Jim Boylen has said multiple times over the past few weeks that he wants the Bulls to continue playing in high leverage situations with playoff-like atmospheres. Though the playoffs are still a ways off for this rebuilding group, they can still gain valuable experience for when that time eventully rolls around.
They’ve been in those spots, too, with surprisingly good results. But Friday night’s loss to the Detroit Pistons, a game in which they held an 17-point halftime lead and led by as many as 21 points, was a lesson in just how quickly it can turn against those kinds of teams and what it takes to win.
The Bulls were outscored by 63-38 in the second half, and Detroit’s 43-point outburst in the final stanza was more than the Bulls scored in the final 26 minutes. Led by the frontcourt tandem of Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, the Pistons bullied their way to an 11th win in their last 13 tries, while the Bulls licked their wounds after an ugly second half.
“They came out and bullied us,” Zach LaVine said. “We didn’t respond very well. It’s upsetting that we didn’t finish that game because the way we were playing in the first half, that was a very winnable game.”
For two quarters the Bulls not only looked like they would win, but cruise to the finish line against the NBA’s hottest team. Their top-5 offense over the last five weeks looked as good as ever early on, as the Bulls made 10 of their first 12 shots, shot 65 percent in the first half and lived in the paint, scoring 44 of their 66 first-half points there.
The usual suspects were at it again, with Otto Porter (16), Lauri Markkanen (14) and Zach LaVine (12) accounting for 42 of those 66 points, and 15 of their 28 field goals before halftime were assisted.
But in the second half the Pistons looked like the team fighting for playoff positioning. After getting free lanes to the basket in the first half the Pistons swarmed the attacking Bulls after halftime; the Bulls three fewer shots in the paint in the second half but made just 10, compared to 22 makes in the first half.
At the same time the Pistons offense, ranked No. 1 in the NBA since Feb. 1, woke up after halftime. They used a steady dose of Griffin and Drummond and found a spark in Langston Galloway off the bench. They finished the second half shooting 61 percent, flipping the script by scoring 32 points in the paint while handing out 14 assists.
“I don’t know what it is. We just gotta bring the edge and I didn’t think we had the energy to start the third and they obviously brought it,” Markkanen said. “We just gotta come out harder and finish the job.”
The Bulls have played better the last six weeks, entering Friday’s contest having won seven of their last 12 games. And losing to a playoff team currently playing its best basketball of the season isn’t a step backward for the Bulls, but the missed opportunity to continue growing is what the Bulls will remember most about Friday’s meltdown.
It’s the next step of the rebuild for a team that seems to be coming together and playing better alongside each other. They’ve identified their core in Markkanen, LaVine and Porter and they’ve won games in which other teams struggled to close or overlooked their opponent.
But when teams push back the Bulls have had their issues, and Jim Boylen said he hopes Friday’s loss to a team that, pardon the cliché, clearly wanted it more will be a “teaching moment.”
“The third quarter did us in. Didn’t like our energy, didn’t like our spirit when they made their run,” Boylen said. “We’ll watch it, we’ll learn from it and we’ll grow.”
With 15 games left in the regular season the Bulls know there’s still room for improvements as they head into an important offseason that could see the narrative change from rebuild to contending for a playoff spot in a weak Eastern Conference.
They can get a head start on Year 3 of the rebuild by finishing Year 2 strong, which is why Friday’s loss that could have been a convincing win over a red-hot team stung so badly.
“It seemed like we got complacent with where we were, but we talked about it,”LaVine said. “As a unit we just didn’t do our job out there in the second half. To be up 21 points, that’s unacceptable. We can’t have that happen moving forward to where we want to be at.”