Utah Jazz

Bulls fell familiarly to the Utah Jazz, but must build on silver linings

Bulls fell familiarly to the Utah Jazz, but must build on silver linings

Win or lose, most all of Jim Boylen's postgame press conferences start the same way: With an opening statement. What went well?

"They [the Utah Jazz] average 108 [points per game], they score[d] 102. We win the boards, we turn them over 17 times," Boylen began, unprompted. 

But the sentence that follows is always the most telling.

"We just couldn't get enough shots to get to 103, just couldn't get there," Boylen continued. "Thought we had some looks at the end that I think we can make, but we battled."

This Bulls team could fill a book with silver linings, and that's not intended to be facetious. A hard-fought 102-98 loss to the scorching-hot Jazz — a loss in which the Bulls battled back from down 10 in the fourth quarter to tie the game with just under two minutes to play — leaves a better taste than the undressing the Bucks handed them on Monday. Right?

"Those are the ones that even more frustrating," Kris Dunn said of close losses, like the one to the Jazz. "Instead of a game like Milwaukee, yeah, we were upset, but they just handed it to us. You know, they just came out there and blew us out the water. But a game like this, you're more frustrated because you play so well and then there's droughts throughout the game, you let things slip and they get out with the victory."

Yeah, the taste is still sour. Perhaps even more so. This was a game the Bulls led 59-48 early in the third quarter, then, ten game minutes later, trailed 71-63. Dry spells of that variety have become something of a pattern, as has an inability to close out quality foes. With the loss, the Bulls are now 1-13 against opponents with a record at or above .500.

Around the team, the diagnoses for such developments, and how to address them, vary. Ultimately, it's a smorgasborg of areas to improve.

"Defensive stops, or some execution plays. Making some shots," Zach LaVine said. "But I always look at the defensive side to where if we get an extra stop then we won't be in a position where we're trailing and we'll be in the lead."

"Just try to have more clean plays, you know, offensively," Dunn said. "I think certain times we get a little stagnant and we get away from what the system does when we do run our stuff fast with pace and execute well."

Wendell Carter Jr. cited the necessity of experience and adaptability, calling "about 95 percent" of crunchtime execution mental.

"We all know we can make shots, we all know that we can drive the ball, we all know we can get to the basket, but it's about making the right play at the right time," Carter said of the Bulls' late-game struggles. "But I don't think anything else beats that experience."

This variance isn't indicative of a fractured locker room, but of a team with many leaks to patch. Their defense, though currently rated top-five in the NBA, has been exploited at times by smart teams. The offense is drought-prone. Shooting spurts come and go, as does their reliability late in games. Most every rationalization for the Bulls' inability to get over the hump has its merits.

But the silver linings do, too, as frustrating as they are to some. Thursday night, even without a win to show for it, the Bulls did re-find themselves in a way they couldn't against the Bucks. And for all the smudges on this performance, the game was in the balance until the last moment.

"We created turnovers, we got in transition, we got a couple easy ones," Dunn said. "We did get our identity back, we were aggressive coming out in the first quarter. We were down 10, we got back into the game. It shows that we had some fight tonight."

"We compete with some of the best teams in the league night-in-night-out," LaVine said. "It might not show in our record, but we're right there pretty much every night."

To Dunn's point: The Bulls forced 17 Jazz turnovers Thursday night, converting them into 21 points, and bottled up Donovan Mitchell about as much as you could hope to in high-leverage spots.

And to LaVine's: The team ranks second in the league in NBA.com-defined 'clutch' games played, and their season-long average point differential of -1.1 is seventh in the Eastern Conference, compared to the No. 10 slot they actually inhabit.

Moreover, they're still just 2.5 games out of the eighth seed. With 16 games in the next 28 days (nine of those against current playoff teams), that's a precarious spot to be. But the Bulls know getting defeated now isn't an option.

"At the end of the day, it's about wins and losses, we ain't get the win," Dunn said. "Definitely frustrating, but at the same time it's the NBA, lot of games come quick, gotta get ready for Saturday."

"I don't think we really got a choice," Carter said, good-naturedly, on how the team continues to push on. "I feel like we are competitors, we still have a lot more games left, we still have a chance to get into this playoff run that we're trying to do."

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What to watch for: Bulls host the red-hot Utah Jazz in another key matchup

What to watch for: Bulls host the red-hot Utah Jazz in another key matchup

The Jazz roll into the United Center one of the hottest teams in the league, which would make a Bulls win all that sweeter. The game tips at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:

Jazz’s last five games (4-1)

  • Dec. 30 — W vs. Pistons: 104-81

  • Dec. 28 — W at Clippers: 120-107

  • Dec. 26 — W vs. Trail Blazers: 121-115

  • Dec. 23 — L at Heat: 107-104

  • Dec. 21 — W at Hornets: 114-107

Storyline(s) to watch

After a tumultuous beginning of the season relative to expectations, the Jazz are beginning to find their tune. They enter the this one 21-12, winners of eight of their last nine and two games removed from knocking off the Clippers (at full strength) in LA. For the foreseeable future, they’ll be without Mike Conley (hamstring), who’s enduring a nightmarish season, but their current lengthy, sharp-shooting starting five of Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neal, Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert has been shredding opponents on both ends of the floor. Tonight, the Bulls are getting a good team at the wrong time.

Both teams haven’t played since Dec. 30, so fresh legs should abound. The Bulls’ last loss saw them struggle mightily with the Bucks’ length and defensive versatility; well, here’s another team that brings that in droves. The Jazz are, of course, more mortal than Milwaukee, but a win tonight remains a tall order (which, to look at it another way, would make one that much sweeter).

Player to watch: Rudy Gobert

Though Gobert is averaging his lowest blocks per game total (1.9) since his rookie year, his impact on the Jazz’s defense remains profound. When he’s on the floor, Jazz opponents take only 31.4% of the field goals at the rim and a whopping 35.5% from midrange, per Cleaning the Glass’ calculations. 

Even those impressive on/off numbers have tapered a tad compared to his transcendent mid-20s, but Gobert remains an enormous challenge for a Bulls team that likes to shoot around the basket, struggles to do so efficiently and gets shots blocked at an unnatural rate.

 

And all that's without mentioning, he’s second in the NBA in both rebounds per game (14.2) and field goal percentage (68.2%). He’s the exact type of player the Bulls have so often struggled with this season — his performance tonight will be an interesting barometer of the growth of guys like Wendell Carter Jr. and Daniel Gafford.

Side note: This would be a perfect game to see Wendell Carter Jr. continue to dust off his jumper. The Jazz switch a ton, but prefer to keep Gobert anchored around the basket — if the Bulls decide to try to exploit that, the worst case is a couple missed open jimmies for Carter. The best case (if he makes a few) could be pulling Gobert out from the paint, opening up some driving and cutting lanes. 

Matchup to watch: Pace of play

If the Jazz have their way, this game will be a plodding affair. They rank 17th in the NBA in pace and though they employ a few potentially dangerous transition weapons, they rank 27th in the league in percentage of total points off fastbreak opportunities (the Bulls are sixth in that metric).

Utah has also demonstrated a penchant for turnovers, averaging 16 per game as a team (27th in the NBA). This is the formula for a Bulls win, as it is on all nights: nudge their opponent into errors and run.

Jim Boylen said Kris Dunn will take lead responsibilities handling the dynamic Donovan Mitchell. If Dunn is his typical hounding self and loose balls are flying, the Bulls could find an edge. Speaking of...

Battle to watch: Donovan Mitchell vs. Zach LaVine

This one could be a lot of fun. Mitchell is having the best all-around season of his young career, averaging career-high 25.2 points on improved efficiency, and has moved into a pseudo-point guard role with the Jazz starters in Conley’s absence. Zach LaVine is in the midst of an All-Star push after a month of December in which he averaged 25.1 points a game and shot an impressive 39.3% on 8.4 3-point attempts per game.

Obviously these two aren’t in direct competition for an All-Star spot, but it’s a chance for LaVine to go toe-to-toe with another premiere scoring guard and continue asserting his case. If this one goes down to the wire, a one-on-one showdown between them would be scintillating.

Injury update

Just one: After fully participating in practice on Wednesday, Chandler Hutchison was a full go at shootaround this morning. Boylen called him a gametime decision. 

Based on Boylen’s assessment of Dunn’s role guarding Mitchell, it didn’t sound like Hutchison would unseat Dunn in the starting lineup even if he does play. More to come as the day progresses.

UPDATE:

Chandler Hutchison will NOT play against the Utah Jazz, though he is healthy.

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Jim Boylen, Zach LaVine and Wendell Carter react to deflating loss to Warriors

Jim Boylen, Zach LaVine and Wendell Carter react to deflating loss to Warriors

At 11:52 p.m. Central time Wednesday, the final buzzer blared on the Bulls’ most demoralizing loss of the 2019 season, yet: a 104-90 unraveling at the hands of the Warriors.

Eight minutes later, the clock struck midnight on Thanksgiving Eve and, perhaps with it, the Bulls rebuild.

Losing games is one thing. The Bulls, for their part, are well-acquainted with the concept. Wednesday night’s loss marked the team’s 13th defeat in 19 games to open the 2019 season; the 54th of the 77th game (and counting) of the Jim Boylen era; the 128th in 2 1/4 seasons since shipping Jimmy Butler to Minnesota in exchange for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the pick that became Lauri Markkanen. 

But losing this game? A game against a team that entered the contest with the NBA’s worst record (3-15) and without four starters (two of whom are future hall of famers)? A game in which the lowest-rated defensive team in the league both outrebounded the Bulls 54-42 and held them to 27.6 points below their previous opponents’ season average? A game that kicked off a road trip flush with supposedly winnable games, at a do-or-die juncture in terms of turning this season around?

That’s quite different.

“I think at times we're very confident, I think at times we struggle with that. I think that's what young teams do. And I go back to consistency. You know, we're looking for consistency,” Jim Boylen said after the game. “We had some really good moments tonight, again, and we battled. It was a physical, hard-fought game. They made some plays at the end that we didn't. And that was the difference.”

And on the plan, moving forward?

“You just go to work the next day, that's all you do. You go to work the next day,” Boylen continued. “There's no shame in this game tonight. We played hard and we competed and we battled and we're gonna do the same thing, we're gonna practice tomorrow, we're gonna have some turkey and we're gonna play Friday… This is not the defining moment of our season. We're gonna keep playing.”

 

Only in some ways this loss seems to perfectly define this Bulls season, in brutally microcosmic fashion. In the game, Boylen trotted out 13 players for at least five minutes (with the exception of Chandler Hutchison, who left the game early in the first with an apparent shoulder injury), but the Bulls bench was outscored 35-19. 

Markkanen, more maligned with each passing day, attempted only 10 shots in 25 minutes, scoring eight points on 3-for-10 shooting. Kris Dunn fouled out early in the fourth quarter with zero points. Coby White shot 0-for-7 from the field. Wendell Carter struggled with foul trouble.

“They're a physical team,” Boylen said. “I thought in the first quarter that kind of shook us a little bit. Then I thought the game under control and we battled back and had a hell of a second quarter, and then we came out in the third and I thought we battled.”

At the heart of that second quarter resurgence was Zach LaVine. In fact, he has been at the heart of every competitive stretch the Bulls have played in their last three games. Tonight, he scored 36 points on 54.9% shooting (44.4% from three) with five rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks. He attempted twice as many shots (24) as the next closest Bull (Tomas Satoransky with 12).

Once again, LaVine played well enough to win, and once again, it wasn’t enough.

“I think every loss you should be upset about. I don't think you should be ashamed about any loss, but you should be upset every time you lose the game,” LaVine said when asked about Boylen saying the Bulls shouldn’t be ashamed of the performance. “If we lose to the worst team or the best team in the league, or if you lose by one or 25, it's still an L.

“This is the Golden State Warriors, man, they have championship class, they got championship coaching, you know, they still have veteran players on the team, so there's no shame in any of that, they still played their game.”

But those were only the ‘championship-class’ Warriors in name and uniform. Sure, Draymond Green suited up for the hosts and posted a vintage statline of seven points, eight assists, five rebounds, three steals and two blocks. But the rest of his castmates are largely unfamiliar. Eric Paschall. Omari Spellman. Marquese Chriss. Alec Burks. 

These are fine NBA players. They do not comprise a roster that the Bulls — given the level of expectation for this season — should be walking away from proud for having simply “competed” with. This was a game they could have and should have won. 

Wendell Carter acknowledged that fact after the game, further cementing themselves as a stalwart locker-room presence beyond his age:

Now, fans and pundits will begin to turn up the heat. And they should. But the Bulls are also wise to shut that noise out. The players can only control what they can control, after all, and right now, that needs to be exacting vengeance on Portland this Friday.

Boylen says they will keep going to work. LaVine, in a way, echoed that sentiment.

“I try to keep everybody up, you know, especially in the huddles in stuff like that. Each day is a new day, a new game,” LaVine said. “This can flip at any time. You just gotta be confident, you gotta think that way, you know, you can't think negatively.

“Any outside people trying to bring us down, you know, I don't even want to listen to it, cause you gotta psych yourself out to get out of a rut sometimes. And I think that's what we're in right now, a little bit of a rut. But I still believe we can get ourselves out of it.”

The longer this malaise drags on, the more difficult the questions that need answering will become.

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