Bulls struggle in loss to 76ers

Storming back from a 22-point deficit five minutes into Wednesday’s game with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Bulls ... Let me start that again.

Fighting back from 30 points down to pull within 76-48 at halftime, the Bulls ... OK, once more.

Trailing 87-56 midway through the third quarter, the Bulls...

You probably get the picture, though it was more like one of those autostereogram images where you have to keep refocusing. This 116-91 Bulls loss to the 76ers was mostly unrecognizable for a Bulls team playing its best of the season with five wins in the last six games after Monday’s double overtime Bulls victory in Philadelphia.

This was a game you could have left at halftime. 

Joel Embiid did.

The 76ers star center thwarting the Bulls on both ends after a dozen first half points, seven rebounds, seven assists, a block and a steal in 16 minutes was given the rest of the game off by the 76ers. Embiid remained in the 76ers locker room the entire second half. The 76ers’ broadcast said it was to rest because the score was so lopsided, though the 76ers later said something about soreness.

DeMar DeRozan stands during a timeout against the Philadelphia 76ers.
DeMar DeRozan left the game in the third quarter with a right quad strain.

Which also seemed to strike Bulls lead scorer DeMar DeRozan, who left the game in the third quarter with what the Bulls later reported was a quad strain. Though the usually taciturn and peace-loving DeRozan earned a flagrant foul and technical foul a bit earlier for a cross body block on the 76ers’ Paul Reed setting a screen.

DeRozan finished with four points on zero-for-seven shooting, his lowest scoring game in almost six years. Zach LaVine with 16 points was the only Bulls starter to score in double figures. Coby White led the Bulls with 19 points. Nikola Vučević had eight points and five rebounds.

“He’s (DeRozan) a very calm guy for the most part,” agreed Vučević. “Just shows he cares and like everyone else sometimes your emotions get the best of you. I was trying to stop him and save him some money; I was a second too late. 

“Since the (All-Star) break, we’ve been heading in the right direction; had some good games,” Vučević pointed out. “We’ve been more consistent on both ends of the floor. But every game is a new game and we have to be ready for it, especially in our situation where we are fighting for the play-in spot. It was frustrating the way the game was going. Sometimes things don’t go your way and you let out and get a tech and pay a fine and move on.”

Which now for the Bulls, 34-38 and still just a game and a half out of eighth in the East, is to the Western Conference in Portland Friday and then a Sunday/Monday back-to-back in Los Angeles against the Lakers and Clippers. Then it’s home to play the Lakers and back on the road to end March in Charlotte.

“Not much we can take from this one and move on and get ready for the West Coast trip,” said Vučević.

Though no one seemed too concerned about DeRozan.

“I think he's feeling OK," Vučević said. "It's just something that kind of comes and goes (though DeRozan did miss three games with a quad strain in January). He didn't want to force it too much the way the game was going. He’s a tough guy and plays through a lot of stuff, so I think he’ll be fine.”

The hope for the Bulls is they will also be ready to go after what was the worst start of a game in the NBA this season as the 76ers scored the first 17 points. The Bulls earned a derisive cheer from another full house United Center crowd when LaVine made one free throw with 8:28 left in the first quarter. The 76ers then added on six straight points for the 23-1 lead with 7:13 left in the first quarter.

Zach LaVine shoots the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Zach LaVine finished with 16 points against Philadelphia.

I always try to write something different. Twenty-three to one less than five minutes into the game qualifies.

“We knew they were going to come out strong like that (after Monday),” said LaVine. “They did the right thing; they did a lot of adjustments and it was tough. Those guys made a lot of threes to open it up. We didn’t make shots early on and before you know it, it’s 23-1. And against a team like that, against that deficit it’s going to be tough to crawl back out. So take that one on the head and move on for the Western Conference trip. Can’t do anything but tip your hat. Got your (butt) whipped and move onto the next one.

“We were talking about that on the bench, you beat a team, they come back and they make adjustments,” LaVine added. “They beat you, you come back and make adjustments, a back and forth thing. They did the right thing and you can’t do anything but give them credit.”

Though it does serve as something of a warning, which Bulls coach Billy Donovan said he pointed out to the players. The NBA this season has been scheduling more back to back or consecutive games between the same teams, sometimes to limit travel. It can have the feel of playoffs with games against the same opponent and thus chances to immediately adjust. 

Donovan said he was thinking that about Wednesday’s game after the incandescent Bulls win Monday that seemed to further brighten the close of this sometimes dismal season. That this had some parallels to last year’s first round playoffs.

“I talked about with the guys before the game this was a game similar to (after) Game 2 with Milwaukee last year in the playoffs,” said Donovan. “You go in there and find a way to win the game, a hard fought game. You kind of come back home and it’s 1-1 and I thought Milwaukee kind of got up to this level and I felt like the same thing with Philly. It was the same thing, a hard fought game, double overtime. Then it started from the beginning (Wednesday) getting down whatever it was 17-1, 17-0, 19-3 (actually 23-1, but no one wanted to interrupt). We were just constantly playing catchup and they were quicker, sharper, just better all the way around. We just didn’t come back and sustain. Our pop and intensity wasn’t where it needed to be to beat a team like that.”

Donovan’s salient point was that the Bulls probably were playing with more desperation lately than some of their opponents. Potential elimination can be more motivating than seeding.

But after losing at home the way they did Monday, it was a more determined 76ers team. Message sending and all that, you presume.

“There’s a reason they are where they are in the standings,” Donovan pointed out about 49-23 Philadelphia. “They are really good and you know they are going to come back and respond; that’s what good teams do. There’s got to be more of a collective will.”

If the Bulls are going to present a testament this spring and avoid being buried.

There also was the issue of shooting, though this game never was in danger of being contested. The Bulls briefly got back within 10 early in the second quarter, but never in single digits. The 76ers, with James Harden sitting out the entire game and no Embiid after halftime, saw the Bulls only as close as 96-78 in the fourth quarter before peeling out to lead by 28 with 3:24 left. Donovan finally lifted the starters sans DeRozan with 6:61 left trailing 105-82.

Coby White attempts a layup against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Coby White led the Bulls with 19 points against the Sixers.

White probably was the best of the Bulls, making three of six threes and darting around cleverly on several drives. He played more point guard with Patrick Beverley scoreless and zero-for-five in 19 minutes. Andre Drummond showed more pulse than most with 13 points and 12 rebounds in 17 minutes and Derrick Jones Jr. bounced around for 10 points.

Alex Caruso was a late scratch with lingering foot problems, though Donovan said he should be available for the road trip. Javonte Green played again, though limited minutes and was scoreless.

Not that anything the Bulls could have done after the start would have mattered much, but their lack of three-point shooting also makes it that much more difficult to recover. The Bulls were six-for-24 on threes while the 76ers were 16-for-37. Before the game, Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers blamed a lack of passing for the 76ers loss Monday, and by halftime the 76ers had Bulls heads on a swivel with 23 assists.

They were watching aghast like the rest of us.

So now it’s time for the Bulls to lance the boil of corrosively sordid ruin. Like this Bulls game, that sentence is also something you don’t want to see again.

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