At 11:52 p.m. Central time Wednesday, the final buzzer blared on the Bulls’ most demoralizing loss of the 2019 season, yet: a 104-90 unraveling at the hands of the Warriors.
Eight minutes later, the clock struck midnight on Thanksgiving Eve and, perhaps with it, the Bulls rebuild.
Losing games is one thing. The Bulls, for their part, are well-acquainted with the concept. Wednesday night’s loss marked the team’s 13th defeat in 19 games to open the 2019 season; the 54th of the 77th game (and counting) of the Jim Boylen era; the 128th in 2 1/4 seasons since shipping Jimmy Butler to Minnesota in exchange for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the pick that became Lauri Markkanen.
But losing this game? A game against a team that entered the contest with the NBA’s worst record (3-15) and without four starters (two of whom are future hall of famers)? A game in which the lowest-rated defensive team in the league both outrebounded the Bulls 54-42 and held them to 27.6 points below their previous opponents’ season average? A game that kicked off a road trip flush with supposedly winnable games, at a do-or-die juncture in terms of turning this season around?
That’s quite different.
“I think at times we're very confident, I think at times we struggle with that. I think that's what young teams do. And I go back to consistency. You know, we're looking for consistency,” Jim Boylen said after the game. “We had some really good moments tonight, again, and we battled. It was a physical, hard-fought game. They made some plays at the end that we didn't. And that was the difference.”
And on the plan, moving forward?
“You just go to work the next day, that's all you do. You go to work the next day,” Boylen continued. “There's no shame in this game tonight. We played hard and we competed and we battled and we're gonna do the same thing, we're gonna practice tomorrow, we're gonna have some turkey and we're gonna play Friday… This is not the defining moment of our season. We're gonna keep playing.”
Only in some ways this loss seems to perfectly define this Bulls season, in brutally microcosmic fashion. In the game, Boylen trotted out 13 players for at least five minutes (with the exception of Chandler Hutchison, who left the game early in the first with an apparent shoulder injury), but the Bulls bench was outscored 35-19.
Markkanen, more maligned with each passing day, attempted only 10 shots in 25 minutes, scoring eight points on 3-for-10 shooting. Kris Dunn fouled out early in the fourth quarter with zero points. Coby White shot 0-for-7 from the field. Wendell Carter struggled with foul trouble.
“They're a physical team,” Boylen said. “I thought in the first quarter that kind of shook us a little bit. Then I thought the game under control and we battled back and had a hell of a second quarter, and then we came out in the third and I thought we battled.”
At the heart of that second quarter resurgence was Zach LaVine. In fact, he has been at the heart of every competitive stretch the Bulls have played in their last three games. Tonight, he scored 36 points on 54.9% shooting (44.4% from three) with five rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks. He attempted twice as many shots (24) as the next closest Bull (Tomas Satoransky with 12).
Once again, LaVine played well enough to win, and once again, it wasn’t enough.
“I think every loss you should be upset about. I don't think you should be ashamed about any loss, but you should be upset every time you lose the game,” LaVine said when asked about Boylen saying the Bulls shouldn’t be ashamed of the performance. “If we lose to the worst team or the best team in the league, or if you lose by one or 25, it's still an L.
“This is the Golden State Warriors, man, they have championship class, they got championship coaching, you know, they still have veteran players on the team, so there's no shame in any of that, they still played their game.”
But those were only the ‘championship-class’ Warriors in name and uniform. Sure, Draymond Green suited up for the hosts and posted a vintage statline of seven points, eight assists, five rebounds, three steals and two blocks. But the rest of his castmates are largely unfamiliar. Eric Paschall. Omari Spellman. Marquese Chriss. Alec Burks.
These are fine NBA players. They do not comprise a roster that the Bulls — given the level of expectation for this season — should be walking away from proud for having simply “competed” with. This was a game they could have and should have won.
Wendell Carter acknowledged that fact after the game, further cementing themselves as a stalwart locker-room presence beyond his age:
Wendell Carter Jr., once again, stands as a voice of reason: "It's some shame in this loss. In my opinion, it's some shame in every loss, especially to a very hurt and wounded Warriors team. I'm brutally honest, we should have won that game."— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) November 28, 2019
Now, fans and pundits will begin to turn up the heat. And they should. But the Bulls are also wise to shut that noise out. The players can only control what they can control, after all, and right now, that needs to be exacting vengeance on Portland this Friday.
Boylen says they will keep going to work. LaVine, in a way, echoed that sentiment.
“I try to keep everybody up, you know, especially in the huddles in stuff like that. Each day is a new day, a new game,” LaVine said. “This can flip at any time. You just gotta be confident, you gotta think that way, you know, you can't think negatively.
“Any outside people trying to bring us down, you know, I don't even want to listen to it, cause you gotta psych yourself out to get out of a rut sometimes. And I think that's what we're in right now, a little bit of a rut. But I still believe we can get ourselves out of it.”
The longer this malaise drags on, the more difficult the questions that need answering will become.
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