminated)," said DeRozan. "I didn’t care about that. Just everybody was yelling at him, ‘Score, score, score.’ Take the win. Get out of here. Like I said, if roles were reversed, needing in-season tournament points or not, just for the respect I have for my opponents, I hold the ball. Especially if there’s no shot clock. That’s just me.”

He mostly is a competitor and one of the elite figures in the game, and so you know the purgatory of this early season has to be crushing for him.

“We can do it,” DeRozan insisted. “That’s why I think I’m so frustrated now. We’ve got to challenge ourselves. We can’t have those spiritual talks. We’ve got to challenge ourselves to leave it all out there. Ask something from yourself more than you ever have, myself included. 

“There’s enough here,” DeRozan insisted. “It’s just about finding that right combination for it to hit on all cylinders consistently. It just seems like we’re kind of all over the place. We’ve shown spurts. We gotta figure it out. It sucks. It’s frustrating. We all hate losing. We hate being in the position we’re in, digging ourselves a hole. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. We have to figure it out. That’s where we’re at.”

Like Chuck Berry said, feel so good today; touched ground on an international runway; jet propelled back home; from over the seas to the USA. Back in the USA, at least. 

Well, if Brooklyn counts.

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