The message was sent.
And it wasn’t subtle, either.
Now, Bulls coach Billy Donovan is about to find out who really heard it, who took it to heart, and who was poised to do something about it.
It obviously fell on deaf ears Friday.
Prior to Jalen Suggs breaking the hearts of the Bulls with a game-winning three pointer in the 108-107 shocking Magic win, Donovan was asked about the slow starts, too many lethargic moments, and the overall play of this product through 16 regular-season games, and now four-straight losses.
He did his usual coachspeak about it being on everyone in the organization, including himself and the coaching staff, but then did color outside his usual lines of correctness, making it very clear that this mess was on his Big Three, and theirs to clean up.
“The way I look at it is I’ve got a lot of respect on a lot of levels for Vooch [Nikola Vucevic], and DeMar [DeRozan], and Zach [LaVine] as who they are as players,” Donovan said. “We’re never going to be as good as we can be as a team until those three guys really drive the opening part of the game. It’s easy to look at maybe Ayo [Dosunmu] being a young player, Patrick [Williams] not being aggressive enough, ‘Hey, we’re just going to throw a guy in there.’
“Those three guys are important to our team, and if we’re working around them like you’re talking about, I don’t know if we can ever get where we need to get to.”
And that’s why making a radical change to the starting lineup wasn’t happening yet.
The closing group? That was a different story, as the Bulls (6-10) fought back from a 19-point deficit, took a four-point lead with 26.5 seconds left, and did so with LaVine benched in crunch time in the wake of a 1-for-14 shooting night.
“He had a tough night shooting and I thought that group fought their way back into the game,” Donovan said of benching his max contract guard. “One of those games that he just wasn’t playing well.”
That didn’t seem to sit well with LaVine.
“That’s Billy’s decision, he’s gotta lay with it,” LaVine said. “Do I agree with it? No. I think I can go out there and still be me even if I miss some shots. That’s his decision and he’s got to stand on it.”
Asked if he’ll talk to Donovan about it, LaVine said, “I’ll figure it out after this [press conference].”
DeRozan did score 41 points, but that didn’t change the fact that it was once again a bad start, leaving the Bulls to dig out of a hole.
It seemed they had when JaVonte Green dunked the ball with 26.5 seconds left, but Suggs hit two free throws, Vucevic missed his two free throws, and Suggs made it hurt.
Donovan, however, said the game was lost in the first half.
“[DeRozan, Vucevic and LaVine] are the leaders of our team, they are veteran players that have been in the league a long time,” Donovan said of the trio. “They’ve got to basically drive, whatever it is, defense, offense, everything. We’ve got to be able to get back, we’ve got to be able to contest threes, rebound, defend without fouling, we’ve got to be able to not turn the ball over and run good offense to generate shots. If shots aren’t falling, it can’t bleed into our defense. Your veteran guys drive that mentality and we need them to drive that mentality.”
There was more crashing than driving in the opening quarter against the Magic (5-11), as the Bulls again struggled defending the three-pointer and fell behind 37-24 after the first, and took a 14-point deficit into the locker room at the half.
“We played great once we’re behind,” LaVine added. “You can’t put a finger on why we’re coming out slow. You gotta put that on us.”