That Zach LaVine scored 45 points, became the sixth player in NBA history to have multiple games with 10 or more 3-pointers and shot an air ball on his final 3-point attempt in the Bulls’ 130-127 loss to the Clippers Sunday afternoon seemed fitting.
The air ball at the end of a lot of good and a lot of right almost perfectly encapsulates the 1-3 trip.
After storming back from 20 points down to win the opener at the Portland Trail Blazers, the Bulls lost to the Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers by a combined nine points. All three losses were one-possession games in the final minute.
That the Bulls competed as well as they did while playing without Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr., Tomáš Satoranský, Chandler Hutchison and Ryan Arcidiacono says something. But guess what? Billy Donovan and the Bulls aren’t here for your moral victories.
And that’s the biggest of four takeaways from the trip.
“To take the next step, we have to learn how to win,” Donovan said.
The veteran coach consistently has preached controlling what you can control. And from his seat, he sees three areas in which the Bulls are making it almost impossible to not let their small margin of error swallow them -- never mind the elite talent on the other side.
Turnovers. Defending without fouling. Rebounding.
The Clippers scored 31 points -- whoa -- off 23 Bulls turnovers, the fourth time this season the Bulls have coughed it up 20 or more times. Lou Williams' strip and steal of Coby White in the open court with 91 seconds left proved large.
The Clippers shot eight more free throws than the Bulls, the sixth time the opponent has enjoyed such an advantage. The biggest came when Nic Batum converted a four-point play off a Thad Young shooting foul with 2:30 left. The Bulls have surrendered four four-point plays this season.
And although the Bulls outrebounded the Clippers, the second-chance points battle wasn’t close at 22-8. Batum's four-point play came following a Marcus Morris offensive rebound.
“I do think losing can become kind of habitual. This is a young group that has not seen a lot of team success in this league. They’re going to be the ones who are going to have to turn it,” Donovan said. “Obviously we as coaches are part of it too and we have to help. We all have to help each other. We have to all pull together.
“I do think this is a group with great character. It’s a really good working group. I believe they want to get better and want to improve. But they’ve got to get to a point where they understand very clearly the things that go into winning at the highest level. And if you don’t do those things well enough, you’re going to get the same result.”
Here are three other takeaways from the trip:
Patrick Williams plays like a seasoned pro
On the four-game trip, Williams averaged 11.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.8 steals and three fouls in 29.3 minutes. The fouls average is significant given that he served as the primary defensive assignment on LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard during a memorable two-game stint in Los Angeles.
Repeatedly, Williams flashed impressive instincts on weakside defensive help recognition. And his midrange shooting game continues to be on point. He shot 51.5 percent overall and 54.5 percent from 3-point range on the trip.
“It’s just reps,” Williams said, when asked about his surprising 45.8 percent 3-point shooting overall.
And that’s the thing: Perhaps the most impressive feature about Williams -- whether you’re watching him play or talking to him about it afterward -- is how unfazed he seems by it all. At 19, he’s the second-youngest player in the league.
And yet, whether he’s talking about guarding one of his idols in Leonard or his reaction to James’ high praise for his game, Williams remains even-keeled.
“I’m just grateful,” Williams said.
Zach LaVine seemingly can’t win
Name another Bull who can make 10 3-pointers in a game.
You can’t. LaVine is the only one to do so in franchise history, placing a 10-for-16 showing on the wall alongside his 13-for-17 showing from last season’s overtime victory in Charlotte.
And yet, for the second straight game, LaVine’s final shot selection drew postgame questions.
“I got 10 3s. You know I’m going to come down and try and make a play,” LaVine said. “I got a clean look. I just didn’t get enough legs onto it. If I would’ve hit the front rim and missed or if I would’ve (expletive) air-balled it, it’s the same difference. Trying to help us win, man.”
In his dealings with media, LaVine is as easygoing and affable a lead player as you will find. But even via Zoom, it was clear LaVine was at least mildly annoyed answering questions about his late-game shot selection.
“I mean, you guys know this. I hit a lot of clutch shots last year. I gave us three or four game-winners last year. I had one this year with Golden State, they just came down and hit a good shot,” LaVine said. “I’m comfortable in those situations. I think you guys know I’ve had numerous amounts of those, and I’ve had a lot where I’ve missed as well. We were competitive last year; we’re competitive this year. We just got to learn how to start putting these into wins.”
On the four-game trip, LaVine averaged 33.3 points, 6.3 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 3.8 turnovers while shooting 53.3 percent overall and 45.5 percent from 3-point range.
He provided the dagger 3-pointer with 10.8 seconds left in the lone victory on the trip over Portland. He missed a midrange shot in the waning seconds of the Lakers loss and, after sinking his 10th 3-pointer with 18.4 seconds left against the Clippers, air-balled his final one after two Paul George free throws.
“The last one, we've got to help him a little bit more in terms of freeing him,” Donovan said. “But once he's free, then he's got to make good decisions.”
Wendell Carter Jr. is flashing his offensive potential
The third-year big man averaged 14.8 points, eight rebounds and 3.5 assists on the trip. It’s the last number that jumps off the box score for a player who averaged 1.8 and 1.2 assists his first two seasons.
Carter is now averaging 2.8 assists on the young season and that number could be higher if some of his teammates’ open shots dropped. Carter is increasingly displaying a solid awareness of making the right read out of the high post, often finding shooters for open 3-pointers in the corner.
Add that to the fact he entered the Clippers game tied for third in the NBA with 51 total screen assists and his offensive impact goes beyond his scoring. That, too, has come around after his slow start. He shot 51.2 percent on the trip.
Donovan -- often, in unsolicited fashion -- kept propping up Carter as he endured a difficult preseason and first two games. Given the offensive responsibility the coach envisioned for him, and that Carter is now fulfilling, it’s easy to understand why.