The Bulls are a hard team to explain.
Just when it felt as though they had learned their lesson and were starting to turn things around, they played a game like they did Tuesday.
Another gut punch, another horrible loss.
After building a 21-point lead in the first half and looking like a team on its way to a season-high four-game winning streak, the Bulls melted down in the second half and lost to the undermanned Pacers 116-110.
All of this despite coach Billy Donovan warning his players at the half that the Pacers weren’t going to go away.
”What we talked about at halftime was this team has come back,” Donovan said. ”We’ve got to be able to compete better. It started right in the third quarter. We didn’t do enough things in terms of taking care of the basketball, rebounding the basketball. As the intensity level got raised, we were not able to respond and play to that level.”
And while there was plenty of blame to go around, the finger-pointing starts and ends with the “Big Three.”
The Bulls’ bench was fine. Derrick Jones Jr., Andre Drummond, Coby White and Alex Caruso each had moments.
Patrick Williams and Ayo Dosunmu did what was asked of them, with both continuing to work through their growing pains and figuring out their roles.
But as go DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, so go the Bulls. It was that way when the Bulls were 11-18 in mid-December, and it was no coincidence that the three seemingly had figured out how best to play with one another while the Bulls went 11-6 during a 17-game run before facing the Pacers.
”I think for us, just coming in, getting used to the new offense, understanding where each one of our shots is going to come from and getting in a groove,” LaVine said of the ”Big Three” flipping the switch. ”I think all of us have gotten in a pretty good groove of playing in a rhythm.”
The numbers backed that up. In the Bulls’ previous 17 games, LaVine had shot 48.9% from the field and averaged five rebounds and 4.4 assists. In the 25 games before that, he had shot 44.3% from the field and averaged 4.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists.
Vucevic and DeRozan had similar patterns. That’s why the game against the Pacers kind of came from nowhere.
While DeRozan scored 33 points and Vucevic finished with 20 points and eight rebounds, LaVine struggled, going 4-for-14 from the field and 0-for-7 from three-point range. He had a rough game, and the Bulls looked disconnected.
T.J. McConnell put the Pacers in front with 4:27 left and, just like that, the back-and-forth was on.
With just less than two minutes left, the score was tied after Pacers rookie Bennedict Mathurin split two free throws. And he wasn’t done. He made a huge three-pointer with 1:01 left and, after a dunk by Vucevic, attacked the rim and gave the Pacers a 112-110 lead with 29 seconds left.
Donovan called a timeout. But when the Bulls couldn’t get the inbounds pass in, he was forced to call another.
That didn’t fix much. Caruso had his inbounds pass deflected and stolen by Buddy Hield, leaving the Bulls with no choice but to foul. Aaron Nesmith made both free throws to extend the Pacers’ lead to four, all but icing the game.
”We didn’t execute the [inbounds] pass,” Donovan said. ”We’ve got to be better. We just didn’t get it to him. The screening execution wasn’t great. You want to at least give yourself a chance to get a shot off in that situation.”