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A blowout loss shows where the Chicago Bulls "remaining competitive" aspirations are leading them

Will Gottlieb Avatar
February 23, 2024

The Boston Celtics are the class of the Eastern Conference.

They’ve got a seven game lead on the second place Cleveland Cavaliers. They’ve got a league-leading +10.2 point differential that is nearly double the next closest in the East.

As legitimate title contenders, if not favorites, they’re several tiers ahead of the Chicago Bulls. And they proved it with a 129-112 win at the United Center on Thursday night.

“You’re always looking [to measure yourself] against elite teams and teams that have championship aspirations. Clearly they’re one of them,” Billy Donovan said following the game.

Despite turning a 16-point deficit into a three-point lead by halftime, center Nikola Vucevic claimed the Celtics were able to reach a level in the second half that the Bulls simply couldn’t match.

“The third quarter definitely showed that,” Vucevic, who scored 2-of-his-22 points in the second half, said. “When they stepped it up, we weren’t able to match that. They’re a really good team.”

It resulted in a 37-21 third quarter win for Boston that the Celtics never relinquished.

The Bulls are at a talent deficit against teams like the Celtics, so they have to play nearly perfect to compete. When the Celtics make 23-of-47 three-point attempts, while the Bulls manage just 10-of-28, a 39-point gap in Boston’s favor, that gap is nearly impossible to overcome.

“It’s hard,” Nikola Vucevic said of the Celtics three-point shooting after the game. “I mean, it’s really hard, especially with a gap like tonight. We have been better this season a lot of times, but a game like tonight when they really get hot and we are really making shots, in general, we’re not a great shooting team from three like that, it’s difficult.”

“Obviously it’s a big, big difference,” he continued. “Definitely affected the game. They made some tough ones for sure, but they’re a really good team. Probably the best team in the NBA right now. They played really great basketball tonight.”

In order to close that gap, the Bulls emphasize winning the four factors — free throws, turnovers, shooting efficiency and offensive rebound battles — to give themselves a chance.

Well, they lost the free throw battle by two and the effective field goal battle by 17.8 percent. Both teams had 13 turnovers. And even though the Bulls dominated the offensive glass 13-5, it wasn’t enough to reverse the power of the three-point shot.

Donovan did his best to code his language, but he’s been the first to admit the Bulls lack of margin for error.

“They’re unique because they’re just rising up and shooting them and we’re not that way,” Donovan explained of the Celtics elite shot making talent. “You know, they just they just rise up and shoot. And it’s a credit to to their individual talent, and the space that they have, and the way they can rise up and shoot the basketball. And obviously, it’s incredibly unique. We don’t have a lot of guys that are just going to come down and dribble, dribble, dribble and take step back threes. We just we don’t. It’s not who we are.”

In other words, the Bulls don’t have the talent to compete with top teams like the Celtics. But rather than making future-oriented moves at February 8th’s trade deadline that might help them eventually find that type of talent, the Bulls front office opted to aspire to “competitiveness.”

If that means making the NBA Playoffs this season, Thursday’s not-so-competitive loss to the Celtics shows the importance of using the remaining 26 games to climb up the standings.

Now 26-30 on the season, the Bulls are squarely in ninth place, 1.5 games ahead of the 10th seeded Atlanta Hawks. But they’re 4.5 games behind the Miami Heat in 8th and five games behind the Orlando Magic in 7th. Orlando has the tie-breaker against the Bulls and Miami will eventually secure it due to their division record. That means the gap to jump past them extends an additional game.

Every loss makes climbing the standings increasingly more difficult. According to Basketball-Reference Playoff Probabilities Report, the Bulls have a better chance at missing the Play-In (9.3 percent) than climbing up past the 9th seed (6.1 percent).

The Bulls are playing much better of late, now 21-16 since their 5-14 start. Maybe the team internally believes they can compete with anyone in the East, with the exception of Boston.

And maybe that’s true.

But they’ll need to avoid the 9-10 matchup in the NBA Play-In Tournament to prove it.

If they can manage to get through the Play-In as a 7th or 8th seed, they’ll have a chance to face whoever ends up as the 2nd seed in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.

If they remain in the 9-10 game, even if they can win two Play-In games, their best case scenario is a series with the Celtics.

And if Thursday’s 129-112 loss, or November 28th’s rock bottom 124-97 shallacking in Boston are any indication, that is a fate the Bulls will want to avoid by any means necessary.

Up next: The Bulls head to New Orleans for a Sunday evening matchup with the Pelicans

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