Coby White’s second straight 3-pointer splashed through the net — a three that, combined with a Ryan Arcidiacono long-ball, capped a 9-0 run to give the Bulls a one-point lead over the Bucks with 6 minutes, 23 seconds to play.
For the second time in five days, the Bulls had an opportunity to knock off the Bucks, an Eastern Conference champion contender.
Then, reality hit. Or the starters returned. At this point, that’s one and the same.
Here’s all you need to know about where the Bulls’ rebuild stands as 'Year Three' fell to a 4-10 start following the Bucks’ 115-101 victory: Coach Jim Boylen admitted he considered riding a bench unit down the stretch over one that featured Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen.
“They have a guy that they can go to that can get them a bucket, which is what good teams have,” Boylen said, referring to the Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo. “I’ve been on those teams. We’re figuring out who that guy is and we’re learning to play that way. We’re not there yet.”
Boylen then supported his beleaguered core players, because that’s what he’s paid to do. But the sobering reality of the Bulls’ current fortunes didn’t just play out in LaVine’s stat line of 11 points on 4-for-16 shooting, or Markkanen’s 9 points on 2-for-12.
It played out when Boylen indeed returned to LaVine and Markkanen with 5:04 remaining, and the Bucks leading 103-99. From that point, the Bulls didn’t score another field goal.
Markkanen sank two free throws but missed a driving layup and 13-foot jumper. LaVine committed a turnover, missed a layup and a 3-pointer.
Game, set and match.
“They got the MVP over there. He did his thing. And we didn’t,” LaVine said. “It’s going to be tough when your leading players, me and Lauri, don’t perform at our level. You can understand that. You’re missing a lot of points and a lot of plays. We understand we have to pick it up.”
What’s that they say? Recognition is the first step towards recovery. The Bulls have to hope so, especially after Markkanen admitted his slump is affecting him mentally.
“It’s frustrating knowing I’ve never had this kind of stretch of not even not hitting 3s but missing layups and dunks,” he said. “I have to keep my head up knowing that you work too hard for this not to turn around. Keep working and I know it’s going to turn around.
“I noticed myself kind of thinking too much at the half. I tried to switch it up and make the plays for the team. That’s how you get out of your own head. I have to stay aggressive. Create contact and then finish every shot. Not getting out of it too early or anything like that. I’ve done my film study. Put the work in and I know it’s going to turn around.”
At one point, Markkanen actually missed two dunk attempts on the same possession. Following the second, he rolled his eyes toward the United Center roof as if to say, 'What’s next?'
Markkanen is shooting 36.2 percent overall and 26.8 percent from 3-point range. He missed all four three-pointers he attempted versus the Bucks.
“Just try to get an easy bucket and lay it in. But having two 7-footers there, I know it’s going to be blocked so I tried to go up quick and end up missing it,” Markkanen said of the dunk sequence. “It was frustrating. I know I can play better. It’s not going to be like this forever. I don’t know what else to say.”
Antetokounmpo made 13 field goals, equaling the total of five Bulls starters. How do you say 'ouch' in Greek?
“What I’m going to do is I’m going to support those two guys. I’m going to coach them like I always have. I’m going to show it to them on film and we’re going to work on it in practice. We’re going to get them to understand that we believe in them, we value them and that we need to do better,” Boylen said. “It’s all part of this process. We’re slugging uphill right now. We gotta keep slugging. That’s all I can say.”
Boylen said he returned to LaVine and Markkanen because he still believes in them. He has to say that and he has to believe that. The rebuild is structured for them to shine.
It’s not currently happening.
“I’m still developing two young guys,” Boylen said. “Zach missed a year-and-a-half. Lauri was hurt last year. He has basically played two years. I’m going to keep developing them to come in and learn how to win games. I believe in both of them. I believe they’re important to what we’re doing.”
Raising LaVine’s absence to an ACL injury and subsequent rehab is a curious approach from Boylen given that LaVine has been fully healthy and rehabbed for quite some time. But again, he has been placed in a position where he has to protect their play and lack of production in big moments.
The Bulls are a long way away from respectability at this point.
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