By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)
The Chicago Bulls are already frustrated with losing. That’s a good sign. A great sign, actually.
No quality NBA players accept losing, but some are grouped together in teams who seem resigned to the inevitability of a bad season when certain cards are dealt to them.
So the fact that Zach LaVine is upset about losing, even though three of his fellow Bulls starters are out with injury, should be heartening to fans. One could even say that frustration kept the Bulls from folding against Charlotte yesterday and chalking up their first win of the season.
Still, as the injury news keeps coming, the Bulls and their fans should prepare themselves for more frustration. Here’s a quick review of the past week for the Chicago Bulls.
The opening game against Philadelphia had the early makings of a surprise upset. The Sixers were coming off a bad loss to division rival Boston the night before and they would be desperate early to energize their home crowd.
But the Bulls were on TNT, a talisman of success for the club in recent years when playing at home, and a 41-point first quarter had some thinking the national television success would carry over to the road. However, the Sixers outscored the Bulls in the second and third quarters on the way to a 127-108 victory. LaVine and Bobby Portis combined for 50 points, but only Antonio Blakeney (15 points) had a positive plus-minus (plus-6 off the bench). The Bulls were also out-rebounded 50-39, prepare for that to be a recurring theme this year.
DEE-TROIT– You Know the Rest
Even with Blake Griffin (33-12-5) and Andre Drummond frustrating Portis into a 2-for-12 shooting night, the Pistons needed all 48 minutes to beat Chicago. Justin Holiday was Zach LaVine’s 50-point partner this time, as he added 17 to LaVine’s 33.
Cameron Payne had a nice game with 17 points on 50 percent shooting, and Jabari Parker added 13 off the bench, but it was again only Blakeney who didn’t see the deficit widen in his time on the court (10 points, even plus-minus). Rebounding: 49-41 Detroit. Told you it would be a recurring theme.
Dallas Tryers Club
The Bulls played well in the first half of this one Monday evening and entered the locker room up 61-59. Unfortunately, a disastrous 3.5-minute stretch over the third and fourth quarters saw an 84-82 lead become a 10-point deficit, thanks to 17-5 Mavs run. LaVine and Holiday combined for another 50 with seven of 10 three-point shooting.
Jabari Parker led all bench scorers with 20, but Dallas’ bench outscored Chicago 39-34 and was a combined plus-11 (plus-17 with their main group), while the Bulls’ second unit had a minus-21 in the box score.
The Sting of Victory
Shouts to my man Brad for getting me a ticket to this one (in the club level, no less) so I could witness the Bulls play their most complete 36 minutes of basketball before nearly unraveling in the clutches. It took every one of Zach LaVine’s game-high 32 points to get the first “W” of the season, which was capped by two free throws from the new franchise player with 0.5 seconds left.
The real MVP on this night was Cam Payne, who drained seven threes (!) in the second half for a career-high 21 points. Ryan Arcidiacono, Cristiano Felicio and Chandler Hutchison were part of a second unit that confounded Charlotte in the second quarter and Wendell Carter Jr. had his best game so far, finishing with 6 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks.
So what lessons have been learned from one week of play?
The Bulls are who we thought they were. Coming into the season we knew the following was likely: LaVine was going to be an offensive machine, the Bulls would have trouble rebounding with only Portis, the aging Lopez and young Carter Jr. in the paint, the team’s defense would be suspect and the second unit would have a tough time meshing. Can Zach keep up his scoring pace, will the Bulls shore up their defense and will the bench emulate their performance against the Hornets?
Antonio Blakeney needs to play. Blakeney was the G League Rookie of the Year last season and he averaged 12.5 points in the Bulls’ first two games, but with Kris Dunn returning Monday, Fred Hoiberg decided to go with Cam Payne as the backup point guard even though Blakeney only had 4:32 minutes of game time against Dallas and was plus-6 in that span with a three-pointer. Prior to the Hornets game Blakeney and Portis were the only Bulls with a positive net plus-minus who played 50 minutes or more so far this season. Even though he’s undersized, Hoiberg needs to find a way to get Blakeney minutes each game.
The team’s defense isn’t great, but it’s on with the rest of the league.
Entering Wednesday, the Bulls were 23rd in the NBA in points allowed and 25th in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions). Both numbers are well over 100, which would be truly alarming if the rest of the league wasn’t scoring at a breakneck pace.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, only the Celtics and Nuggets are allowing less than 100 PPG, and only Boston is scoring fewer than 100 points a night–0.2 points fewer, to be exact. It would be easy to say these numbers will regress to the mean as the season goes on, but with teams shooting more and more and from further away, those defensive numbers might stay where they are.
Beast of the Week: If you thought someone other than Zach LaVine was going to be in this space, you were mistaken. LaVine is healthy for the first time since his second season, and has displayed his full offensive capabilities in the Bulls’ first four games, to the tune of 32.3 PPG with .571/.400/.861 shooting. Let’s also give a shout-out to Justin Holiday here, who is far outpacing his woeful shooting numbers from last season.
Predictions for Next Week: The upcoming week doesn’t give the Bulls much of a break, and no Kris Dunn means we’ll be treated to Cameron Payne flailing away at Kemba Walker, Trae Young, Steph Curry and Jamal Murray in the next five games.
That Denver game is going to be especially difficult — the Nuggets lead the league in rebounds and free throws made, and Nikola Jokic is averaging seven assists per game, meaning Portis and Carter Jr. will have to keep him off the high post.
- Oct. 26 at Hornets – L
- Oct. 27 at Hawks – W
- Oct. 29 vs. Warriors – L
- Oct. 31 vs. Nuggets – L
One Last Thing: I was suspicious of the Dunn injury as an excuse to tank, but Bobby’s knee injury might make packing in the season a foregone conclusion. Perhaps the Bulls will realize Bob Marley’s dream and find a road to Zion?
Until next week, keep your champagne on ice.
Chris Pennant covers the Chicago Bulls and basketball in general for WARR