Slow start, quiet finish doom Bulls in loss to Hornets


Slow start, quiet finish doom Bulls in loss to Hornets

From the 9-minute mark of the first quarter to the 2-minute mark of the fourth quarter, the Bulls played well enough to win. Unfortunately that five-minute stretch Saturday against the Charlotte Hornets also counted in the final tally, with a lackadaisical start and quiet finish proving costly in the Bulls’ 102-96 loss Saturday at the United Center.

A Doug McDermott 3-pointer from the top of the key tied the game at 94 with 2:06 remaining, and the Bulls were given consecutive chances to take the lead at home after a pair of errant shots from Nicolas Batum, the game’s leading scorer with 24 points.

And while the Bulls got the looks they wanted – first Derrick Rose ran the pick-and-roll with Pau Gasol, playing in his 1,000th game, and got the center an open look from 15 feet that went long; then McDermott had a look from the right wing that went halfway down before popping out – execution was an issue down the stretch, as they made just five of their final six shots after McDermott’s game-tying triple.

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The Hornets, ranked fourth in the NBA in efficiency, wouldn’t give the Bulls any more chances. Cody Zeller hit a pair of free throws and Kemba Walker connected on a stepback jumper after Jimmy Butler’s 3-point try from the right corner rimmed out to essentially put the game out of reach. Where the Bulls struggled in the closing moments, the Hornets scored eight points on their final five possessions to seal the victory, their second in three tries against the Bulls.

“We missed some shots we thought we hit. But we’ve got to get stops,” McDermott said after the game. “We didn’t do a job. Batum kind of had it rolling in the second half and we couldn’t really cool him off. It’s tough but we’ve got to bounce back, we’ve got more coming at us. We’ll be able to bounce back.”

That the Bulls had a chance to win in the closing minutes was a surprise in itself, considering they put themselves in a 12-3 hole to begin the game. Energy was lacking, the defense appeared to be a step behind Charlotte, winners in six of their last eight, and the offense wasn’t clicking, missing six of their first seven like they did to end the game.

Nikola Mirotic, who returned after suffering a concussion in Wednesday’s win over Denver, scored seven points on 3-for-4 shooting in the opening period. But aside from him, the other four starters combined to shoot 5-for-15.

“We know what it takes to win and having high energy from the gates, truthfully that’s on the starters,” said Butler, who missed his first five shots. “Definitely on the guards, on myself and Derrick for letting it happen. The bench did their job. They came in high energy, got us back into this game. It’s on us. The starting five has to go out there and start with energy.”

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A gutty performance from the second unit included a 16-4 run that gave the Bulls a three-point lead, but the Hornets responded on the backs of Batum and Kemba Walker, who finished with 17 points, to take a two-point halftime lead. 

The Bulls appeared to be rolling in the third quarter, with Butler and Rose showing off that energy by each scoring nine points, while the Hornets were limited to 20 points and committed six turnovers, which turned into eight points for the Bulls. That looked more like the defense that entered Saturday leading the league in field goal percentage defense, though it faltered late when the offense couldn’t respond. 

The fourth quarter was a back-and-forth affair, with neither team leading by more than one possession from the 9:45 mark until less than a minute remaining, with Walker’s jumper putting the Hornets up four, 98-94, with 28.9 seconds left.

Taking out the first 3 minutes and final 2 minutes, the Bulls outscored the Hornets, 91-82. In the remaining 43 minutes they shot 35-for-77, a respectable 45 percent.

But those other five minutes counted in the final tally, and despite the Bulls getting the ball in the right hands – they had 29 assists on 37 made field goals – the slow start felt as though they were playing catch-up all night, even when they took the lead in the third quarter.

“We just weren’t playing with pace. Coming out the gates they came out playing harder than we did as a whole on both ends of the floor,” Butler said. “When we play like that we’re not a good enough team to just play lazy and expect ourselves to outscore people.”

Scoring in general has been a difficulty for the Bulls of late. Though ranked in the top-10 in pace, they’ve now gone six straight games without scoring 100 points. There were signs of more progress – Derrick Rose scored 19 points and made three 3-pointers, half his season total entering the game, and McDermott looked good with 13 minutes and got late-game minutes – and now the challenge for Hoiberg is to get his players to show that consistency for 48 minutes. It didn’t happen at the start or very end Saturday night, and the result was the Bulls’ second home loss this season.

“I thought we missed some really, really good looks. I thought even Doug and Jimmy at the end had great looks that hit every part of the rim and bounced out,” Hoiberg said of the late-game struggles. “Our movement’s getting better and just we have to sustain it, we have to do it for 48 minutes.”

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

The door has officially been closed on the 2017-18 season for the Chicago Bulls, and the word that most comes to mind is “unfulfilling.”

Or maybe even “indistinguishable.”

Draft night was supposed to be a culmination of a painful seven-month stretch that only had occasional yet costly moments of light.

Death lineup? Meet Death March. And Death April, while we’re at it.

The Bulls brass sold everyone on a full rebuild after trading Jimmy Butler one year ago, with an unspoken promise that this draft would bear franchise-changing fruit—hence the general feeling of angst or even indifference with the solid selection of Wendell Carter Jr. and their not-so-secret affection of Chandler Hutchison.

It was why fans believe the Bulls got cold feet about trading to move up, and why they believe the Bulls weren’t being pragmatic in staying away from Michael Porter Jr.

Porter, some believe, has star written all over him given his prep ranking this time last year and the Bulls were in position to speed up this process without having to go into a painful Process.

They were desperate for a star, believing the tankathon had produced so much suffering it had to be something on the back end.

There was the fight (or the punch).

The aftermath.

The miserable 3-20 start.

The 14-7 streak that produced the audacity of hope.

The reality that 14-7 was damaging enough to the lottery chances that a 3-11 finish couldn’t rectify.

And finally, the coin flip that cost them five spots in the lottery one month ago.

So that empty feeling has less to do with Carter and Hutchison, who’ve done nothing to earn the “blah” reaction from the fan base and some media. It has everything to do with the unanswered questions over the last 82 games and lack of clarity over the three hauls from draft night last year.

It’s not that Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn underperformed individually last season, but the lack of cohesiveness due to injuries and circumstances has led to the varying thoughts.

LaVine is approaching restricted free agency and by all accounts is taking his continuing rehab in Washington very seriously.  Markkanen has added plenty of muscle since the offseason began, appearing as if he can play Michael B. Jordan’s in-ring foil in the next installation of “Creed” as Ivan Drago’s long lost son.

And despite the report about Dunn not working as hard on the floor this offseason, that would be more of a concern if this were late August, not June.

The last time they were seen together on the floor, they looked no closer to a pecking order than the day they arrived.

What we know is that they’re productive NBA players, capable of putting an individual tattoo on a game at a moment’s notice, skillful enough to take your breath away.

And for whatever reason, the expectations changed once the three displayed they could be dynamic on their own—a star needed to be anointed and groomed to go with the star they believed was coming their way after the season.

Management is fully behind Markkanen, but Paxson’s strong words about LaVine at the season-ending news conference illustrated how much it feels LaVine has to prove next season.

With his restricted free agency status looming, the Bulls’ initial offer will show how much they value him until and if he gets a better deal on the market.

And the fact the Bulls weren’t afraid to draft Trae Young while having a healthy debate about Collin Sexton on draft night has to show they have at least some skepticism about the future at point guard.

But stars—developing stars, acquired stars, drafted stars—have to do it on their own. No amount of promotion or prodding from management will validate their faith, if that’s the route the Bulls choose to go.

This has to be a meritocracy or it won’t work and, honestly, it’s time for a reality check.

All the worry about the Bulls getting back to title contention sooner rather than later seems like folks getting ahead of themselves.

The front office has taken its share of shots from media and fans, so some questioning is earned but they’re right about one thing. Rebuilds aren’t completed in a day or 12 months.

Expecting some magic potion to arrive in the form of a top draft pick isn’t going to cure what ills this roster, and it doesn’t seem likely all the cap space will result in a free agent choosing the Bulls over the usual suspects.

However, methodical building can look like complacency if not done with a sense of urgency.

And with urgency in mind, this past season was unsatisfying to say the least—heading into the next phase with two more young pieces to develop while the first three are still in the evaluation stage.

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Donte Ingram's 2018 keeps getting better and better.

The March Madness hero, who buried a game-winning 3-pointer in the first round of Loyola's win over Miami, will play on the Bulls' Summer League team.

Ingram, a Simeon Academy graduate, had himself an incredible senior season with the Ramblers, who advanced all the way to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.

In five NCAA Tournament games Ingram averaged 7.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists for the Ramblers. He also had 18 points in the MVC Conference Championship Game to secure the Ramblers' March Madness berth.

He'll join first-round draft picks Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison on the Las Vegas Summer League team, which will begin play early next month.