PORTLAND, Ore. — Hard as it is to believe a player scoring 50 points wasn’t necessary in a win but C.J. McCollum’s masterpiece could likely qualify as close enough.
But when said player produces such a feat in less than 30 minutes and getting half of those points in 12 minutes, it’s easy to believe the Bulls’ 124-108 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers would’ve occurred if McCollum had a below-average night.
Because the Bulls are showing the mental attrition of a team that has played three seasons in four months, battling through extreme highs and on the back end of that high is often a steep depression.
Whether it comes in the form of Nikola Mirotic being back at the team hotel because he and the Bulls deemed it best to keep him away, or Lauri Markkanen’s absence means putting the likes of Paul Zipser on the floor against overmatched competition, or the absence of Kris Dunn taking away this team’s flash of swagger, they’ve hit the dog days.
It’s five straight losses and likely, more to come as the West Coast swing takes them to California for a few days as they return to a place many felt they’d be, in the basement of the Eastern Conference, vying for a spot in the precious lottery.
How a team gets there, though, makes everything go round. Especially when the Bulls have to evaluate how things will go this offseason when adding a lottery pick to the core they believe isn’t as far away as they thought.
When McCollum torches the Bulls for an easy 28 points in the first quarter, after the Blazers took a 20-2 lead, it illustrates Dunn’s absence.
“You have to guard. That’s the story of these slow starts,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Teams get comfortable and get into a rhythm. Our game plan was to blitz (McCollum).”
Dunn’s playmaking was a factor in the Bulls shooting just 31 percent in the first and barely raised it to 41 percent. Defensively, they haven’t brought the requisite energy in the last couple weeks.
“Kris is a dynamic player,” Denzel Valentine said. “he’s setting the tone on defense and he’s pushing it right back on offense. He’s definitely missed, but there’s no excuse for our effort.”
Hoiberg isn’t letting up on the expectations, not allowing his team succumb to the reality around them, definitively shooting an “absolutely not” when asked if the Bulls are feeling sorry for themselves.
And McCollum didn’t dish out much sympathy, although he could’ve gone for 60 or more had he played more than 29 minutes. Damian Lillard showed mercy of sorts, taking only nine shots in 29 minutes, preferring to cede space to McCollum when he got hot.
“We’re not being aggressive defensively,” Valentine said. “Teams are doing whatever they want to us. I think it has to start with our defense and then it’ll carry over to offense.”
The offense was toothless, as Valentine scored 15 off the bench and Cristiano Felicio returned to the land of the living with 12 points, but they all seemed like garbage baskets from the middle of the first.
Clearly something was lost in translation or the Bulls merely don’t have the personnel to win games. But one expected them to compete a little better. Even if the gameplan was sound, McCollum was doing the blitzing and the game was essentially over in the first two minutes.
“It’s terrible. We can’t do anything about it,” Zach LaVine said. “He’s already averaging 22-23 a game and has 28 in the first quarter. Nothing you can but try to make it tougher. Guys get going in the league and it’s over.”
The Bulls had no one to challenge the defense and no one with an aggressive mindset to attack McCollum. By the time defensive-minded David Nwaba entered the game late in the first quarter, McCollum was already in full lather, on the way to hitting 11 of his 14 shots early.
“We’re not aggressive,” LaVine said. “Teams are getting whatever they want to in the first quarter. They see it’s soft out there and then we’re coming down on offense and we’re stagnant. We get back into the game after we’re punched. We throw a couple back but it’s too late. We gotta find something to fix that.”
LaVine was caught on screens guarding McCollum, a product of defense he’ll have to improve. He showed signs offensively after a slow start, scoring 23 in 22 minutes on 13 shots.
But it was fruitless as the Bulls were playing catchup all night and the Blazers ran out and hid to an easy win.