Bulls unable to keep pace with Lakers in LA

It wasn’t quite Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid against the Bolivian army Thursday night in Los Angeles, but the Bulls similarly were badly outgunned in this one, trailing by double digits just about the entire second half and yielding their most points of the season in a 141-132 loss to the Lakers.

It was the stuff of the wild west NBA style with four Lakers scoring at least 20 points and three Bulls led by DeMar DeRozan with 31 points and 10 assists. The Bulls shot a capable 53.4% overall, but the Lakers overwhelmed the undersized Bulls with 61% overall marksmanship, 65% on threes making 20, a whopping 35 assists with LeBron James getting a dozen against Bulls double and triple teams that imbalanced the Bulls defense, and in trying to keep up the Bulls fell back with 17 turnovers the Lakers exchanged for 26 points.

It was another day of sun in LA, but in reaching for the heights and chasing the lights the Bulls this time were just another wide eyed kid from the Midwest unable to get noticed. And we know what that means; on to Portland.

The Bulls dropped to 21-25 on the season and 0-2 on the trip with a final game in Portland Sunday.

“We were rushing too much,” explained DeRozan about being lured into a shoot-out against a team that isn’t usually primed for those. “We were trying to do things too fast instead of just feeling it out, understanding how they were guarding us. We put fuel on the fire by turning the ball over, letting them play in transition. And they were hot. We contested a lot of shots in the first half and they still knocked them down, which was kind of deflating. We stuck with it and tried to fight back but fell short. They hit some tough shots uncharacteristic of them from the three-point line. They had that momentum going into halftime (with a 12-0 closing run for 73-57 lead). We put more fuel on the fire instead of putting it out. With that momentum they carried it over to the second half and we were fighting uphill from there.”

It was absolutely Sisyphean as once the Lakers took control of the game with that late second quarter surge this boulder known as LeBron just kept rolling over the Bulls. The Bulls handled the Lakers impressively back in Chicago last month, but had little in response this time.

It’s true that D’Angelo Russell, who looked ready to retire in the Chicago game, made some unlikely threes, 8-of-13 for the game and at one time eight overall when the Bulls as a team had made eight. He led the Lakers with 29 points. Anthony Davis had 22 points, 11 rebounds and six assists and Austin Reaves had 20 points.

“They were 9-for-14 in the first half on contested threes,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan pointed out. “That’s what we believe in (forcing). With their size you have to provide help at the rim and protect the paint; that was a problem. So they had some open shots. They had not been a great three-point shooting team, so give them credit. In the second half because we were bringing help and were fouling and trying to protect the basket with Davis and LeBron, it left (Taurean) Prince open, (Rui) Hachimura, and Russell made some difficult shots.”

Which is that small margin of error Donovan often has talked about the last few years for the Bulls.

They have to play almost a perfect game to succeed because they often play smaller than most opponents. It wasn’t so much the rebounding against the Lakers since the Bulls did well there. But they have to help on defense so much not only against the towering and powerful James, but against a team like the Lakers that brings a trio of 6-foot-8 and taller players off the bench to complement James and Davis.

The Bulls have been particularly impressive the last month or so playing their style with speed and disruption that causes turnovers and points off, which the Lakers this time used against the Bulls. But the Lakers were able with their size advantages to force help on post ups that led to James passes for open threes and an excess of fouls with the Bulls scrambling to cover. The Lakers shot 26-of-29 from the free throw line, and Donovan with the Bulls trailing by 21 points with 4:55 left in the third quarter went with his dual big rotation of Nikola Vučević and Andre Drummond.

They were paired an unusual for the Bulls through the end of the third and three minutes into the fourth, though the Lakers  still led by 20 when Donovan split them up. The Bulls actually then had their best run of the game, cutting their deficit under double digits for the first time in the second half, but with only 46 seconds left in the game.

“I thought we lost our way offensively,” Donovan admitted. “They got a little bigger. That’s why I tried to go bigger in the second half with Andre and Vooch. They were in some passing lanes (forcing turnovers) and they really tried to protect the paint. In the first quarter and (part of the) half we managed it, but they shot incredibly well and the points off turnovers were a major problem. I’m not opposed to playing bigger, but there are some times there can be tough matchups for Vooch. They (Lakers) are hard because LeBron is down (in the paint) and if you bring help too quickly you give things up. The issue for us was Hachimura and those (other) guys were the ones causing some damage. LeBron tries to pick you apart down there. I am fine with Alex down there (guarding James), but our help wasn’t there enough.”

Coby White scored 25 points, but was victimized during the game’s early turning point when James kept getting switches with White onto him and scoring or finding a wide open shooter. That 12-0 Lakers run to end the second quarter gave Los Angeles a 16-point lead the Bulls could barely dent afterwards.

“It’s 61-57 (with three minutes left in the half) and we turned the ball over too much after that (by White, DeRozan and a shot clock violation). They went on that 12-0 run to close out the half, so we certainly dug ourselves a hole,” said Donovan. “I thought the difference in the game was the foul line for them and they shot astronomically well; to shoot like that even if no one is guarding you is terrific.”

So it was a game the Bulls perhaps could have used the three players not in uniform on the bench, Zach LaVine, Lonzo Ball and Torrey Craig.

But Donovan also indicated before the game that LaVine could be out another two weeks, which would keep him idle until the Feb. 8 NBA trade deadline.

“He’s probably going to be another week and be evaluated,” Donovan said. “There is a lot going on there with the foot and ankle, so it will probably be another week to two weeks because of where it’s at right now. It’s a combination of everything. His foot flared up (previous injury resulting in missing 17 games). The ankle (sprain) definitely contributed to it. There’s discomfort all around there and everything has been impacted with the ankle sprain. He wants to play, he loves playing. It’s frustrating to him that he can’t play. I don’t know that (whether LaVine will play before Feb. 8) because he’s going to be reevaluated in a week. It all depends on what he can do.”

The Bulls actually did a lot Thursday…on offense with 20 points for Vučević, 18 for Ayo Dosunmu and 17 for Caruso, the latter who had a pair of threes and his own steal from James and fast break score in the opening minutes. 

Caruso had some marvelous defensive plays even against James, stripping him as he went up for a shot, causing James to commit an offensive foul and even goading him into a technical foul. Caruso had two steals and two blocks and Dosunmu had two steals and a block.

But even as DeRozan, as he often does back home in Los Angeles, gets going early with 11 first-quarter points, the Lakers continued to find easy ways to the basket with their mismatches. It was 32-31 Bulls after one quarter. But then as the Bulls began to tilt the floor to help, the Lakers took over the game making 15-of-18 shots in the second quarter, 6-of-7 threes and that whopping 73 halftime points.

“We never played with the defensive aggressiveness we need to,” agreed Vučević. “They made a lot of shots, but we never made it tough on them; let them get to their spots and get going and we reacted to them. The end of the second we had some turnovers and got carried away trying to play fast and they took advantage. Then too much of the game we were exchanging baskets.”

And without the receipts these were difficult exchanges.

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