Too small was the whimsical epilogue to the Bulls double-digit win against the Lakers in Los Angeles Sunday when Patrick Beverley scored against LeBron James and playfully lowered his palm to the floor to symbolize the Lakers’ capitulation.
Talk about having those smiles wiped off their faces as too small Wednesday not only became reciprocity for Beverley, who dragged through his second scoreless game in the last five and endured the identical taunt from Lakers guard Austin Reaves, but the grim reality for the Bulls as the Lakers controlled the action, the game and the boards in a relatively one-sided 121-110 victory.
The defeat left the Bulls at 36-40. And though still with seemingly enough oxygen to continue breathing in the postseason with a two-game lead over Washington for 10th with the tiebreaker, the Bulls, with six games left, dropped two behind both Toronto and Atlanta.
Perhaps Beverley’s hijinks was the klaxon that awoke the Lakers and maybe even their casus belli against Beverley and the Western Conference to arm now that back to play is LeBron James with 25 points Wednesday and seemingly a healthy Anthony Davis with 38 points and 10 rebounds.
Though the Lakers’ dominance Wednesday against the Bulls potentially also exposed the fundamental foundational flaw that the Bulls actually have done an excellent job covering up this season. That being the lack of size, yes, despite the so called new NBA of shooting and small ball, and the sine qua non about the playoffs once so eloquently stated by Pat Riley: Rebounds equal rings.
No one is suggesting the Bulls this season in the wake of the loss of point guard Lonzo Ball are chasing rings, mood or promise. It’s a credit to the Bulls, how hard they often play and how unlikely they submit to towering odds, that they have competed and often succeeded effectively starting four guards and basically a perimeter center. But the Lakers from the jump, as it were, were having none of it with an unwieldily 29-6 advantage in second chance points, 45-32 overall on the boards. Though perhaps more significantly, the Bulls continually were passing up shots in the paint against a canopy of Lakers’ arms and settling for much more difficult jump shots.
So even though the Lakers were just seven of 20 on threes (nine of 33 for the Bulls), the Lakers had a 27-10 lead eight minutes into the game. The Bulls reserves led by another strong game from Coby White with 17 points and a team most nine assists grabbed away the momentum from the weak Lakers’ bench as the Bulls recovered for a three-point lead midway through the second quarter on a White pass for a Zach LaVine dunk.
LaVine had just 16 points, but remained efficient with eight of 14 shooting. Nikola Vučević with an oddity of scoring all the Bulls first 13 points as they trailed 27-13, finished with 29 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. Though Davis was proving too quick and agile for Vučević, the Bulls probably didn’t get the ball to Vučević enough as he was 12 of 16 after that early ejection in Los Angeles. DeMar DeRozan added 22 points.
The Bulls even shot 51 percent overall. But the Bulls were just too small.
“We’re not particularly a tall team,” said Beverley. “So we have to do a better job putting bodies on people. We have to do a better job rebounding the ball. And we will. I don't even think about the eighth seed (one play-in tournament win instead of two to reach the playoffs). I just want to play a good brand of basketball and wherever we fall we fall. We’re prepared for anything; Billy D (Donovan) is going to make sure we’re prepared for anything. So it’s up to us to get better as a unit.”
It had been looking like the Bulls finally had the formula with the All-Star break addition of Beverley and then 10 wins in 15 games before losses to the Clippers Monday and Lakers Wednesday. Though it’s been a wearying stretch for the Bulls with a Western Conference road trip and two double overtime wins.
Now starting Friday in Charlotte the Bulls big game probably is home Tuesday against Atlanta to probably determine who gets home court for the nine/10 playin opening matchup. The winner of that game plays the loser of the seven/eight for eighth in the Eastern Conference. And most likely opening the playoffs against the Milwaukee Bucks, which the Bulls did in last year’s playoffs. Milwaukee won in five games.
Beverley often has been credited for being the outspoken catalyst for the post All-Star Bulls’ success. Though he’s played a significant part and has been a vital addition to the team in Ball’s absence, it’s also unfair to ask so much of a veteran player with a career average of about eight points on his fourth team in two years. Beverley always makes the most of his playing time and team involvement, but he can’t be asked to be the leading man.
He’s played that role at times with a run of 14 straight points in a recent win over Miami, and then at the close of Sunday’s victory insouciantly teasing James, who is eight inches taller.
It was James’ first game back from a foot injury that kept him out a month. He was back and impressive Wednesday as he made tough step back jumpers and toyed with the Bulls multiple defenders, drawing double teams and moving the ball for repeated open shots or easy cutting layups from teammates.
Then late in the game with both benches about to empty, Reaves scored on Beverley in the lane much as Beverley the former Laker had done on James. Reaves, the Laker fans’ new favorite to replace Alex Caruso, had 19 points. He mimed his too small gesture at Beverley. D’Angelo Russell toward the other corner mimicked. Hey, you talk trash as much as Beverley does and as few points as he scores, you better be able to take it. Beverley can.
“I was waiting for it,” Beverley told reporters in the Bulls locker room as he patiently answered questions. “I knew it was going to come out some time. I’m glad he did it. He plays the right way. He’s been playing that way all season. He lets things come to him. He’s really clever in pick-and-roll.”
Reaves talking to Lakers media said, “He did it last time we played to LeBron. I felt it was the right time, the right situation.”
The Bulls had to take it; the problem is finding some more to give out beyond the talk.
“They jumped on us,” observed Donovan. “That was encouraging to me, that we got jumped on — we knew the game was going to be like that; they were going to come play like that — but we responded and took the lead after that. But we didn’t close the half very well. And then in the third quarter, LeBron made some tough shots and our inability to score with them hurt us.”
That was a brief enough summary of the game, but there were some other issues that are becoming worrisome.
One is Caruso, who Donovan subbed out early in the second half after Caruso started the game. Donovan said he didn’t like the way Caruso with an ongoing foot issue was moving, and Caruso already had shot at least two air balls. Starting with Beverley seemingly puts the Bulls at a scoring disadvantage. It also may be time with the play-in almost clinched to rest Caruso given that foot problem.
“He doesn’t complain; he doesn’t say anything,” Donovan said about Caruso. “I can just tell the way he’s moving. It was not asking him to come out. I just pulled him out here and there. It was a hard matchup with LeBron. I tried to sub pretty early in the third quarter to get Patrick (Williams) out there with just some more size. Alex will give everything he has got. I could just tell he wasn’t—and this was my opinion—he was not feeling great and was trying to work through it. But he’s going to have to deal with this. I said this will be an ongoing challenge for him the rest of the year. He tries to fight through it the best that he can. I didn’t like the way Alex looked personally. Javonte (Green) got himself back ready to play. I was just looking for some kind of energy spark, something defensively, rebounding. We weren’t shooting the ball great. Maybe he gets a couple of tips and offensive rebounds. I was just trying to get something going off the bench.”
Those reserves, spurred on by White, mostly have been good, but Williams in 24 minutes had one rebound. The last month, he’s averaging 2.6 rebounds and hasn’t had a game with more than five. It’s become obvious he’s not a power forward but a wing player, further exacerbating the Bulls’ interior size issues. Andre Drummond was out for personal reasons, though he usually doesn’t play a lot, anyway.
Donovan sought to spread the blame as he does with the credit.
“It’s really our team,” Donovan said about a message he delivered at halftime. “We had far too many times in the first half the way the game is played now when jump shots go up, generally those shots are not going to be rebounded in the lane. They either bounce outside the lane around the block or they come up (at) the elbows (the spots along the lane). We had too many guys running underneath the free throw line. And the only rebound we (then) were going to come down with was one that went through the net. There were times Patrick was going to the basket and several times the ball went over his head, and those could have been his rebounds. It wasn’t just Patrick; it was everybody. I thought some of the long rebounds hurt us. You’ve got to secure both boxes and both elbows (those places along the lane). And when we don’t do that sometimes with our size we get hurt. We’ve been a pretty good defensive and transition rebounding team. We’ve got to be better on those controllable things.”
That did seem somewhat concerning this late into the season Donovan still is instructing about where to be for rebounds.
Though against that Lakers’ front line with James and a springy Davis, it was doubtful the Bulls could have changed much.
With Vučević scoring 15 of their 20 points, the Bulls got back within 31-20 after one quarter. And like in Los Angeles, the Bulls bench with DeRozan — 11 second-quarter points and two steals for fast breaks — outplayed the Lakers reserves. The Lakers starters returned to reset the scoreboard and lead 59-51 at half.
The Lakers then regained their big lead with a second DeRozan turnover that led to a fast break score — giveth and take away and all that — and the Lakers leading by 18 as both teams went to the reserves. The Bulls again got their deficit back in single digits by the end of the third quarter.
“I really liked the way that second unit played,” said Donovan. “We took their first punch, got down by 12, 15 and that group came flying back. Part of the reason we got back in the game was the second unit. They were really good and they were really good against the Lakers in LA. But when you start moving guys out of lineups (in being asked about starting White) you get concerned about what does that do to the chemistry of the group that was playing really well.”
James back in and a tip for a score, fast break layup on a Bulls three-point miss, jumper, jumper.
“If he’s going to take turnaround jump shots you are going to live with those. Tip your hat to him (if he makes them),” said Donovan. “That’s why he’s a great player. Made some great shots, tough shots. We battled, I thought, as well as we could on some of those shots he made.”
And just came up short in the end.
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