courtesy of Sam Smith, Bulls.com
There was no bucking the trend Monday for the Bulls, and not only with their 17th loss in their last 20 games against the Milwaukee Bucks, this time 118-109.
Because just as concerning was the continued confused shooting of both Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, the Bulls two primarily premier offensive player who are both near career lows in shooting. And it continued again in Milwaukee with LaVine’s 20 points coming on five of 19 attempts and DeRozan equally uncharacteristic with three of 14 for 11 points.
Nikola Vučević led the Bulls with 26 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. But it was not nearly enough to overcome another debilitating Bulls start and a nine-point deficit three minutes into the game. And even as the Bulls, as they will always do, didn’t look down nor back and even took a lead early in the third quarter, there wasn’t enough horsepower and horses to overcome Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 35 points and season highs of 19 points and 10 rebounds from Bobby Portis. Even with a season’s optimal output of 13 points and three blocks from the Bulls’ Patrick Williams.
“Just not making shots,” sighed LaVine, long one of the best three-point shooters in the league and a regular bumping up against the rare 50/40/90 shooting trifecta who is at a career-low on threes this season. “Not like we’re not getting good ones. Just got to stick with it, trust your work, keep playing hard and try to do the right things and trust your work.
“It’s frustrating,” LaVine agreed, “because you expect yourself to do better. But all you can do is keep plugging along, especially games like this where it’s ugly. Sometimes you can win ugly, but it just didn’t go our way; we tried hard and tried to battle. They’ll start dropping. We are making the right passes; we’ve just got to start knocking them down. Like my dad used to say, a 99% move and a one percent finish. It’s frustrating. But regardless we have to figure out how to make it work. It’s not time to point the finger of blame. Today Vooch, like the last couple of games, he looked good and we were trying to go to him and ride him and then pick our opportunities. He did a great job. We have to do a better job making shots when a guy has it going like that.”
And LaVine did play the other parts of the game with a team most eight free throws, eight rebounds, five assists, a steal and a block with active defense. And DeRozan added a team most seven assists including a who-knew-he-could-do-that 360 degree spin for a pass to Coby White for a corner three in the midst of the Bulls daring third quarter spurt that pushed them into the lead after trailing 35-18 to end the first quarter.
But with the Bulls now 4-7 and staring at four home games starting Wednesday against the Orlando Magic, it would be a good time to find the range.
And not be left to roam one
“I thought Zach did a really good job of getting downhill,” insisted Bulls coach Billy Donovan. “He had (misses) around the basket and that’s just a little bit uncharacteristic (because) he’s such an elite finisher. I thought DeMar got to his spots like he normally has. I don’t think they’re necessarily getting different kinds of shots. They’re elite scorers and you always feel good when those guys shoot the ball. That said with the shooting we got up by two in the game. The things I felt hurt us were the offensive rebounds, the timely ones that got them back in the game and some of the transition when we were not matched up. They didn’t shoot the ball well from three, either, but I thought a big part of the game was the stuff we could control. We were moving the ball, got downhill and were spraying it out and got good looks. But it was just one of those nights we didn’t shoot the ball particular well.”
There have been alarmingly a lot of those nights in this small sample of a season.
There are slumps every good shooter endures. But there also seems to be a bit of uncertainty with the way the team is playing. Donovan has said following just about every game that he’s liked the shots the players are taking resulting from the tweaks in the offense he’s tried to introduce with more ball movement and penetration into the lane. But there seems still to be a level of uncertainty about when and whether to go, which is more natural for LaVine and DeRozan, and when to move the ball. The complication is when a team is trying to implement a movement game like that it also tends to require more motion in the offense. The Bulls often tend not to play like that.
So it’s also not unusual to expect the stops and starts when trying something different.
Though the season doesn’t wait.
It’s still early — we all can say and agree on that — but the historic numbers don’t reflect well for now with the Bulls’ differential at minus-3.9 and road wins/home losses at minus-2. Despite all the analytic combinations a guru can fathom, those two tend to predict a team’s fate the most accurate in NBA history.
Though the Bulls continued to do well what they do.
Causing turnovers and committing the fewest are indicators of success, and the Bulls maintained their top two rating in both categories Monday getting 22 points off turnovers and committing just eight turnovers. The Bulls had nine steals and seven blocks and a dominating 18 offensive rebounds, seven for Torrey Craig among his 12 rebounds to match Vučević’s game-high. The Bulls also got almost a dozen more shots than the Bucks, but the Bulls 38% shooting turned fatal.
It’s unfortunate because Williams had his best game of the season with some crushing highlight defensive plays against Antetokounmpo. Coby White with 16 points mostly got the better of Lillard, who was just returning from injury and looked uncertain as the point guard with five turnovers. The Bucks at 6-4 are becoming even more attached to Antetokounmpo’s greatness than ever, which is hardly a formula for their ultimate success.
The Bucks did have 13 offensive rebounds and had the overall edge in rebounding with their front court size advantage, which often was diminished by Craig’s activity. Though the Bulls did miss Alex Caruso, who remained out with a toe injury. Donovan said Caruso is expected to play later this week.
After the Bulls botched the end of the first quarter to allow a desperate Giannis three to fall behind by 17 points, Vučević, Williams and Jevon Carter came out in the second quarter making threes to flip the game at least in the direction of the Bulls. With seven straight points to open the third quarter, their deficit was forgotten as the Bulls inched ahead on Craig and Andre Drummond putbacks, the latter on an inspiring Bulls possession with four offensive rebounds.
But in this usual cliche game of runs, the Bucks got a big last one, Pat Connaughton with a three, Giannis with a runout slam dunk and Andre Jackson Jr. with a couple of scores. With the Bulls in the penalty two minutes into the fourth quarter, it just became inevitable.
“We kept hanging in there, got down double digits and our guys fought back several times,” noted Donovan. “Then we got the lead and there were things we needed to control, that we needed to be better at. Some of it can be traced to the shooting.”
And then there was the other stuff.