TORONTO — With 1 minute, 4 seconds left in the Bulls’ 129-102 loss to the Raptors, Jim Boylen called timeout.
On the Raptors broadcast, longtime analyst Jack Armstrong expressed incredulity.
“What are you doing? What strategy are you talking?” Armstrong said. “It’s a 25-point blowout. It’s Super Bowl Sunday. I want to get out of here.”
A shot of the Bulls’ bench showed some puzzled reactions.
Boylen remained unbowed and unapologetic when asked to explain the unconventional move.
“I was trying to run something with my second group. I got a G League guy in there [Adam Mokoka], who I haven’t coached much, on an ATO,” Boylen said, using the initials for an after-timeout play. “I don’t stop coaching the team because we’re down. I’ve never done that, never will. I’m going to coach the guys on the floor.
“I wanted to run something with Mokoka in it so he can learn and grow. Put that pressure on him and try to develop. We’re trying to win and develop. And that was a development moment. It’d be different if we were up 20 and called timeout. If I can endure the last minute, the last timeout, and coach my team, I think the other team can too. I gotta worry about us and what we’re going to do and who we have. That’s all I think about.”
Welcome to the Bulls’ world, where the dual goals of trying to make the playoffs and developing the second-youngest roster in the NBA sometimes conflict. Particularly when Kris Dunn’s sprained MCL lands on top of injuries to Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr.
“We got different guys playing, new guys playing and guys out,” Boylen said. “We gotta learn how to play in that third quarter when the ball isn’t going in. We’ll keep working at it. It’s a process to get this group of guys to understand how we’re going to play. I do think we’ll get it. And we’ll coach it.”
Indeed, the Bulls played one of the best halves of the season Sunday and led 63-60. But a familiar theme reared its ugly head as the Raptors outscored the Bulls 35-22 in the third and 34-17 in the fourth.
The Bulls dropped to a season-low 14 games under .500. The Raptors have won 11 straight overall and 12 straight against the Bulls.
The loss begins an intriguing week for the Bulls, who publicly declared that the goals for the third season of the rebuild centered on competing nightly, trying to make the playoffs and achieving relevancy. Now, as banged up as they are and as battered as the won-lost record is, do they trade someone like Thaddeus Young by Thursday’s deadline and pivot fully to development?
“I think in general — not talking about the trade deadline — when you’re in a season where you’d like to win and compete for the playoffs and you’d like to develop, your evaluations are difficult when guys don’t play together and guys are injured,” Boylen said. “We’re trying to establish a system at both ends. We’re trying to build this culture in the appropriate way. I think we’ve done that.
“We’ve had to have the next-man-up mentality along with that, which is part of your culture. Those are the pillars of our team right now — be a good defensive team, continue to improve at the offensive end of the floor, continue to have a good culture of work. Practice is important to us.”
To the critics, those who roll their eyes at what are getting known as 'Boylen-isms' and who lead the 'Fire GarPax' chants, these words will sound like empty chatter. Boylen enjoys a strong relationship with executive vice president John Paxson, with whom he communicates daily.
These decisions are ones they will reach organizationally.
“I think we have a lot of pieces that are heading in the right direction. I think Zach LaVine has had a heck of a year. I think Kris Dunn was having an All-Defensive season and a great season. Lauri Markkanen’s effective field goal is I think the highest it’s been in his career [Markkanen's eFG% of 51.5 is 0.3 behind his rookie mark of 51.8]. We have guys having moments and good days and good play,” Boylen said. “Again, Otto has not played as much as we’ve hoped. How do we evaluate that? We’ll do the best we can. We believe in Otto. Would his 40 percent 3-point shooting and three 3s help us right now? I think we can evaluate that it would help us. That’s not the way it is.
“I think Cris Felicio has helped us win some games. He’s played good minutes. Daniel Gafford came back [Sunday] and we know Dan plays hard and cares. Wendell’s a dominant, dominant defensive player and a developing offensive player. His 3-ball was coming around. His feel for the offensive end of the floor was coming.
“So we’ll evaluate that and hopefully get him back and we’ll move forward with that. It’s almost like player-by-player: Where are they at? What have they done? What do we feel good about? What could we do better? What can I do better? I evaluate myself too.”
Gafford returned from missing nine games to a dislocated thumb but played just 9 minutes and some of those on a rolled right ankle that he gritted his teeth to ignore.
“I wasn't moving as well as I could. But I was moving,” Gafford said. “As long as I'm moving, I'm going to keep trying."
Chandler Hutchison returned to the starting lineup for Dunn and continued his recent strong stretch with 17 points, including a career-high nine free-throw attempts.
Coby White, one of three Bulls along with Zach LaVine and Tomas Satoransky to play all 52 games, sank four 3-pointers.
There are flashes of occasional light in this darkest of seasons. But there’s a long way to go.
“Nobody is going to feel sorry for you,” LaVine said. “They’re going to look at us like an easy one, try to take advantage of us. We gotta play.”