CLEVELAND — Billy Donovan wasn’t in an excuse-making mood after the Chicago Bulls’ blowout defeat at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday.
"I don't know when or who is coming back on what dates. My feeling is right now we're going into Miami with this same group, and if we don't compete at a higher level we're gonna get the same result we got here tonight,” Donovan said moments after the Cavaliers, in his words, "dominated" the Bulls on both ends of the floor in a 115-92 win, which featured a 63-49 second-half rout.
"We have to be better, and I think the group is capable of being better. And I would hope they would want me as a coach to hold them to that standard because I see that in them."
So, yes, the rotation was thin. Consistent offense was difficult to find. By night’s end, so were stops. But the result, while non-existential given the context at play, was beneath the Bulls’ standard.
Here are 10 observations:
1. After the Cavaliers jumped out to an early lead, Zach LaVine imposed himself with 11 first-quarter points, and the Bulls broke loose for a few transition chances to mostly level the scoring.
But Cleveland tightened its grip on the contest in the final 2 minutes, 25 seconds of the opening frame, when Donovan trotted Lonzo Ball out in DeMar DeRozan’s typical role of staggering alongside reserves; in this one, that meant Devon Dotson, Tony Bradley, Troy Brown Jr. and Alize Johnson – an example of the team’s current, uneven rotation.
The Cavaliers won that stretch 7-3 to take a 29-24 lead into the second, holding the Bulls to 1-for-7 shooting and forcing two turnovers.
2. Donovan must have been wanting for a DeRozan bat signal when he whistled for time at the 10:50 mark of the second. At that juncture, just over 13 minutes into the game, the Cavaliers led 34-24, and the Bulls had eight turnovers and zero free-throw attempts – two areas DeRozan has helped the team markedly improve in 2021-22. By halftime, they had 10 turnovers, and by game’s end, 18.
3. Halfcourt offense, in general, was difficult to come by against Cleveland’s set defense, especially without LaVine on the floor. The Bulls shot just 39.1 percent in the first half; while LaVine poured in 17 points on 7-for-13 shooting, non-LaVine Bulls contributed just 26 points on 11-for-31.
4. That all amounted to a 52-43 Cavaliers advantage, but the hosts blew it open in the third quarter. The Bulls, who were outscored 30-23 in the period, played poorly at both ends.
On the offensive side, they shot 7-for-23 to drag their morbid first-half splits even further down (they finished the game 41.7 percent from the field and 7-for-26 from deep). Defensively, they allowed the Cavaliers a handful of fastbreak run-outs and clean looks from 3-point range – where Cleveland connected on four of nine attempts, including three from Kevin Love – that ignited the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse crowd.
5. LaVine shot 2-for-8 in the second half, frequently facing waves of bodies loaded up in driving lanes, to finish the game with 23 points and nine assists. But secondary scoring was hard to come by outside of Ball’s four 3-pointers.
Eyes should turn first to Nikola Vučević on that front. The Bulls’ big man had shown signs recently of breaking out of his early-season shooting slump, but regressed in Cleveland, missing 11 of his first 14 attempts and finishing the night 8-for-23 from the field (1-for-7 from 3-point range). After the game, Donovan and Vučević agreed that the Bulls did well to find him in his spots, and he did well to create open looks, but they simply didn’t fall.
“My shot feels normal. It feels the way it always has. And just, for whatever reason, I haven't been able to be consistent offensively,” Vučević said. “Tonight was frustrating, because I felt like I was really getting good looks and I felt like if I had made — especially in the first half (when he shot 3-for-13) — some of the shots that I had we'd be in a better position.”
That he accumulated an 18-point, 12-rebound double-double matters little when considering his lack of efficiency — which, throughout his career, Vučević has prided himself on. The Bulls need more from him, especially with DeRozan sidelined.
6. The Bulls’ bench scoring is an issue when fully healthy. When undermanned as they are now, it’s near untenable.
In the first half, Dotson, Brown Jr., Johnson and Bradley combined for zero points on six field-goal attempts. Bradley scored the reserves’ first bucket with a dunk at the 10:44 mark of the fourth quarter, and garbage time padded their numbers from there, but in the minutes that mattered the Bulls’ depleted second unit wasn’t a source of much juice.
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, got 11 points apiece from Ricky Rubio and Love at key junctures in the game – Rubio in the first half while the contest was competitive, Love in the third quarter that swung the game for the final time.
7. Between Rubio’s 11 points and nine assists, and Darius Garland’s 24 points and six assists, Caruso’s absence was felt as well. He’s sidelined with a right hamstring strain, and had been due to be re-evaluated on Monday, but Donovan provided a positive update pregame:
8. Cavaliers rookie Evan Mobley was the best big man on the floor. He finished with 16 points, nine rebounds, five blocks and a steal, but his defensive impact went even beyond the stat sheet, manifesting in the form of undocumented shot contests and sequences in which his mere presence deterred the Bulls in the paint.
9. As a team, the Bulls shot under 50 percent in the paint and just 2-for-13 from “floater range” — the colloquial term for the painted area outside of the restricted area. Donovan pointed to the Bulls’ inconsistency driving the ball, making responsible decisions with those drives and poor finishing as key factors in their offensive struggles, which in turn bled into their defense.
“I think they had eight blocks on the game, but that probably doesn't speak to the fact of how many different shots they altered or changed or had us second-guessing going in there,” he said of the Cavaliers’ interior presence. Cleveland entered the night fourth in defensive rating.
10. Lauri Markkanen played his first regular-season game against his former team, and fared well within the flow of Cleveland’s offensive attack, tallying 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting (2-for-4 from 3-point range). He had a loud dunk on Vučević in the first quarter and tickled twine on a 3-pointer that turned the Cavaliers’ run into an avalanche midway through the third.
The result snaps a four-game winning streak and drops the Bulls to 17-9 on the season.
Next up: At the Miami Heat on Saturday.