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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