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The Chicago Bulls again went to their tried and true recipe of waiting for their opponent to gain a 20-point first quarter advantage before starting the race. On Saturday against the Miami Heat, they were able to salvage the game and come out with a 102-97 victory.
But don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security.
“I’m with you. I’m with you,” Billy Donovan said pre-game, when asked about the team’s slow starts.
We’re all watching the same thing.
“What I see is a feeling out process of the game. However you want to say that. And either you’re going to come out of the ring like Mike Tyson or you’re going to come out bobbing and weaving. And we’ve got to come out that way. We have to come out that way,” Donovan said, of course referring to the former.
So how did they start?
9-1 Heat at the 9:15 mark. Bulls timeout.
20-1 at the 5:48 mark. Bulls timeout.
The Miami Heat opened the game on a 22-1 run over the first 7:12 of the game. The Bulls scored their first field goal at 4:48 in the first quarter.
This has been a problem all season long. The Bulls lay out the runway for their opponent to go up 15 or more, only to start digging themselves out of their hole when the subs come in.
“It’s almost like the game starts, we see how the game’s going,” Donovan explained. “Whatever word; urgency, desperation, whatever it may be. But all of a sudden, we shift. We’ve got to be able to do that.”
Their first quarter net rating reflects it — they’re -16.3 is bottom three in the league.
“I don’t know what the answer is quite honestly,” Donovan said. “It’s something we do talk about and try to show, about like here’s the contrast. Here’s where we do it good, here’s where we don’t…That’s the challenge.”
The Bulls were able to come back, in large part because they won the math battle. Though they attempted four fewer free throws, the Bulls shot a season high 45 threes, and made 35.6 percent of them. They won the offensive rebounding battle 10-5. They won the turnover battle 12-15 and shot much more efficiently than the Heat.
But it all misses the point.
Many fans have pointed the finger at Donovan. He deserves a piece. But he’s far from the root of all problems. The Bulls are quietly a top-seven defense in their last seven games, holding opponents to fewer points than their top-five defense did last year. Donovan has adjusted lineups — swapping Torrey Craig in for Patrick Williams after five games and Alex Caruso for Craig after seven more. He’s put in new sets, through which the Bulls players sleepwalk. He’s somehow gotten the Bulls into the top-20 in corner three-point attempt rate.
He’s trying everything. Grasping at straws. No matter what he does with this roster, it just hasn’t been good, let alone good enough.
It’s not helped by the fact that the players appear to be done playing with one another.
After the win, as in, not after a loss, LaVine brushed a Bulls staff member off en route to the locker room while the rest of the team celebrated on the court. He called it a “miscommunication for us and our PR team. We’re all fine.”
“I’m not ticked at all,” LaVine said. “I’m happy we got a win. We play these guys in a couple days. You don’t want to sit around and celebrate. I’d rather celebrate in locker room.”
It’s strange because LaVine was fantastic in this game. Despite scoring only 13 points, he had a pair of huge threes to bring the game within reach in the fourth quarter. He had eight rebounds and six assists. Three steals, a block and only one turnover. He defended well and forced Jimmy Butler into a clutch miss. If anything, he showed the roundedness of his game that Bulls fans have been yearning for since he arrived.
To be fair, everything he does will now be heavily scrutinized good or bad. He is typically accommodating with the media. He’s been a true professional through his Bulls tenure and this certainly wasn’t a violent outburst or anything of the sort.
But after the trade smoke from earlier this week and the quality of play from the team ever since, the post-game behavior is a bad look. One that is, unfortunately, symbolic of the state of the organization.
Wins and losses are irrelevant. Wins only delay the inevitable and worsen the Bulls draft position. Losses compound on the emotional wellbeing of the team and fanbase. Whatever happens, the Bulls are in a lose-lose.
The slow starts are a symptom of the bigger picture. That’s last year’s problem. Saturday’s win might be a nice reprieve, but the root cause persists.
As much as the players and coaches can deny it, the emotional toll of an accumulation of losses is hanging over this team. 5-9 on the season. 12th place in the Eastern Conference.
The Bulls have let this situation get the best of them. LaVine now has three feet out the door.
This is their reality.
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