Jim Boylen

In Bulls' loss to Toronto Raptors, Denzel Valentine and Daniel Gafford rejuvenated the United Center

In Bulls' loss to Toronto Raptors, Denzel Valentine and Daniel Gafford rejuvenated the United Center

Monday night, 14,775 fans attended the Bulls' latest in a line of hard-fought defeats: a 93-92 loss to the Toronto Raptors. That's the smallest reported crowd at the United Center for a Bulls game since Dec. 16, 2004.

For stretches, though, it felt like a full house. 

"The UC was great tonight, the fans were awesome," Denzel Valentine said.

The starters carried the team, to start: Of the Bulls' 50 first-half points, 46 were scored by Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter. But it wasn't the usual suspects that pushed the Chicago faithful's decibel count to levels unheard of in the earlygoing of this season.

Thank Valentine and Daniel Gafford, in large part, for that. With the Bulls trailing 61-58 at the 4:45 mark of the third, Jim Boylen turned to a bench-dominated unit of Coby White, Valentine, Thad Young, Gafford and LaVine to spark his group. It was a potential tipping point in the game: The Raptors were in the midst of an 11-3 run and the Bulls' offense was fizzling. White, Valentine, Young and Gafford had four points between them upon entry.

With that move, the fates tilted towards the home side. For a time.

"It was great minutes from them," Satoransky said of Valentine and Gafford after the game. "I think [Denzel] is feeling more himself right now. And DG will always bring that energy. He's one of the most athletic guys I've ever seen, his energy... will always refresh our game."

It certainly did in this one. Gafford blocked three shots and notched 10 points over the game's final quarter-and-a-half. Valentine scored all 13 of his points for the night after that juncture in the third, shooting 5-for-9 from the floor and 3-for-7 from 3-point range. The Bulls finished the night 12-for-46 from 3-point land.

"Just energy," Valentine said, of what that bench unit brought. "We started playing defense. It started on the defensive end, started in transition, getting rebounds. Played with a little bit more life. Playing with each other too. We were moving the ball together."

"We go in, we produce with the minutes that we get," Gafford said. And on what the fans gave back: "There was definitely energy. I was blocking shots, Denzel was knocking down shots, we were getting stops on defense. We were doing everything we needed to do to win the game, and the crowd helped us do that."

Of course, they didn't do it alone. In spite of not scoring, White played a solid defensive game and finished the night with eight rebounds and five assists. Young and Kris Dunn each hit crucial 3-pointers in the third. But watching Valentine and Gafford ignite the home crowd made it even more surreal that neither of them cracked the regular rotation until mid-to-late November.

"We got a bond," Gafford said. "He finds me when I'm open, and I find him when he's open... We just go out and play basketball."

That strategy helped the Bulls build an 85-77 lead with eight minutes left in the game, but the team's good fortunes faded fast from there. After an alley-oop from Valentine to Gafford gave them their 84th and 85th points of the night, the Bulls didn't score for the next five-and-a-half minutes of game action. The Raptors surged down the stretch. The Bulls scrapped, but ultimately faltered when it mattered most.

Both Gafford and Valentine found themselves in the Bulls' closing lineup — Valentine by way of the hot-hand, Gafford in Carter's stead after he fouled out with just under four minutes remaining. A Valentine transition layup, Markkanen 3-pointer and Gafford layup represented the Bulls' only points of the final eight minutes.

"We gotta learn how to put it away. If we can't at the end of the third quarter, we gotta put it away at the beginning of the fourth," Gafford said. "We just gotta learn how to put it away, seal the deal." 

But, as a team, they didn't. And thus, the bottom line doesn't change. The Bulls won a(nother) moral victory or two tonight, but when the final points were tallied, they were on the short end. That's the only stat that matters, especially to those 14,775 that stood behind their team, in person, tonight.

"It’s disappointing when we don’t win games. It’s disappointing when we don’t win home games," Boylen, who has presided over only 10 home victories in his tenure, said. "Nobody is running from that."

"No excuses, nobody cares, we just gotta come out and play hard and learn from our mistakes," Valentine said. "It's tough, because we lose the last three and we were up in the fourth [quarter], I think, in all of those games. So it's tough. But hopefully at some point we'll figure it out."

Gafford and Valentine provided a jolt, but because of the result, they're only would-be heroes — their combined performance amounts to nothing more than an all-too-familiar silver lining. In some ways, that stings even more.

"That's why this game is so frustrating," Satoransky said. "Because I know we were there. Fans were engaged and I think we played very well, and we missed a lot of shots. You know, that always hurts."

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Bulls starters need to close games to turn moral victories into wins

Bulls starters need to close games to turn moral victories into wins

Following the Bulls’ second heartbreaking loss in as many nights, Jim Boylen had the floor.

“I coach by faith. I coach and teach every day on where I think we’re going to be. When that’s going to happen, when that’s going to break through, I’m not sure. But I’m going to keep coaching that way. We’ll watch from this, learn from it and grow,” a passionate Boylen said. “We’re playing good, hard basketball. We have to win two or three more possessions — one more defensive rebound, one more loose ball, one more open 3. That’s the difference in this. And I’m not going to let any negativity deter us from that mission. That’s what we’re going to do.”

And with that, the Bulls’ coach exited his postgame news conference, an atypical move for one of the more accessible coaches in the league.

Nobody could fault Boylen. At this point, people are tired of words anyway. And judging from the announced attendance of 14,775, the smallest since Dec. 16, 2004, people are tired of the Bulls’ losing ways, too.

Most any coach in the NBA brings his starters back with 6 to 8 minutes to go, as Boylen did with the Bulls leading by eight. Most any coach in the NBA goes to his most talented player, as Boylen did in calling Zach LaVine’s number, with the game on the line.

In the broken record department, the starters, with Denzel Valentine in for an ineffective Kris Dunn, coughed up another fourth-quarter lead. LaVine, who went scoreless in the second half after scoring 20 points in the first, missed over a double-team near the buzzer.

Making matters worse? LaVine afterward said he should’ve passed to a wide-open Daniel Gafford, in for the fouled-out Wendell Carter Jr.

“I saw Marc Gasol there. I tried to get him in the air and draw a foul. I’ve looked at now. I just wish I would’ve took an extra dribble to see the double-team on me,” LaVine said. “I could’ve hit Daniel. I could’ve kicked it back out. I thought I was making the right play by trying to get in the air and get to the free throw line. It just didn’t happen.”

How are these for some disturbing numbers? Valentine, who wasn’t even in the rotation until recently, took as many fourth-quarter shots as the four starters who played. The bench outscored the starters 18-3 in the final period.

For contrast, the Raptors’ starters scored 18 of their 22 fourth-quarter points.

The Bulls are going to keep recording moral victories, not real ones, until they learn how to close games.

“The starters’ job is to come back in, get re-engaged in the game and close it out. That’s what they did. They brought their guys in and they closed the game out,” Boylen said, alluding to the Raptors. “We have to learn to do that. We’re close. We’re right there. That’s the next step.”

To LaVine’s credit, he’s playing through a shoulder that Boylen called “banged up,” even though it hasn’t landed him officially on the injury report. He also briefly got the wind knocked out of him when OG Anunoby blocked his shot from behind and elbowed him in the back.

“We’re fine. Obviously, you’re upset in the moment. But it’s not like we’re not playing with these teams and competing with them all the way down to the fourth quarter,” LaVine said. “It shouldn’t have even been a one-point possession but that’s what we were left at and we just didn’t make the play.

“It feels like a little bit of a broken record. This is our job. We have to compete every time on the floor.”

The Bulls are on a three-game losing streak by a combined eight points. LaVine has missed game-winning attempts twice in the last three games. They still have yet to beat a team with a winning record.

“I can’t speak for everybody or the fans. I get a lot of positive feedback about our group,” Boylen said. “I think people understand what we’re trying to build. It’s disappointing when we don’t win games. It’s disappointing when we don’t win home games. Nobody is running from that. But this team is playing hard and competing and learning and growing. I think people can see that too.

“We’re going to keep pounding the rock and playing hard and working at it. I’m confident we’ll break through.”

It’s Boylen’s job to remain positive. Is anybody else confident?

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Even in loss to Heat the Bulls had small wins

bullsbutler.jpg
USA Today

Even in loss to Heat the Bulls had small wins

Trailing the Heat 108-105 with four seconds remaining in overtime, the ball found Lauri Markkanen. He was pinned in the corner and leaning away from the basket, but still, he got a clean 3-point attempt off. If the shot fell, it would have tied the game.

But it didn't. Instead, the high-arching jumper clanged off the side of the rim. And when it did, Coby White — who enjoyed, in many ways, a career performance in this game — slumped over. The response befitted the performance.

"Nobody likes to lose. We're not happy with the loss," Jim Boylen said. "I got a frustrated group of guys in there that want to win."

It's a defeat that, on its face, should be swallowable. In it, the Bulls played one of the league's best teams in the Heat down to the wire, in an arena they haven't lost in this season. 

The silver linings were abundant: The Bulls won the first quarter, an area Boylen has often emphasized. They got standout performances from Markkanen (team-high 22 points), Kris Dunn (16 points, three steals, 6-for-9 shooting) and White (11 points, eight assists, 3-for-7 from 3-point range, closed the fourth quarter and OT). They outshot one of the NBA's most prolific offenses and held Jimmy Butler to 3-for-14 shooting. Sure, he went to the free throw line 21 times, but he also didn't break the Bulls' back with clutch buckets down the stretch.

"It's real hard. But we gave them some game goals, and they accomplished them," Boylen said. "First quarter start. Be more physical. For the most part, our defensive rebounding was really good. Our transition D was really good. Our physicality was good. We moved the ball, we executed. We ran things to get open shots.

"We did a lot of really good thing and that's what I have to look at. Ultimately, you want to win. I cannot take away from the good things we do and the growth we're making. But it hurts."

Yet, something feels especially hollow about this loss. Even sour. But perhaps that's more about what came before tonight. Talk of growth doesn't resonate without assurance that said growth will continue to occur lineally, and that hasn't happened for the Bulls. Just last week, they sparked their first win streak of the season with victories over the Kings and Grizzlies. Steps forward. Then, a massive step back in falling to the 5-19 Warriors on Friday.

The tropes that pervaded the Golden State game reared their head again tonight. Zach LaVine was 1-for-6 between the fourth quarter and overtime. Loose balls found the wrong hands. Crucial defensive lapses late aided Tyler Herro nailing four 3-pointers (including the eventual game-winner) over the game's last six minutes.

"The one that [Herro] put up before the overtime, Shaq actually did a good job on [Butler] defensively and I thought [Butler] was gonna shoot the ball, so I went in there and crashed," Dunn said of the 3-pointer Herro hit to put the Heat up 97-95 with 7.1 seconds left in regulation. "[Butler] made an unselfish play, a great play out to Tyler Herro and he knocked it down... Jimmy does draw a lot of attention, he's a good player, but we have to be defensively sound. And, for me, that last play before the overtime, that was on me."

At 8-16, the Bulls simply can't afford to be happy with an 'encouraging' loss, even if they wish they could be. The balance of finding and taking the positives from this defeat while at the same reconciling that this season is escaping them is a difficult one.

"[Winning] is important, but I have to measure this — third-youngest team in the league, this young group — in other ways than that. I have to. That's what we're building, that's what we're developing," Boylen said.

"Definitely frustrated to lose, but we played well, a lot of guys played well," Dunn said. "Good thing about the NBA, games come quick... Tomorrow, we play Toronto at home so hopefully bring the same intensity and get the win there."

If that win is of the moral variety, the burning issues facing this team aren't like to dissipate soon.

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