Bulls suffer season-ending play-in loss to Miami

The Bulls knew this was going to be no day at the beach, a second consecutive elimination road game to extend their season against a desperate Miami Heat team coming off a play-in game loss, their star Jimmy Butler entering criticized for a poor performance, both teams seeking cathartic epiphanies after viscerally disappointing regular seasons.

The Bulls now have plenty of time to reflect about it at the beach. Because their frustrating 2022-23 season ended Friday night in a 102-91 loss to the Heat.

A loss that seems to become more of a blur because it did appear as if the Bulls finally had the right stuff. There was a huge silencer, seemingly tectonic plate altering Coby White three at 6:19 with the usually cool locals hot and rocking after a Jimmy Butler steal and layup. It finally seemed in this lion’s den the Bulls were brandishing the saber. The Bulls were back ahead 85-80. Miami into a timeout. Then there was yet another subversive White three with 3:47 left in the game after Miami had inched back into a tie after leading by 14 points early in the game and 10 just after halftime.

Little did anyone among the Bulls realize, even if the echoes resonated with this offensively challenged team before, that there would not be another Bulls field goal the rest of the game. White rolled an attempted layup around the rim and out, DeMar DeRozan missed a short pull-up with Butler bumping him off the way other Heat defenders couldn’t. Alex Caruso, who was the Bulls best offense to start the game with four three-pointers, missed. And then Zach LaVine, in a gruesome shooting game after one of his best, rolled a layup too hard and off after DeRozan made one of two free throws. And by then the damage was done, the holy grail of the playoffs finally out of reach when one-time Bulls Max Strus with 31 points made his seventh three-pointer of the game with 1:14 left for a 96-91 Miami lead.

DeMar DeRozan led the Bulls with 26 points in the loss to the Heat.

It took one more LaVine bank shot attempt that failed and Caruso fouling Strus on a three to leave the Bulls shuffling around on the court somewhat confused, bewildered and dejected. They didn’t truly expect to be competing for a title. But they had been playing well enough the last two months to be in reach of a bit of satisfaction and respectability for the season. It wasn’t to be.

“Missed opportunity, yeah,” DeRozan acknowledged in a somber autopsy. “(Crappy) feeling now, sucks. Shouldn’t have ended like that. Gave ourselves an opportunity to win a game; were up (six with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter and a point with 2:54). Now we are sitting in our reality with nothing to do.

“Both teams were battling; we both were fighting for our lives and the score was indicative of that,” said DeRozan. “It was just a matter of who could sustain something positive for the longer period of time. We lost it when we had it; the last couple of minutes we just couldn’t get it back. It comes to who can make the big shots, who can make the big plays, who gets the stops. We just couldn’t do that the last couple of minutes of the game. Just trying to understand emotionally how much we put into it the second half of the season trying to give ourselves an opportunity. Dropping the ball this way definitely sucks; this one is going to sting. Without a doubt (we should have been better). Too much talent. It’s on us to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and reevaluate ourselves and understand what we can do better. Sometimes it doesn’t come down to just talent.”

So now the Bulls will have a very long time to consider what was and could have been. And after a season with more expectations and a 40-42 record and now elimination in the play-in tournament, there figures to be changes with the roster. Nikola Vučević is an unrestricted free agent and White is restricted along with Ayo Dosunmu. Some have player options, like Andre Drummond, who was the biggest star in his minutes with six points and eight rebounds including three offensive, bouncing Heat players around like beach balls. And starter Patrick Beverley was a late addition in a buyout situation and a free agent.

If it’s a scintilla of positive news, the Bulls missing the playoffs move back into the lottery and from the Vučević trade with Orlando have their draft pick if it bounces into the top four in the lottery drawing next month. Their chances for the top pick at about 1.7 percent, which was the same when they got the No. 1 pick in 2008 and Derrick Rose. The percentages are marginally higher for selections through four, but exceptionally long odds.

No one, of course, was thinking much about that coming off the exciting victory in Toronto with LaVine’s extraordinary clutch scoring performance. But a dejected LaVine didn’t have much left with another 40-some minutes plus and shot six for 21 for 15 points, missing all six of his threes. White and Caruso with four threes each made all for the Bulls as shooting bit them again with 29% three-point shooting. Miami, other than Strus, was three of 18.

“He shot the hell out of the ball,” noticed DeRozan of Strus. “We did a great job on pretty much everyone else. Jimmy (31 points on 11 of 24) is going to be Jimmy regardless. You wouldn’t expect Strus to come out and have 30-plus. Take that away or even do just a little bit better job on him and make him miss some and we win the game.”

Andre Drummond chipped in six points and eight rebounds in just 10 minutes of action against Miami.

The boards also were an issue again other than Drummond as Miami had a 51-37 edge and 10 offensive rebounds. Bam Adebayo was awful offensively, but he had 17 rebounds.  And the Bulls in their specialty scored just six points off turnovers after averaging about 20 in the three-game regular season sweep of Miami.

DeRozan led the Bulls with 26 points and nine assists. Caruso had a season-high 16 points, though statistics don’t officially count in the play-in tournament. White had 14 points and Nikola Vučević had 12 points and nine rebounds, but he had just nine shots as the Bulls were negligent in getting him the ball and more shots against multiple smaller defenders with the Heat’s switching scheme on defense.

LaVine seemed especially lugubrious given the outcome and the chance to play in those big and bigger games again.

“You don’t want to go home after these two games, how intense they were, how much everybody’s been caring,” said LaVine. “The realization you are not going to keep playing sucks. It has to hurt; if it doesn’t you’re not in the right business. I care for everybody here and appreciate how much everybody has put into it. We really did try to sneak in after having a season where we were not playing up to our potential. We started to get a little momentum (winning 12 of their last 18 including in Toronto and nine of the last 11 on the road before Miami), but not enough. We had a good opportunity with three minutes left, five minutes left. We just didn’t make enough plays at the end. It stinks

“I just didn’t shoot the ball well,” LaVine agreed. “A lot of good shots I felt normally go in (didn’t). It sucks knowing we were so close. If I make a couple of those it could be the tipping point, so it hurts a lot. For me, I’ll try to put it on myself. Nobody judges myself harder than me. Obviously, I was working my way back in the beginning of the season and obviously tried to play catchup. Once I got my stride I felt really good and the team felt really good after All-Star break and we played really well. Just wish we had that same stride the beginning of the year

“It was such a close, grind it out game,” LaVine pointed out. “Every stop mattered. We made some big shots and at times we didn’t. That hurts when you have the opportunity and don’t grab it because we had the opportunities.”

It’s the NBA, so these kinds of things happen. Most games are decided by a few possessions, shots that tumble in or roll out, decisions that reward or you rue. Not that it’s all serendipity, but when it’s that close with the end of the season at hand, there’s months to reconsider every moment for the loser and relief and only looking ahead — for the Heat to Milwaukee this time — for the winner.

“It came down to a make or miss league,” said Caruso. “We’re up three and Coby has a great drive and a little floater off the glass and it touches every part of the rim and falls out and they go down to a one-point game when we could have gone up five. Zach probably had one of the worst shooting nights of his career and a lot of them looked good. Just an unfortunate night for us to have a bad night.

“Then they just made more shots than us, got a couple of free throws, some timely calls,” said Caruso. “The consensus feeling with this team was a little underwhelming because we feel we were better record wise than how we finished. We gave away some opportunities this year, games you are supposed to win against inferior teams. Three or four of those we win we might not be in the play-in and not talking about this. I thought we played better the majority of the game tonight. They got the last stretch, and that’s what happens with the game of basketball. We’re a competitive group. We talked toward the end of the year we don’t want to be home early in the summer watching basketball; we had our opportunity. Just came up short.”

Even if Caruso didn’t think it would be with two minutes left and trailing 91-90 with the ball after Butler having missed a free throw and Caruso getting a good look for a three as Beverley returned.

“Pat Bev subbed back in (for White) and we all made eye contact and were pretty confident we were going to win the game,” said Caruso. “Just make plays and come back and win. Sometimes the ball just doesn’t go in.”

There obviously were a dozen or more shots or plays or near misses or almost that could have changed the outcome. But that Beverley substitution is one Bulls coach Billy Donovan probably will wonder about just as his players will recount their own unfulfilled tableaus.

White in the fourth quarter had made two of the most stone cold threes of his career with the arena exploding in noise. But Donovan said he was seeking the defensive repudiation that Beverley could provide.

“I just felt from a defensive standpoint and us needing to get some stops,” Donovan explained. “We tried to put Coby in some actions and went with Coby there for a little bit. He made that three and we kept him in there and then tried to change it up and do something a little different; maybe Pat Bev could get a steal, get a rebound. Just somehow get what he does. I (also) trust Pat Bev when he’s behind the line. Maybe it’s not his forte, but I do trust him to shoot the ball.”

It’s the unsympathetic line between genius and quagmire that every coach faces with every move. Like the great Johnny Kerr used to say when coaching the expansion Bulls, “There’s five guys running around out there with my paycheck.”

Make a steal and he’s a genius; miss a shot and the coach faces the churlish and the caustic.

Coby White added 14 points off the bench against the Heat.

So it was back in the third quarter when Donovan, who made some clever rotation alterations that helped change the outcome of the win in Toronto, went longer with backup center Drummond to Miami’s dismay. Miami unlike Toronto is a smaller team, usually weaker on the boards. But they are active and seek out threes. Donovan, for his part, generally prefers the smaller lineup rotations as evidenced by starting four guards since the acquisition of Beverley and the Bulls becoming one of the top five defenses in the league since then.

Donovan went first to Derrick Jones Jr. as a center substitute. But when Miami immediately went at him with Kevin Love, Donovan switched to Drummond as something of a first responder to the potential disaster. And it began to appear to be an turning point and antidote to Miami’s aggression.

With Miami still ahead late in the third quarter, Drummond offensive rebounded over them like playing in the schoolyard against first graders. Drummond scored on a putback and got an offensive rebound for a DeRozan score. That gave the Bulls a 68-67 lead after three quarters. Their redoubts began to seem like they would hold.

Then with the now nimble Drummond still on patrol to start the fourth quarter, the Bulls took their biggest lead at 81-75 with Drummond contributing a block on a Tyler Herro jumper, a cutting dunk on a Beverley pass and another tip in. Donovan usually goes back to Vučević four or five minutes into the fourth quarter, and he decided it was time with the Bulls leading 80-75 with 8:27 left in the game.

"I felt like Andre was getting it off the glass and scored some points, so I give him credit because I started off going small with Derrick against Love,” said Donovan. “Drum cleaned up some stuff and gave us really good minutes off the bench.
Then brought him back in at the end of the third. I just felt (with Vučević) we needed some scoring out there. Tonight we scored 90-something points. We needed to score more and I thought Vooch being able to spread the floor, space the floor, get some downhill drives and Drum usually plays around the basket. Maybe he could have gotten some offensive rebounds. I thought we really needed some catch and shoot situations to close the game out and we did a fairly decent job.”

Except the going in part.

Though it wasn’t like the Bulls weren’t making plays.

LaVine had an excellent defensive possession one-on-one against Butler with Miami coming out of that timeout trailing 85-80 with a play for Butler. LaVine held his ground and forced Butler into an air ball. LaVine had five turnovers in the game. But after one with 4:12 left and the Bulls ahead 87-85, LaVine stole the ball right back from Caleb Martin. With 3:45 left, Caruso stripped Butler on a drive for a turnover with the Bulls leading 90-87. Again, it was another of those chances for separation that the Bulls couldn’t complete. White missed that layup, Herro scored and DeRozan missed and Butler put the Heat ahead for good at 91-90 with 2:17 left. Caruso then missed the three. Adebayo was fouled and scored, DeRozan split those free throws. And there went Max again.

Oh, the humanity!

“We played well for the most part,” said Caruso. “Didn’t shoot the ball particularly well. Max played one of the better games of his career; it stings. That’s the NBA and professional sports. You have to take care of business when you have the chance and if you don’t you put yourself behind the eight ball.”

It’s where the Bulls once again seemed from the start with Strus scoring the first 12 Miami points. It was 12-8 Miami with Caruso scoring all eight for the Bulls. 

TNT halftime crew discuss: The Strus/Caruso shootout.

“There were a couple of times in the first half we didn’t rotate correctly (on Strus),” said Donovan. “I thought we got that solved that at halftime.”

Strus had 23 points in the first half, but Miami led just 49-44. Strus was then scoreless and zero for four in the third quarter.

I know; everyone is talking about Max Strus way too much.

It was one of those typical Bulls starts that by the end of the game no one asked about given the usual responses of being too casual and feeling out the opponent. Miami led 29-15 late in the first quarter before DeRozan and Vučević had a 6-0 close to get the Bulls within 29-21.

But despite the deficit, it still seemed like it should be a Bulls run. Kyle Lowry after a big game against Atlanta was limping and ineffective with knee problems. Butler had skipped the Heat’s Thursday practice for personal reasons. Miami last season was the No. 1 seed. This time they were fighting for No. 8. Was it even worth it anymore? There was much consensus whispered this was a “one, two, three Cancún” pregame chant. Large sections of the arena remained empty. Better to take in another sunset; instead of the Heat just simply dropping out of sight.

Not so for the Bulls who a playoff berth the way this fractious regular season has gone would be a big step toward next season. Even with having to face the Bucks starting Sunday.

It’s been raining relentlessly in South Florida (big surprise), and for both teams to start the second quarter that feeling of running in mud took over as Miami went blank for nine straight possessions and the Bulls missed on five of seven. But the Bulls were closing in. The officials in New York took a three away from Strus on an arbitrary review, Caruso made another three and LaVine slashed in for a three-point play to close the half with the Bulls trailing 49-44. But incongruously looking more poised.

Zach LaVine finished with 15 points on 6-for-21 shooting from the field.

Silencing the nettlesome Strus was becoming a Rorschach test for the Bulls. Could they continue to function under these pressures. Would they visualize a victory?

Vučević began to get the ball on those mismatches inside; LaVine scored twice on drives, and there was proof of life. 

With a 16-4 third quatter run, the Bulls took their first lead since early in he first quarter after two consecutive Caruso threes at 60-58 with 5:53 left in the third quarter. The lead toggled back and forth until Drummond beasted the Heat on the boards and the Bulls led 68-67 going into the fourth quarter.

Calling Big Mo. Would there be an answer?

Even bringing back Adebayo didn’t have much impact against Drummond to start the fourth quarter.

Butler had seemed somewhat indifferent much of the game, rarely driving the ball, standing inside waiting for passes. Through three quarters he was seven of 17 and often eschewing the defensive assignments on DeRozan.

But Butler began to predictably exert himself when the Bulls took that six-point lead in the fourth, a couple of drives, a steal on a LaVine pass and layup that woke up the Mojito sippers, bashing his way to the free throw line, as usual, and making the pass that got Strus the killer three. 

And down went the Bulls!

“Disappointing,” sighed LaVine. “We have a lot of high-level players on this team. Somehow, some way you have to make it work. Top to bottom we have to do a better job thinking about the next person and finding out a way to win no matter what. We let too many slide the beginning of the year and then tried to pick it up later in the season in desperation mode. You come out another way it’s a whole new season.”

Which is all that’s left for the Bulls beginning next October. Though who will that include is one mystery for now.

“They are disappointed,” said Donovan. “When you go through this and make that investment from September to the middle of April, that’s a lot of time. I think they all are disappointed. I think we were getting better as a group since the All-Star break. It would have been nice to see if we could have found a way to win tonight and gone to the playoffs; it didn’t happen.”

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