Bulls

Even in victory, Bulls know they can be more consistent

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USA TODAY

Even in victory, Bulls know they can be more consistent

The Bulls authored their 106-99 victory over the Grizzlies Wednesday night in quintessential 2019-20 Bulls fashion.

They started scalding hot — scoring 13 of the game’s first 15 points. Then, a lull: They led only 24-20 with 1.5 seconds left in the first quarter before a Ryan Arcidiacono three pushed that advantage to seven.

The bench rode that wave to a 16-4 burst to open the second, and the lead soon ballooned to 50-28 — a 22-point advantage. Ahead 50-35 at the half, the Bulls were 19-for-41 (46.3%) from the field and 8-for-18 (44.4%) from 3-point range. The Grizzlies: 14-for-49 (28.6%) shooting and a mind-bending (for 2019, at least) 0-for-15 on 3-pointers.

For a team in the Bulls that’s six games below .500 and still underperforming relative to expectations, these types of spurts aren’t foreign. Nor are extended stretches of sound, swarming defense that drive opponents to stagnation.

Unfortunately, neither is what came next.

It didn’t happen lineally. There was no pinpointable avalanche of jumpshots or careless turnovers that swung the game. The Grizzlies just chipped away, cutting their deficit to as few as six points in the third quarter, then to one point on the heels of a deliberate, nearly-eight minute long 23-9 fourth-quarter run. When Jae Crowder capped that tear with a 3-pointer to pull the Grizzlies within 88-87 with 4 minutes, 29 seconds remaining in the game, the United Center let out a collective sigh — fans and players alike. It was familiar. 

To that point in the second half, the Bulls were shooting 10-for-31 (32.3%) from the field and 2-for-12 (16.7%) from three. The Grizzlies were 18-for-35 (51.4%), 5-for-10 (50%) from distance. In spite of the Bulls never trailing, it felt as though the contest had flipped completely on its head.

“I thought we started the game with the appropriate mindset, got off to a good start,” Jim Boylen said after the game. “What we're hoping to get is more consistency… We at times struggle with that. We play good basketball eight, twelve, fifteen minutes, and then we play five minutes of poor basketball and the game flips. Now, we gotta get back, re-engage, and play good basketball again. We're learning how to do that.”

Of course, the momentum eventually swung back in the Bulls’ favor permanently. Thank Zach LaVine for that. After the timeout that Boylen called following the Crowder three, LaVine was at least partially responsible — via made basket or assist — for the next 13 Bulls points. In the final four-and-a-half minutes of the game, the Bulls canned three triples and missed only one shot.

“We made big plays down the stretch, kept our composure,” LaVine said. “[Early on] we came out and played the right way, and then teams are gonna make their little runs here and there. I think we didn’t do a good job of keeping them down by 20… But we ended the game on a high note and that’s the best thing we can do.”

Forgive a moment of contrivance, but for the Bulls, this game felt microcosmic. The flashes were there of a crisp, movement-based offense and high-intensity, impact defense, but their inability to string 48 consistent minutes together will, to some, sour what was a solid overall performance. LaVine, an offensive revelation of late, rushing to the rescue was befitting, as well. 

It was the same story in Sacramento, where the Bulls led by as many as 19, but needed late-game heroics from LaVine and Lauri Markkanen to cling to a victory over a below-.500 team (missing its two best players). It happened — twice — in Charlotte, the first time resulting in a blown 10-point fourth quarter lead, the second an impossibly infernic comeback win that was as exhilarating as it was unsustainable.

“I don't feel a big-time shift, because I still know that we're in the right place,” LaVine said when asked if he feels the team’s energy or confidence wanes during dry spells, both offensively and defensively. “I just wish we could cut it off sooner. And we could make in-game adjustments better, and I'm not just saying coaching stuff, like, us too.” 

But what’s a team to do, then, when the lid on the basket closes? There are differing schools of thought, though no one in the locker room was resigned to a team-wide fate of perpetual inconsistency. LaVine offered something of a solution.

“I think getting to the foul line has been big, because that'll almost — not bail you out — but you can make an aggressive play,” LaVine, who has attempted 10 or more free throws in his last three games, said. “You still gotta stay aggressive, you still gotta take those shots if they're open. We gotta run our offense because at times it works really well.”

Thad Young was also candid, saying he thinks the Bulls’ current conundrum is in some ways a repercussion of attempting to blend into the break-neck paced, 3-point-happy style of play that’s en vogue in the NBA.

“When you're up 20 it's hard to win games, simply because of the fact that you have certain teams that just don't give up. And then you're trying to control pace as opposed to playing as fast as you were before. And sometimes that hurts you,” Young said. “When you're trying to slow it down, the other team tends to pick it up and gain confidence.

It stands to reason that the Bulls — notorious for generating turnovers and creating offense in transition — would be uniquely impacted by this. Boylen stressed that they’re continuing to learn and grow. 

"Just get back to what we were doing that got us to that point," Young said on the mentality of perservering through those tough stretches. Markkanen, among others, consistently preaches never getting too high or too low, in victory or defeat.

Bigger picture, the offensive metrics haven’t turned around yet (the Bulls remain 29th in offensive rating — 27th since LaVine’s 49-point outing in Charlotte — and a bottom-eight 3-point shooting team), but the win-loss record is beginning to. However the Bulls are doing it, they’re winning, and that’s worth celebrating, for the time being. It allows the team to hone in on areas of inconsistency from a position of assurance.

“I don't feel a lack of energy or confidence,” LaVine said, on when times get the toughest. 

“We just gotta continue to be aggressive and put the ball in the right players' hands and make plays.”

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Bulls observations: Zach LaVine steals the show in runaway win over Cavaliers

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USA Today

Bulls observations: Zach LaVine steals the show in runaway win over Cavaliers

The Bulls got back in the win column with a 118-106 road victory over the Cavaliers, and Zach LaVine is ridiculous. Here's some observations:

Zach LaVine did it again

Whatever happens over the rest of this Bulls season, don’t put it at the feet of Zach LaVine. If you take one thing away from this one, make it that.

LaVine was simply tremendous tonight. He finished with a cool 44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in 39 minutes of play, and shot 16-for-30 from the field (5-for-12 from three; 7-for-8 from the free throw line). After the Bulls fell to the Kings on Friday, LaVine said he was fully prepared for any amount of advanced opportunity that might come his way. He proved that tonight. The Cavaliers threw the kitchen sink (and Tristan Thompson, for a couple possessions) at him, and it didn't matter.

"Just playing the game the way it should be," LaVine said of his performance. "Third quarter they switched up their defense and I felt like I had to be a little more of a facilitator, there was a lot of attention.

"I try to address the game the way they’re playing me but still keep my aggressiveness scoring the ball cause I know that breaks down defenses."

LaVine entered the fourth quarter with 39 points, nine rebounds and eight assists but was unable to clinch his first career triple double. He did make a modicum of history, though: 

Yeah, getting those last two assists would have been a cool milestone. But Bulls fans will take the sublime scoring performance — and victory — and run with it. LaVine’s fourth 40-point outing of the season doesn’t hurt his All-Star chances, either.

"I ain’t have one before," LaVine said when asked if he was aware of how close he was to a triple double. "Literally like two minutes to go I was like alright maybe I should get a couple assists, but the game got out of hand. I’ll get one eventually."

A bunch of good things happened in the third quarter

I’ve harped on it more than a few times this season, but the Bulls are not a good third quarter team. Their 27th-ranked -8.3 third quarter net rating proves it.

Tonight was different. The Bulls pounded the Cavaliers 40-19 in the third period, extending a two-point halftime lead to 23 entering the fourth.

To put it simply: Everything went right. The Bulls turned eight Cavaliers turnovers into 13 points, shot 16-for-21 (76.2%) from the field, 3-for-5 from three and slung 10 assists in those 12 minutes, alone. And though LaVine carried the load in the first half, the Bulls got 28 points in the third from the non-LaVine contingent of the team — a positive development.

"We’ve struggled in the third [quarter] as you all know. I was happy with the way we played in the third, I thought the ball moved, I thought we made good decisions, we finished plays," coach Jim Boylen said.

Notably, Tomas Satoransky finished the night with a fully-stuffed stat line of 19 points, six assists, six rebounds and three steals on 8-for-11 shooting. The Bulls’ second-scorer problem is still a pressing one, but we’ll put it aside for another night. 

Let’s have fun with this one

This win doesn’t assuage most any of the darkest clouds hanging over the Bulls. The Cavaliers are a disastrous team — rated in the bottom eight of the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, and with the league’s highest turnover rate (Cleveland committed 21 cough-ups tonight). And yet, they shot 50% from the floor, 43.3% from the 3-point line and both outrebounded and out-assisted the Bulls. 

But given the mounting adversity facing this team, this game is one fans can afford to have some fun with. The Zach LaVine Show marches on, and will continue to be worth watching.

"I said before the game that our team was frustrated after last night’s game [against Sacramento] and I thought we responded. And I’m really happy for that," Boylen said. "We felt we left some stuff on the table and that we could’ve played better, and we talked about that and we moved on."

Next stop: the UC for the Spurs on Monday.

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Jim Boylen standing firm at moment of reckoning in Bulls' season

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USA Today

Jim Boylen standing firm at moment of reckoning in Bulls' season

It’s no secret that the Bulls’ season hangs in the balance. At 17-30, the team is at once three games out of a playoff spot and slated ninth in the current lottery standings. 

To hear head coach Jim Boylen and co. tell it, a playoff berth remains the more desirable of those two timelines. But according to Basketball Reference, the Bulls have the third most difficult remaining strength of schedule in the East. And worse, they’ll have to face the (immediate) future without Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and Daniel Gafford.

The loss of Markkanen — the most recent of that group to go down — has tipping point potential. In the Bulls’ first game without him, they mustered just 81 points at home against a swooning Sacramento Kings squad, shooting 8-for-37 from 3-point range in the process. The team’s need for secondary scoring outside of Zach LaVine glared

But, as Boylen has maintained all season, the Bulls are not going to change the way they play. They just need to play better.

“We gotta play faster, we gotta move the ball. I thought we had a couple possessions where the ball stuck. The ball can’t stick. We gotta move it, we gotta drive it,” Boylen said of the loss to the Kings before the Bulls’ Saturday night matchup with the Cavaliers in Cleveland. “I also think we missed some opportunities that we need to make.

“Our margin for error is not great. We have to make the plays we can make and make the shots we can make.”

For now, at least, the starting lineup won’t change (sorry #StartCoby crowd) — though Boylen said he’ll keep his rotation fluid. As for outside reinforcements being brought in?

“We have not talked about that. Doesn’t mean we won’t,” Boylen said when asked if the Bulls could actually pivot to ‘buying’ at the trade deadline, given their relative proximity to a playoff spot. “We’re in the middle of a really tough stretch of games, and a lot of games, so my focus has been on that.

“I love the guys we have,” he added. “And we’re gonna keep coaching and teaching the guys we have. I’ve got a good group, a coachable group.”

Absent from those adjectives was ‘interchangeable’ but that word has been ever-present in Boylen’s vocabulary through the ups and downs of this season. In his first full year at the helm, his primary goal remains clear.

“Because we’re establishing this system,” Boylen said when asked why, through thick and thin, the team’s playing style hasn’t changed, as it did last season after Boylen was hired. “Last year, we were tearing it down and then establishing it. Now we’re gonna keep establishing it.”

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