After a lackluster first half, the Bulls nearly staged the comeback of the season behind 76 points from Zach LaVine and Coby White. But ultimately, the Thunder prevailed 124-122. Observations:
Daniel Gafford needs to stay out of foul trouble
Jim Boylen again stressed at shootaround this morning the importance of the Bulls defending without fouling. As a team, they entered play dead last in the NBA in opponent free throw rate, and conceded 28 charity stripe trips to the Thunder when they met on Dec. 16.
Daniel Gafford has been among the biggest culprits in that area. Since re-entering the regular rotation (from injury) after the All-Star break, Gafford has averaged 4.8 fouls per game, including a foul-out in 16 minutes against Charlotte in his first game back. Tonight, he picked up two in the first three minutes of the game and a third early in the second quarter en route to just five first-half minutes (and 14 total). He finished the night with four personals.
That’s a problem for a Bulls team thin on the front line and struggling defensively. In Gafford’s stead, Cristiano Felicio played 33 minutes, and though he posted an admirable six points and nine rebounds, most would agree — for the sake of both development and staying competitive — Gafford minutes are preferable. As a team, the Bulls committed 25 fouls and sent the Thunder to the line 30 times, though that was boosted by having to play the foul game late.
The sweet life of Zach and Coby rolls on
Another game, another torrid combined performance from Zach LaVine and Coby White. This one was especially fun.
LaVine poured in 41 points on 19-for-35 shooting, White a new career-high 35 points on 13-for-21 (6-for-9 from 3-point range). As the Thunder rained hellfire from long-range and otherwise picked the Bulls’ defense apart early, those two kept the team afloat on the other end. Then, they keyed a whirlwind of a comeback in the third.
In that third quarter, LaVine notched 19 points on a preposterous 9-for-11 shooting; White had three timely 3-pointers — each eliciting exponentially louder roars from the United Center crowd. Play them together as many minutes as humanly possible down the stretch of the season… When they’re ‘on’ in unison, it’s downright electric.
Also worth mentioning is this is White’s third 30-point game in a row. He’s set, matched, then re-set his career-high scoring totals in each of the last three games. That type of momentum is immensely encouraging in what had been a tumultuous rookie season.
This time, it was the Bulls’ turn for a comeback
The Thunder put on an absolute offensive clinic in the first half — canning 11 of their first 15 3-pointers, assisting on 19 of 26 made buckets and committing just five turnovers. Danilo Gallinari was en route to a career night (he had 17 points on 5-for-5 from 3 in the game’s first six-and-a-half minutes) and the Bulls’ defense again looked woefully undermanned.
But that third quarter swung the game for a bit. The Bulls won the period 38-19 behind the aforementioned contributions from LaVine and White, and also four Oklahoma City turnovers. The hosts held the Thunder to 36.8% shooting from the field (1-for-8 from deep) in the period after they shot 63.4% in the first half.
In these teams’ first meetup of the season, the Bulls coughed up a 26-point lead late on the Thunder’s home floor. Tonight, it was their turn to flip the script — that is, until the end.
Ultimately, not a bad loss
The Thunder eventually ground out a nail-biter of a 124-122 win behind a litany of crucial plays by Chris Paul (19 points, nine assists) down the stretch. With the loss, the Bulls drop to 20-39 on the season and 1-9 in their last ten. But against a really good Thunder team — they’re now 36-22 and have won nine straight on the road — this isn’t one to hang heads about.
LaVine catching fire — and nearly pulling off a Charlotte-esque barrage in the game's final minute — another scorcher of a game from White, and clawing back after such a lackluster first half is enough to take solace in given where we are with this team. Let’s enjoy the ones we can and take the silver linings as they come.
Next up: The Knicks in New York on Saturday.