For the first time since Dec. 11, the Chicago Bulls have lost a basketball game.
On Sunday night in Dallas, a second-half blitz by Luka Dončić and the Mavericks proved the death knell to the Bulls’ longest win streak in 11 years.
With a 113-99 loss, the streak ends at nine, and Bulls' (still Eastern Conference leading) record falls to 26-11.
Here are 10 observations:
1. Billy Donovan called the game’s first timeout at the 9:10 mark of the first quarter. Dallas had made four of its first five shots – including two lightly-contested 3-pointers and a Dončić lob to Dwight Powell – and led 10-2.
From that point, the Bulls won the quarter 30-12, and carried a 32-22 lead into the second. They held the Mavericks to 5-for-16 shooting and four turnovers during that run.
2. The Bulls did a good job getting into Dončić at the defensive end early on. Lonzo Ball and Ayo Dosunmu took turns picking the Mavericks superstar up full-court. Help rotations were sharp to show him bodies on drives. At the 7:01 mark of the second period, Dončić had six assists, but just three points on 1-for-8 shooting.
But Dončić, as great players tend to do, eventually woke up. It started with two post buckets on Coby White and Dosunmu down the stretch of the first half, then continued with a surgical closing act.
3. The Bulls jumped in front by as many as 11 in the first half, and led 55-45 with less than 90 seconds to play in the second quarter. But a Josh Green and-one, 3-pointers from Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber, and multiple empty offensive possessions led to a 9-0 Mavericks run, which made the score 55-54 Bulls at the break. After the game, Donovan pointed to that spurt multiple times as a turning point in the game.
Then, Dallas sprinted out to an 8-2 run in the first 3:26 of the third quarter, going on to win that period 29-24 and enter the fourth quarter ahead 83-79. Dončić kicked off the third with an and-one floater over Derrick Jones Jr. – the first of 10 points on 3-for-6 shooting.
4. DeMar DeRozan scored the Bulls’ first four points of the fourth quarter on a pull-up midrange jumper and a step-through layup around Reggie Bullock. Bulls fans know what such a start to the final frame would typically portend.
But in this one, the Mavericks tightened up in a hurry, throwing immediate double-teams at DeRozan on every touch for the first three minutes of the period, daring any other Bull in a reserve-laden lineup to beat them. Save for a cutting White layup attacking a closeout, none did.
5. Then, Dallas began to rain fireballs from 3-point range. The Mavericks made five of their first six long-range attempts of the fourth quarter, riding triples from Kleber, Dončić and Finney-Smith on back-to-back-to-back possessions to a 102-88 lead with 6:24 remaining.
The Bulls exited that timeout by trimming their deficit to 12 after DeRozan found Nikola Vučević for a dunk, but the Mavericks immediately stepped back on the gas and pulled away for good. Donovan waved the white flag down 113-95 with 2:21 left.
6. The Mavericks shot 16-for-36 (44.4 percent) from 3-point range for the game – 9-for-17 in the second half and 6-for-9 in the fourth quarter. Kleber was especially sharp, matching a career high with six 3-balls on nine attempts. That’s uncommon for a Bulls team that has done well to run opponents off the 3-point line all season.
But Dončić is an uncommon master as a lead ball-handler, particularly in screen-and-roll, where Dallas found great success down the stretch.
"Dončić is really, really good, and he's big and he's physical," Donovan said. "What happens is, when they're screening for him and you're fighting to get back in front of him, he does a really good job of what I would call 'hostage dribble.' He tries to keep [his] defender on his back, he ends up keeping the big (who's defending the screener) having to protect his drive to the front of the rim, and then what happens is, on the weak side, some guys got open.
"When we did a good job at the point of the screen and were really, really physical, I thought it enabled our big to get out of coverage a little bit quicker and we could get our guy back on the ball. There were times that we did do a good job, on other times we didn't. And I think that's been pretty consistent of kind of where our defense has been at. We've had some really, really good moments, we've done a really good job. And then there are other moments where we need to get better."
Dončić finished with a 22-point, 14-assist, 14-rebound triple-double, bending the game to his will with 15 points and seven assists in the second half. Eight of his 14 dimes for the game led to 3-pointers – almost as many as the Bulls (11-for-33) made as a team.
In all, this was a defensive effort that will displease Donovan, who has recently harped on “slippage” by the Bulls at that end, even amid their win streak.
7. The Bulls boasted the NBA's best offense during that streak, but that, too, faded on Sunday with some poor shooting returns. After going 7-for-15 from 3-point range in the first half, they shot just 4-for-18 in quarters three and four, and weren't able to find enough juice at the rim (where they shot 14-for-23), midrange (7-for-21) or free-throw line (10-for-13) to compensate.
Zach LaVine led the team in field-goal attempts but went just 7-for-21 from the field – 2-for-8 in the second half – on a rare off-night from all three levels.
"In the second half, because we didn't shoot the ball particularly well, I think it bled into our defense," Donovan said. "I've said this before, if we're not shooting the ball particularly well, we've gotta have something else to give ourselves a chance."
8. Vučević had his worst game in a while, shooting 6-for-17 from the field and 1-for-5 from 3-point range. Many of his misses were noticeably off target, which was a consistent sight during his early-season swoon, but has been less a theme of late.
9. To end on a couple positives: Ball had a handful of terrific defensive moments, though he did find himself in foul trouble after committing his fourth late in the third quarter. But he did have three steals, competed hard on Dončić and turned this interception into a fastbreak highlight:
10. And White’s recent stretch of highly-poised play continued with 13 points, two assists, zero turnovers and a 5-for-9 shooting line (1-for-4 from 3, 4-for-4 from inside the arc).
Again, it wasn’t just White’s scoring, but his decision-making, that shined. In the first quarter, he drove to the left of a scrambling Mavericks defender, forced help, then handed off to Troy Brown Jr. for a corner 3. In the second, he finished through contact over Marquese Chriss after attacking another closeout, then moments later drew a shooting foul on Chriss with a beautiful hesitation dribble – showing off an ability to change speeds in tight spaces that wasn’t present earlier in his career.
There was also a shot clock buzzer-beating floater on his first offensive possession, pull-up transition 3 off a long defensive rebound, and a contested right-handed finish on the left side of the rim.
By night’s end, White had his seventh consecutive double-digit scoring outing. We’ve seen torrid scoring stretches from him before, but this is perhaps as poised as he’s looked over an extended run in his NBA career. The tough finishes he's completed of late also bode well, given his struggles in that area in his first two seasons.
Next up: A chance to launch a fresh win streak against the Pistons in Chicago on Tuesday.