So have there ever been any fourth games in preseason that were "must" games? Perhaps for the Bulls Wednesday against the Indiana Pacers in the United Center. That's because the Bulls are coming off a second consecutive lopsided loss, their shooting poor, the defense erratic and their play, at best, uncertain.
And, no, they don't even have their health.
"It's important," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said Tuesday after the final two preseason games this week. "There's no doubt about it. We're going to try some different combinations out there and see if we can get the right group together. Right now there's a lot to clean up. I'll say this, I thought our guys competed and got us back into the game in that third quarter (in Charlotte Monday after trailing by 23). But when you dig yourself the type of hole that we did, it's tough to climb out of that. We've got eight days before we open. We're going to have good hard practices, physical practices, and hopefully clean some things up.'
Ordinarily, uneven or indifferent performances in preseason would not be a vital concern. But this is a young Bulls team trying to develop playing chemistry and cohesion, players presumably intent on winning roles, if not games.
But the last two games, especially, has been a reversal, especially among the starters.
Lauri Markkanen remains out injured, which is a significant setback considering he was to be one of the prime starters and offensive players. Without Markkanen, new acquisition Jabari Parker moved to power forward and Justin Holiday off the bench to starting. Both have slumped with Parker shooting 24 percent and Holiday barely over 30 percent. The result has been the starting group being outscored in all three games, leaving the Bulls to constantly attempt to overcome deficits.
Though the opener was encouraging with an exciting 128-116 victory over the Pelicans, the margin mostly was achieved in the fourth quarter with the New Orleans starters out. In fact, the Bulls in this preseason have trailed after 11 of the 12 quarters, behind at the end of the first, second and third quarters in each game. The Bulls are 1-2.
The record doesn't count, obviously, in preseason. But the style and substance of play does. The Bulls were not expected to be a proficient defensive team. But the offense after an encouraging start in the opener has sunk back to more individual, isolation play. Plus, the pace languished Monday. The preseason goal was at least 100 field goal attempts per game, which was achieved in the first two games. But the Bulls attempted just 84 shots against Charlotte.
"We settled for a lot of bad shots [Monday] night," Hoiberg acknowledged. "It wasn't just Jabari. It was everybody. In practice, we're doing a pretty good job of (not doing) that. Then when we get out there against another opponent we are settling for contested mid range shots. We've got to clean that up before we get started on the 18th.'
One obvious flaw with Markkanen out has been the lack of shooting with the starting five. Zach LaVine has been excellent, tied with Bobby Portis with a team best 18.5 points per game and both shooting about 53 percent. But beyond LaVine, there has been almost no three-point threat among the other starters and poor shooting as well. So defenses have clogged the lane, leaving the Bulls to settle for late clock mid range shots, generally considered the least efficient in basketball.
The problem is without Markkanen and also injured Denzel Valentine, the Bulls lack many options for shooting support for LaVine. They were counting on Parker, but he's shooting below 20 percent on jumpers and in one stretch over two games missed 17 straight attempts.
"He (Parker) does a nice job facilitating when he has the ball in his hands," said Hoiberg. "We're going to look at a couple of sets with him bringing the ball down the floor, hopefully with an open court, and see if he can get into the seam and make a play in the paint. I thought he made some really good decisions, especially early in that third quarter. It just goes back to our mentality coming out of the gate; the effort wasn't where it needed to be. The intensity wasn't where it was needed and our edge wasn't there."
That's a damning indictment for young players trying to succeed in the NBA.
It doesn't seem so much the players are being passive as much as uncertain given the training camp experimentation with positions, roles and rotations. Though the reserves have consistently shown greater effort, the contrast was apparent in Charlotte when the second unit rallied the Bulls back. It wasn't so much they were playing against reserves and free agents just trying to make the NBA, but the effort seemed more intense and physical.
It's something the Bulls want to see from the starters, who have seemed more languid than lively.
Hoiberg hasn't given any indications he intends to change the lineup, though Robin Lopez' minutes have decreased. Kris Dunn has shot well, but mostly on layups and generally taking just six or seven attempts per game. Parker is one of seven on threes in the three games. Holiday is four of 19. That makes them a combined 19 percent, even lower than the overall team 24 percent.
It's a disastrous combination in an era reliant on perimeter shooting and accelerated play.
Antonio Blakeney off the bench has been one of the better scorers. But he is shooting just 20 percent on threes. Cameron Payne is another shooting below 25 percent overall. Rookie Wendell Carter Jr. has been more of a facilitator. Plus, opponents are shooting 47 percent to about 41 percent for the Bulls, thus limiting fast break opportunities.
We all, however, know what it means. Yes, it's still early.
"Roles changed at that time when Lauri, it was determined he was going to be out for an extended period," noted Hoiberg. "But you can't use that as an excuse for going out and taking bad shots and splintering when you hit the adversity. Don't care who's on the floor; you've got to find a way to battle through those tough stretches and it's an area we need to get better at."
The Bulls won't necessarily be looking at the result Wednesday. They'll need to see productivity with shooting, with pace, with defense and, especially, with effort. As Yogi (not Ferrell) once noted, it can get late early out there.