Officiating always seems to be a subplot of the Bulls-Knicks rivalry, whether it be a controversial Hue Hollins call or Michael Jordan drawing another favorable whistle.
And so it was again Wednesday night in the Knicks' 113-94, which drew the Bulls' ire beyond the fact it further harmed their play-in chances.
But the Bulls didn’t lose this game because of bad calls, even if Nikola Vučević, Daniel Theis and Billy Donovan drew technical fouls, Theis was left bleeding after one no-call and Coby White got hit across the face for another.
Donovan rightly pointed to the early stages of the fourth quarter as the turning point. That’s when the Bulls had trouble containing Immanuel Quickley and the Knicks ran away and hid by quickly turning a one-point lead into a 12-point cushion.
“It’s easy to nitpick an official on three or four calls,” Donovan said. “But what about the 25 pick-and-roll coverages you were in? What about the 25 times you had a chance to block out? What about the 25 times you had a chance to run back in transition? What about the 25 times you had a chance to close out and guard the ball? We have to focus on doing our jobs.”
This is the right approach. And it underscores Donovan’s commitment to trying to build championship habits, which he has consistently talked about as his goal since the start of training camp.
Yes, Donovan himself drew a technical foul. But he did so while trying to stick up for White, who got hit across the face. And he looked inward afterward, a typical approach for him, saying he needs to be better as well.
Donovan also flashed this no-excuses approach during pregame comments. Asked how hard it is to lose their leading scorer and All-Star in Zach LaVine for a stretch run that now has the Bulls two games outside the play-in picture with 10 games to play, Donovan refused to take the easy way out.
“What can we do? We've got to move forward,” he said. “As much as I want and feel bad that Zach's not with us because I know he wants to be out there, we've all got a job to do. No one's going to feel sorry for anybody.”
The Bulls dropped to 4-4 since LaVine landed in the health and safety protocols. They face a daunting schedule over their final 10 games and no longer control their destiny. They need not only to win but have the 10th-seeded Wizards, who lead them by two games, lose.
“I think we’re mentally tough. I think we just have to play mentally tough throughout a 48-minute game,” Thad Young said. “We show mental toughness for bits and pieces and spurts.”
This is where growth has to happen for the Bulls, who were eyeing moving up in the standings, not down, when management completed its busy trade deadline. Those moves were made in part to allow players who hadn’t experienced playoff basketball to add that to their resume.
Now, the opportunities for growth may have to come down the line.
Donovan shared an anecdote about how he coached Knicks All-Star Julius Randle as a junior in high school for USA Basketball.
“I saw his career in the NBA. He was trying to find himself. He has blossomed into an All-Star player. But he wasn’t this player six years ago,” Donovan said. “So a lot of times you want these growing pains to happen now as a coach. And sometimes those seeds get planted and, unfortunately, it takes a while for the flower to kind of bloom. It’s going to take these kinds of situations for us to grow. And I hope that we can really grow from them.”
Click here to subscribe to the Bulls Talk Podcast for free.