Jerian Grant dribbled across the timeline late in the second quarter, got switched on to Julius Randle, dribbled some more, then dribbled in on Randle and took a contested 15-footer with 7 on the shot clock. The shot caromed off the rim and into the hands of Brandon Ingram. Another missed shot, another stagnant set, another moment where Kris Dunn was sorely missed.
Those struggles persisted all evening in Friday's loss to the Lakers. Though the final box score showed the Bulls dishing out 21 assists – just off their season average – and going down to the wire with a red-hot Lakers team, their lack of ball movement, inability to push pace and their ugly showing in the closing minutes showed just how much they’re missing their second-year point guard.
There was hope that Dunn’s absence could be masked on Friday. The Lakers entered the night with the league’s quickest pace and averaged the second most transition points per game, behind only the Lakers. It was the perfect setup for a Bulls team that has increased its pace in each of the first four months of the season; since Dec. 8, when the Bulls were 3-20 and turned their season around, they had ranked 12th in pace and transition points, and 15th in assist ratio.
But no player was more responsible for that turnaround than Dunn. So when he went tumbling to the United Center floor in the closing minute of the Bulls’ loss to the Warriors, it left question marks at the point. Fred Hoiberg said before Friday’s tilt that the Bulls’ increased number of ball handlers has allowed their pace to increase.
“I think it’s one thing you can hopefully use your youth to an advantage, getting out, playing fast and hopefully wearing down teams with pace. We talk a lot about that with our group is get out and try to utilize the athletes that we have,” he said. “We now have multiple handlers, and teams like that are difficult to guard.”
Hoiberg’s not wrong in his declaration, but they didn’t show up Friday. Jerian Grant had eight assists and no turnovers, pushing him back into fourth place in the leagug in assist-to-turnover ratio. Denzel Valentine had four assists led the charge on an efficient second unit that got the Bulls back in the game on two different occasions. But ball handling, transition and ball movement aren't tracked on assists alone; both David Nwaba and Lauri Markkanen looked comfortable bringing the ball up the court and initiating offense.
But sometimes numbers lie. The Bulls handed out 21 assists, but from the 2:19 mark of the second quarter to the 13-second mark of the fourth quarter, more than an entire half’s worth of basketball, the Bulls had six assists. Per NBA.com, the Bulls passed the ball 307 times on Friday, just above their season average. But in a fast-paced game with more possessions more passes should have been expected, and would have helped the Bulls.
Hoiberg applauded the Bulls before the game, saying how his young team has bought in to the system and isn't being bogged down by isolation basketball that hindered them a year ago with Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade.
But in that ugly span the Bulls had more unassisted field goals (seven) than assisted (six). True, they scored 10 points off free throws in that span, but the Bulls only had 40 “potential assists,” per NBA.com. They entered the night fourth in the NBA in that category, with more than 47 per game. They'll need to figure out better ways to move the ball - Zach LaVine shooting 17 times in 25 minutes likely isn't the answer - because Dunn doesn't appear close to a return.
Though he began showing up at the Bulls’ practice facility the last two days, Dunn is still experiencing headaches, dizziness and tiredness. The symptoms he began suffering after his tumble late against the Warriors on Jan. 20 “really haven’t changed much,” according to Hoiberg. The Bulls plan on taking Dunn’s recovery slowly regardless, but at this stage he hasn’t even been cleared through the league’s concussion protocol. He’ll have to pass both cognitive and physical tests before he can do anything basketball-related.
That's also hurting the Bulls in crunch time. Per NBA.com, the Bulls went 1-for-8 with two turnovers in the "clutch," defined as a game within five points with 5 minutes or fewer remaining. The shots weren't falling like they were early in the fourth quarter when they made the comeback. And when hero ball stopped working there was little to no ball movement to right the ship. Meanwhile the Lakers went 4-for-8, had two assists and didn't turn the ball over in the clutch.
Without Dunn the Bulls are lacking in multiple areas. It shows both the talent level of Dunn, who if healthy will play in the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend, and also the Bulls' shortcomings in the backcourt. And no, Cameron Payne isn't coming to rescue the Bulls. For now they'll continue to push in transition - they had just 11 fast-break points against Los Angeles - and attempt to beat teams from deep - the Bulls made 17 3-pointers. But it's not necessarily sustainable in the long-term. The Bulls need Dunn back sooner than later. They've built the offense (and closing situations) around him, and it's simply not working without him there.