Bulls struggle against Nuggets, falling to 6-8 on the season

Maybe it was the thin air and the altitude. No, that’s in Denver.

This dismaying beating the Bulls absorbed Sunday night was in the United Center, a 126-103 Denver Nuggets relay race to the end during which the Bulls never led, trailed by as much as 28 points and by double digits since midway through the second quarter. To, by the way, a team finishing a four-game road trip in seven days with the Bulls coming off three off-days.

Maybe Bulls players were so distracted by another fabulous quarterbacking day for the Bears’ Justin Fields? Maybe it was the Chicago Marathon traffic. Well, that was last month. Maybe they ran out of gas, maybe they had a flat tire, maybe they didn’t have a cab fare, maybe an old friend came into town, maybe someone stole their car, maybe there was an earthquake, a flood. Locust! Maybe it was a locust!

There just wasn’t much to explain about the swarms of Nuggets who inexplicably chewed up the Bulls in a path of devastation we’ve rarely seen with this team.

The Bulls gave up at least 30 points each of the first three quarters, and Denver didn’t play most of its starters in the fourth. And still outscored the Bulls with 29 points.

Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 21 points, but he understood it wasn’t a particularly competitive effort for a stumbling Bulls team that fell to 6-8.

“Just didn’t feel like we were playing hard,” admitted LaVine. “They were playing harder than us; that can’t happen. You try to pick it up, and against good teams it’s not going to work out that way all the time. We didn’t look good offensively and we couldn’t stop them defensively, and that was the result. That’s on all of us collectively. Just can’t have a showing like that at home. It’s upsetting.

“It’s unacceptable from all of us, one through 15, coaching staff, everybody,” LaVine acknowledged. “We got our butts kicked out there. I felt like we all didn’t play well.”

DeMar DeRozan finished with 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting in the loss to Denver on Sunday night.

DeMar DeRozan had 16 unenthusiastic points, and Patrick Williams had 15, although half in the fourth quarter against the Nuggets guys I’ve never heard of. The best of the Bulls Sunday, as it often has been lately, was Goran Dragić with 11 points and a team-high six assists and Andre Drummond with 13 points and 11 rebounds. Drummond also recorded his 10,000th career point in the NBA.

But if you were looking at star power Sunday, it was dressed in Nuggets’ white with “Jokić” written across the back. The two-time league MVP attempted four shots.

It made it an enjoyable night… unless you absolutely had to have a Bulls winning score.

The cantering big man was a hoop magician and a delight to watch the way he passed the ball—12 of his 14 assists in the first half in a 62-47 Nuggets lead—dissecting the Bulls defense like it was a frog in high school biology class.

It’s an ugly result, particularly for the frog.

The Nuggets were led by Michael Porter Jr. with 31 points and six of nine threes, the Nuggets making 13 of 27 threes while the Bulls stumbled along long at six of 22. But even as the Nuggets got up their share of three-pointers in their homage to the modern NBA, they also are a whirling dervish of spinning, cutting and moving with Jokić dropping balls like Patrick Mahomes (hey, it’s Sunday, the national NFL holiday).

You’d see Jason Kidd in his prime dominating games like that, rarely taking a shot and driving the opponent into frustration. It’s really basketball in an atavistic sense with players seeking out the best shot and the advantage to the basket instead of the best three pointer.

Nikola Jokić, defending Nikola Vučević, finished with 8 points and 14 assists against the Bulls.

I didn’t think Jokić deserved MVP last season because the Nuggets were a sixth place team. Sort of like when league home run king Ralph Kiner wanted a raise with his last place Pittsburgh Pirates. GM Branch Rickey supposedly told Kiner they finished last with him and could finish last without him. There are no We’re No. 6 foam fingers. But Jokić works the basketball and the court like a great jazz musician with improvisation that produces remarkable harmony. When he’s performing like that the beat goes on.

And the beating in this case.

The Nuggets, at least with their starters, also had a huge size advantage with Porter and Aaron Gordon up front with Jokić to block off the lane. So as the frustration—and deficit— mounted, the Bulls regressed to isolation play, lots of dribbles and contested shots

“I think that definitely took place (isolation play when behind),” agreed Bulls coach Billy Donovan. “I think that we see it when maybe it’s not going well. It’s, ‘OK. let me try to do something to get us going.’ We have some very gifted offensive players, and that may happen on a possession or two you can overcome that. But it’s not sustainable. Sometimes it’s our guys fighting back more than understanding we are going to have to do it collectively.

“They have the best three-point shooting team in the league and some of those shots Porter rose up and shot over us, right in our face,” said Donovan. “You (get) so rejected, it’s, ‘We have to come back and respond now. I have to go and score to make up for that.’ That’s not a good recipe for sustainability.”

Neither has been the curious comfortability we’ve seen from some of the team’s stars this season. Sure, the absence of Lonzo Ball amplifies the problems. But there has been a succession of slow starts to games, although Donovan did not notice so much lately until Sunday. But a troubling pattern often seems to be emerging.

The starters are easily the most talented offensive players on the roster. The reserves are the most energetic. But the reserves, for the most part, struggle to score much. Alex Caruso was his usual defensive pest, causing offensive fouls, making three steals, deflecting balls. But he was scoreless in 21 minutes in a season he’s barely shooting 30 percent.

So the beleaguered starters fell behind 23-12, and it was 29-15 in the first quarter when Donovan went to the bench.

Zach LaVine finished with 21 points against Denver on Sunday night.

“I wish we had a little battery charger to pick us up when we’re like that,” admitted LaVine. “It’s up to the starters to go out there and start the game harder with a better mentality. I feel like the second unit always comes in and gives us a boost, like they should. Especially when we are not playing well.”

That group did with a 10-0 run early in the second quarter against a weak Nuggets bench. That got the Bulls back within 34-30 early in the second quarter. Jokić and his guys came back and it was pass, cut, roll to the rim, open three, short jumper, the Bulls falling back behind 62-47 at halftime with the reserve guys unable to contribute enough offense other than Dragić. He’s often been the team’s most consistent player this season.

The Nuggets rolled out to an 18-point lead early in the quarter when Donovan did try more mixing the energy guys with the excellence guys a bit sooner.

Caruso came in early for Ayo Dosunmu and Dragić and Derrick Jones Jr. cycled more quickly than usual.

“I subbed pretty quickly with Goran, with Derrick. I put Drummond in a little earlier in that first quarter, so we did try to do some things to kind of get some of that going,” said Donovan. “I thought it was more our entire team.”

Andre Drummond scored 13 points and grabbed 11 rebounds off the bench against Denver.

Donovan pointed to what he believed was a crucial moment in the third quarter when Dragić, Caruso and Jones helped drag the Bulls deficit back to something of a benign 77-66. Dragić drove and didn’t get a foul call that resulted in a technical free throw for the Nuggets. Porter and Gordon then hit threes, and it was just a matter of time before the Nuggets were digging into the stacks of thick deep dish pizza piled high outside the Nuggets locker room for the flight home.

Meanwhile, the Bulls were just stuck in the thick of things.

“That really took the steam out of us,” insisted Donovan. “Goran, I thought he got fouled, and then they made a couple of threes and it went to 20 like that. I felt coming out in the third we were battling and fighting, and we kind of fought our way in. No foul on Goran and they create the separation from us.”

I guess, but it never looked like in this game that the Bulls had a chance as long as Jokić was dishing and Porter and Jamal Murray were swishing, as Clyde would say.

The Nuggets shot 60 percent overall with 33 assists.

Donovan, who likes teaching mode, is good at putting these things in a philosophical perspective. And so he would after the debacle.

“Anytime you have a period of time off considering what we’ve had (four back to backs), it was a little bit of a concern, to be quite honest with you,” Donovan said. “I don’t think it should be used as an excuse from the standpoint if you look at it, three days of no games we should have been an extremely fresh basketball team. There are a lot of things we did to shoot ourselves in the foot. There’s always some form of adversity that hits in the game. We’ve got to be better thriving in the struggle. I think what happens sometimes is when there is a struggle sometimes for us it can snowball, and we’ve got to be able to embrace those kind of moments because I’ve never believed you can get better and improve with smooth sailing. There has to be a struggle to find a way to dig deeper down inside to be better. We’ve got to be able to compete and embrace the challenge of the next play; that’s an area we’ve got to get better at.”

“I thought as the game went on, yes (we were low energy),” Donovan conceded. “But I believe energy is a choice. You can’t play off feelings because feelings come and go. You’ve got to eliminate feelings and choose to do things. So when you sit there and say, ‘Did we come out with low energy?’ If we did that, it was our choice. We have a choice with what kind of energy we play with. I think circumstances cannot impact or affect our energy. We’ve got to choose energy because that’s all it is, a choice. If you are guided by feelings, you are going to be in a roller coaster slide because that is going to change drastically. But if you choose to play with energy, battle and compete and fight and endure in the adversity, those things are all choices.”

That sounded like something, and not like it’s time to panic or have a team meeting or any of those banal responses after one loss. OK, four of the last five heading into New Orleans Wednesday. But LaVine was asked about just what the team talks about after something like this.

“After playing like that you can only say so much,” admitted LaVine. “It’s all about action after that. Sometimes you have to just shut up and play.”

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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