The Chicago Bulls hit the quarter mark of the season Friday in Orlando and sit just two games off the Eastern Conference lead.
They also sit just two games ahead of falling out of the playoffs.
Life comes at you fast in the NBA.
Troubling back-to-back losses to the Pacers and Rockets quickly have turned a feel-good story into a reflection point: Is this a momentary lull or the first indication of larger issues?
The Pacers took advantage of a team playing without Nikola Vučević and Alex Caruso and finishing a back-to-back set of games following a grueling, five-game road trip to bully their way to a blowout. To his credit, Billy Donovan didn’t use any convenient excuse afterward, saying the Bulls didn’t meet the standard of play they expect.
That’s how good teams comport themselves.
But good teams don’t follow up such losses by losing to teams with 15-game losing streaks. Particularly when Vučević and Caruso returned.
“We’re a very good team,” Donovan said. “But we’re not so good that we can’t show up in a quarter in an NBA game and expect to win.”
He’s referring to a third quarter where the Rockets ran away and hid with a 35-18 beatdown. It’s the second time in five games the Bulls lapsed following halftime.
But whereas turnovers allowed the Trail Blazers to use a 33-22 third quarter to fuel their comeback victory, Wednesday’s slow burn began with too much isolation play at the offensive end and lack of attention to detail at the defensive end.
“I think it’s really just a collective lack of sense of urgency from us,” Caruso said. “We haven’t done a good job of bringing the level of detail and attention and care factor that it takes to win ballgames in the NBA.”
Donovan saw enough warning signs in the third quarter of the Rockets’ loss to burn a timeout less than two minutes after halftime. But it didn’t stop the Bulls from failing to find shooters as the Rockets shot 8-for-11 from 3-point range in the period.
Donovan said focus and concentration are at the root of both collapses.
“I’m a big believer of the best players and best teams are internally motivated. They’re not externally motivated. They don’t go out there and look at the scoreboard. They don’t go out there and somebody says something to them or something happens and that excites them,” Donovan said. “There’s got to be an internal drive. We have shown signs of doing that. But we haven’t shown signs of doing it consistently enough.”
This is just the second two-game losing streak of the season. The other instance came in consecutive losses to an undermanned 76ers team, although Joel Embiid starred in both games.
The Bulls still have too many times where their halfcourt offense becomes stagnant and isolation is more prevalent than ball and player movement. The Bulls posted 17 first-half assists against the Rockets but finished with just 26.
“I think at times we get stuck a little bit and get away from what works for us. But we also have players who are really great iso players,” Vučević said. “We have to find that balance.”
The All-Star center noted that this still is a relatively new team with players still building chemistry and rhythm with each other. Moving in and out of the lineup, as Vučević was forced to do because of a positive COVID-19 test, doesn’t help.
Following his 1-for-5 night, Coby White still only has one game where he has played to form. Vučević is shooting just 39.3 percent overall and 28 percent from 3-point range, well below his career numbers.
And the Bulls’ frontcourt isn’t going to get any bigger unless management makes a move — with limited trade assets.
So here the Bulls are, riding small-ball and arriving at a pivotal point of their early season. There are still plenty of positives. But there’s also plenty of work.
“Concerned is an iffy word. If we don’t pay attention to it and do things to get better, then it’s a concern. But the NBA season is really long,” Caruso said. “We got off to a good start and now we’re kind of hitting that second wave of games on the schedule and we have to do a better job of getting locked in.”
Or else they could eventually be locked out of the playoff picture.