The Bulls sisyphean battle against math continues.
With Kevin Durant joining the fold, the Phoenix Suns are legitimate title contenders. They’re loaded with star power, they have an interior anchor, floor spacers galore and Kevin freaking Durant.
So when the Bulls lost 125-104 on Friday night, falling to 29-35 on the season, it’s not necessarily a bad loss in the sense that the team played poorly, didn’t execute or gave minimal effort. No, they did all of those things. They just lost the battle against math for the nth time this season.
Despite another rock solid offensive night from Zach LaVine (27 points, 8-of-21 shooting, 9-of-11 free throws) and an uber efficient DeMar DeRozan night (31 points, 13-of-18 shooting), the Bulls simply cannot compete with the Suns 141 offensive rating if they’re not going to shoot threes at or above their level.
“We have to take more threes,” Billy Donovan said after the game. “We have to change our profile. When we go against an elite offensive team. The number of threes that they took versus us, they took twice as many threes as we did and they made nearly three times as many.”
Indeed, the Suns shot 20-of-47 from deep, 42.6 percent, compared to the Bulls 7-of-23, 30.4 percent. That’s a 60-21 loss on threes alone.
Against a team with so much firepower, the Bulls can’t just play perfectly, they almost need to change their identity to be able to compete against teams at this level, perhaps an indicator that they will need to find pieces to adjust their style of play this summer.
“We’ve got to try to generate more of those, we just do,” Donovan continued. “Because the only way you’re going to overcome that is by getting an enormous amount of offensive rebounds or getting to the free throw line. We did OK getting to the free throw line, but we have not been an elite offensive rebounding team.”
No, they have not. The Bulls are 28th in the NBA in offensive rebounding — an intentional decision to take the transition end of that tradeoff.
Setting aside the offensive problems for the time being, the Bulls have been elite enough defensively to keep themselves in games. But given the scoring ammunition Phoenix has at their disposal, the Bulls had to make sacrifices.
The game plan was to get the ball out of Durant and Booker’s hands. Period. They’ve dealt with 40-point games from Durant already this season. Booker put 50 on them in just three quarters. They were not willing to walk into another Donovan Mitchell situation.
“Last time we played against them, Booker had 50 in three quarters,” Donovan reminded the media. “So we’re not going to let him play in space, on an island. Same thing with Kevin, he’s just a hard matchup. You can’t play him one-on-one, you’ve got to send people at him.”
Instead, they chose to aggressively send doubles at all mid-post actions, forcing the ball out of Durant’s hands and baiting the Phoenix role players into beating them.
Despite some well executed rotations, they couldn’t always finish out possessions.
“With Chris and Booker and Kevin, they’re all very willing passers and they try to play the right way, so when they are double teamed, they’re not trying to shoot out of double teams, they throw it out,” Donovan continued. “So now what happens is, you’re rotating. And a lot of times on the backside, we had our five-man, whether it was Andre or Vooch, having to make the next rotation to the corner. And a lot of times in that opposite corner was a good shooter. So you can’t just dare him to shoot. “
With Vucevic or Drummond out to the corners to contest, it opened up another area of vulnerability: the offensive glass. Securing 13 offensive rebounds, the Suns were able to force the Bulls out of position with the threat of their jump shooters, only to deliver body shots in the form of second chance points.
“So now what happens is you’ve got Landale and Ayton and some of these guys are coming down on top of the basket to offensive rebound against some of our guards,” Donovan said. “But that was just something we had to do instead of letting Kevin and Booker just play in space, one-on-one. Those are really, really difficult matchups for anybody to play one-on-one, we needed to do it collectively.”
This chain of events puts the Bulls in a tough spot. Against a team as potent as the Suns, you need to make sacrifices, and even though the Bulls executed as well as they could have hoped, they still got beat.
The Bulls need their defensive rebounding to buoy them. They need their rotations to be pristine. And they need to find a way to produce higher variance offense if they’re going to be able to get to the Play In, because time is running out.
Up next: Bulls host the Pacers on a Sunday matinee in a crucial, tie-break determining matchup.