Win or lose, most all of Jim Boylen's postgame press conferences start the same way: With an opening statement. What went well?
"They [the Utah Jazz] average 108 [points per game], they score[d] 102. We win the boards, we turn them over 17 times," Boylen began, unprompted.
But the sentence that follows is always the most telling.
"We just couldn't get enough shots to get to 103, just couldn't get there," Boylen continued. "Thought we had some looks at the end that I think we can make, but we battled."
This Bulls team could fill a book with silver linings, and that's not intended to be facetious. A hard-fought 102-98 loss to the scorching-hot Jazz — a loss in which the Bulls battled back from down 10 in the fourth quarter to tie the game with just under two minutes to play — leaves a better taste than the undressing the Bucks handed them on Monday. Right?
"Those are the ones that even more frustrating," Kris Dunn said of close losses, like the one to the Jazz. "Instead of a game like Milwaukee, yeah, we were upset, but they just handed it to us. You know, they just came out there and blew us out the water. But a game like this, you're more frustrated because you play so well and then there's droughts throughout the game, you let things slip and they get out with the victory."
Yeah, the taste is still sour. Perhaps even more so. This was a game the Bulls led 59-48 early in the third quarter, then, ten game minutes later, trailed 71-63. Dry spells of that variety have become something of a pattern, as has an inability to close out quality foes. With the loss, the Bulls are now 1-13 against opponents with a record at or above .500.
Around the team, the diagnoses for such developments, and how to address them, vary. Ultimately, it's a smorgasborg of areas to improve.
"Defensive stops, or some execution plays. Making some shots," Zach LaVine said. "But I always look at the defensive side to where if we get an extra stop then we won't be in a position where we're trailing and we'll be in the lead."
"Just try to have more clean plays, you know, offensively," Dunn said. "I think certain times we get a little stagnant and we get away from what the system does when we do run our stuff fast with pace and execute well."
Wendell Carter Jr. cited the necessity of experience and adaptability, calling "about 95 percent" of crunchtime execution mental.
"We all know we can make shots, we all know that we can drive the ball, we all know we can get to the basket, but it's about making the right play at the right time," Carter said of the Bulls' late-game struggles. "But I don't think anything else beats that experience."
This variance isn't indicative of a fractured locker room, but of a team with many leaks to patch. Their defense, though currently rated top-five in the NBA, has been exploited at times by smart teams. The offense is drought-prone. Shooting spurts come and go, as does their reliability late in games. Most every rationalization for the Bulls' inability to get over the hump has its merits.
But the silver linings do, too, as frustrating as they are to some. Thursday night, even without a win to show for it, the Bulls did re-find themselves in a way they couldn't against the Bucks. And for all the smudges on this performance, the game was in the balance until the last moment.
"We created turnovers, we got in transition, we got a couple easy ones," Dunn said. "We did get our identity back, we were aggressive coming out in the first quarter. We were down 10, we got back into the game. It shows that we had some fight tonight."
"We compete with some of the best teams in the league night-in-night-out," LaVine said. "It might not show in our record, but we're right there pretty much every night."
To Dunn's point: The Bulls forced 17 Jazz turnovers Thursday night, converting them into 21 points, and bottled up Donovan Mitchell about as much as you could hope to in high-leverage spots.
And to LaVine's: The team ranks second in the league in NBA.com-defined 'clutch' games played, and their season-long average point differential of -1.1 is seventh in the Eastern Conference, compared to the No. 10 slot they actually inhabit.
Moreover, they're still just 2.5 games out of the eighth seed. With 16 games in the next 28 days (nine of those against current playoff teams), that's a precarious spot to be. But the Bulls know getting defeated now isn't an option.
"At the end of the day, it's about wins and losses, we ain't get the win," Dunn said. "Definitely frustrating, but at the same time it's the NBA, lot of games come quick, gotta get ready for Saturday."
"I don't think we really got a choice," Carter said, good-naturedly, on how the team continues to push on. "I feel like we are competitors, we still have a lot more games left, we still have a chance to get into this playoff run that we're trying to do."
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