Bulls fell familiarly to the Utah Jazz, but must build on silver linings

Bulls fell familiarly to the Utah Jazz, but must build on silver linings

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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5 Bulls remaining must-watch games of 2019-20 NBA season

NBC Sports Chicago

5 Bulls remaining must-watch games of 2019-20 NBA season

There are 23 games left, Bulls fans! Not that I’m counting, or anything. As we prepare to enter the final month of the NBA regular season, the Bulls are a Leap Day loss to the Knicks away – it could happen, we’ve seen it happen – from being 20 games under .500. Given the goals set forth by John Paxson and Jim Boylen on media day, I think it’s fair to say that the underachievement this season has been jarring.

Some fans have checked out and will tune back in for the draft lottery in May. To those of you I say: I get it. But there’s still basketball to be watched!

The Bulls’ remaining schedule is a gauntlet of playoff-bound teams including a daunting west coast trip in April. This likely means the playoffs are a pipe dream, regardless of what the math says in the “games back” column of the Eastern Conference standings. But this tough schedule in March and April also provides Bulls fans with some fun games to watch, with individual matchups that might just provide glimpses of hope for next season.

Here are 5 games I’m excited to watch in the remaining Bulls schedule. It’s the Pecking Order.

1. March 2 – Bulls vs Mavericks

I know, I know. It’s not fair that the Mavericks went straight from the Dirk Era to the young and wildly promising Luka Era with no gap in between while the Bulls languish in the third year of a rebuild that hasn’t taken off. It’s only human to wonder “what if” the Bulls had gotten luckier in the lottery or managed to make the trade Dallas did to land Luka Dončić two years ago. John Sabine doesn’t help matters with his nonstop Luka talk.

But I can’t help it. Luka, and this entire Mavericks team, is so much fun to watch. Their offensive efficiency this season isn’t getting nearly enough talk or respect. The Bulls kept it close when these teams met in January despite a modest 20-point night from Zach LaVine. Lauri Markkanen had one of his better games of the season with 26 and 9 rebounds.

Dončić didn’t even need his sidekick Kristaps Porziņģis, as he picked apart the Bulls to the tune of a 38-point triple double. And this was before defensive anchors Wendell Carter Jr. and Kris Dunn went down with injuries. Hopefully Wendell will be back on the court for this one and we’ll see how he handles Kristaps, who looked pretty darn good in February.

2. March 14 – Bulls @ Heat

The Bulls are 0-2 against Jimmy Butler’s new team so far this season. One of those was a backbreaker that saw 17 ties, 15 lead changes and went to overtime. The Bulls led for 37:38 of the game’s duration, while the Heat only led for 6:10. Zach LaVine drew a foul on Jimmy Butler and sank free throws to send the game to an extra frame, where Tyler Herro drilled three of his game-high five 3-pointers to seal the win for Miami.

The Heat have been reeling of late, including losses to Atlanta, Cleveland and Minnesota. But they’re still dynamite at home, where their record is 23-4. Could the Bulls manage to steal one in a trap game for the Heat? Zach didn’t play well in either matchup so far, scoring 15 and 18 points. How great would it be to see a LaVine-Butler duel like the one we saw three years ago when Zach was fresh off his ACL rehab and Jimmy was still with Minnesota? And if the Bulls come out on top? Sure would be fun to watch.

3. March 21 – Bulls @ Rockets

The Bulls were beat by Houston back in November in their first game after Otto Porter Jr. went down. James Harden was one assist shy of a 42-point triple-double and Russell Westbrook chipped in 26. The Bulls, meanwhile, had all five starters and seven total players score in double figures, but nobody scored more than 13. Yikes.

Since shipping off Clint Capela and going all-in on their small ball strategy, the Rockets have surged to just two games back of the second seed in the West. I can’t wait to see what Jim Boylen does with his game plan, as we’ve recently seen him use some give-guard lineups in similar fashion to the Rockets. Might he go back to this even if certain members of the Bulls frontcourt have returned from injury?

It would be a bonus to see a back-and-forth showdown of recently surging rookie Coby White and the always-going-100-mph Westbrook. Give us at least 48 minutes of this! And hopefully, a more respectable outcome.

4. March 23 – Bulls vs Nuggets

We actually get a twofer here, as the Bulls play Denver again on April 3rd as part of their five-game west coast trip. There’s one big reason I can’t wait to watch both matchups with the Nuggets: Wendell vs The Joker, Parts II and III.

In his NBA coming out party on Halloween night 2018, Wendell admirably battled Nikola Jokić in a devastating overtime loss. The Joker did his usual thing, putting up 22 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. But Wendell also gave him some challenges, forcing Jokić into an uncharacteristic six turnovers. The Bulls' seventh overall pick finished the night with a stuffed stat sheet of 25 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocks. The Nuggets big man even paid his respects to the rook after the game.

We never got to see Part II of that matchup last season, as Wendell was out with an injury the second time these teams played. We’ve heard that Wendell is expected back in the lineup as soon as this Saturday against the Knicks after recovering from his high ankle sprain. I cannot WAIT to watch Wendell go at The Joker twice in the final few weeks of the season. Please, Jim Boylen. Let Wendell go at him.

5. April 8 – Bulls @ Lakers

I want revenge. That loss to the Lakers way back on November 5 still bothers me. It’s bothered me all season. Instead of closing out a solid win over LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the juggernaut Lakers, Bulls fans watched the team let a fourth quarter lead slip away with our primary starters watching from the bench. Boylen said he had "15 guys to develop” when he explained his rotation after the loss.

One potential hiccup here: a revenge win will mean a LOT less if LeBron and AD are managing loads in the final games of the season as they prepare for their title push. I hope they’re playing, and I hope we pay them back.

Thanks for reading. Let’s close out these final 23 together, Bulls Nation! See red, be good.

After 30 years, Hank Gathers is never far from Bulls' Chip Schaefer's mind

NBC Sports Chicago

After 30 years, Hank Gathers is never far from Bulls' Chip Schaefer's mind

It doesn’t take an anniversary for Chip Schaefer to think about Hank Gathers.

“It’s never really far from my mind,” Schaefer said in a recent interview.

Schaefer is the Bulls’ director of sports performance, working his second stint with the franchise after serving as the athletic trainer for the dynasty. But one of the Deerfield, Ill., native’s first jobs was athletic trainer and strength coach at Loyola Marymount University from 1987-90.

In fact, Schaefer was the first non-player to Gathers’ side on that fateful March 4, 1990 day when the star forward collapsed on the court during a West Coast Athletic Conference tournament game and died moments later due to a heart condition called cardiomyopathy.

Wednesday marks 30 years since Gathers’ death. On Saturday, Loyola Marymount will unveil a statue honoring him. The family invited Schaefer to the ceremony, no small gesture in Schaefer’s world.

But with the Bulls in New York and Schaefer having already squeezed a trip into Los Angeles this week for Kobe Bryant’s memorial service, Schaefer merely sent his appreciation and respects to the family.

“It doesn’t take much for me to think of him,” Schaefer said. “Every time we’re in Philadelphia, his hometown, I think of him. Every time I flip around the TV and see a Loyola Marymount game, I think of him. I run into people, Jay Hillock, one of (the Bulls’) scouts, was an assistant coach on the staff, and I think of Hank. He was special.”

Schaefer isn’t merely referring to Gathers’ athletic ability, which had NBA talent written all over it.

“He was really an extraordinary personality,” Schaefer said. “He had just an unbelievable sense of humor and a wonderful gift for mimicry.

“I remember one year we had the typical college, end-of-season awards night. It was supposed to be MC’d by one of the local sports anchors. He had to cancel at the last minute. Hank wound up MC’ing it. And he killed it. He could’ve done Vegas with the bit. He had a whole (Muhammad) Ali- (Howard) Cosell bit. It was just unbelievable. He had something funny for every player. And he was riffing, completely spontaneous. I remember nights like that where his rich personality and wit and intelligence was on full display.”

Much like with Bryant, who Schaefer worked with for 12 seasons with the Lakers, he is trying to remember the happy times. When Loyola Marymount hired Schaefer from the esteemed Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles, he was only a few years older than Gathers.

“Hank was actually a patient that I met at the clinic. I think he had patellar tendinitis. And we really hit it off,” Schaefer recalled. “That Spring, the athletic trainer before me (at Loyola Marymount) was let go. Hank came in all bubbly and was all excited about me applying for the job.

“So we had the next three years together where we continued to build the special relationships you often build in this field. There were a lot of really personal moments. Hank and Bo (Kimble) grew and we kind of shocked the world in the NCAA tournament that 1987-88 season. We built a national spotlight.”

Indeed, Gathers led the nation in scoring and rebounding in 1988-89. And then Kimble led an emotional run to the Elite Eight in 1990, shooting a free throw left-handed to honor Gathers’ memory.

Schaefer attended Bryant’s memorial service by taking a red-eye flight so as not to miss any Bulls’ commitments. Saturday’s game against the Knicks doesn’t allow him to do the same for Gathers, although he grew emotional when asked what the invitation meant to him.

After all, since Schaefer was one of five people who worked on Gathers outside the gym after his collapse, he was named as one of 10 people and three medical practices in a lawsuit. Schaefer knew he did nothing wrong and followed proper emergency protocol by the book, and Gather’s mother, Lucille, ultimately settled the $32.5 million wrongful-death lawsuit for $545,000.

“I’m the one there along with the doctors on the floor trying to help revive and resuscitate him, so you never know how a family is going to react to anybody that is associated with that,” Schaefer said. “But I’ve heard from Hank’s brother, Derrick, occasionally with warmth and affection and magnanimity and grace. That’s really something. After three decades, that Lucille would even remember my name much less think, ‘It would mean a lot to have him here,’ I’m touched beyond words about that.”