Bulls players late Friday night were hurrying for the team plane for the trip to San Antonio for the Saturday game. It actually was about the fastest anyone had moved during a dreary 105-87 loss to the Indiana Pacers in which the Bulls never led and trailed by double digits the entire second half.
Coming out of the shower one of the players mentioned there wasn’t hot water.
Denzel Valentine smirked and offered, “We’re losing too much.”
The Bulls, now 2-8 with their fifth loss in the last six, at least don’t seem to have lost their senses of humor. The only thing seemingly not lost lately. Yes, better smile because otherwise you might cry.
Bobby Portis with the first back to back 20-point games of his career led the Bulls off the bench with 20 points and 11 rebounds. It was Portis’ second game back since his eight-game suspension for punching Nikola Mirotic. Kris Dunn off the bench after an early second half substation for Jerian Grant, had 16 points and five assists but with four more turnovers. Justin Holiday added 14 points and Lauri Markkanen 12 points and 10 rebounds. It was Markkanen’s third double/double. He’s scored in double figures in all 10 games.
Paul Zipser had another flat performance and was scoreless in 13 minutes. He was taken out early. Valentine, who had been shooting well, was one for 10. The Bulls attempted just nine free throws, six by Portis. Victor Oladipo led Indiana with 25 points. Bojan Bogdanovic had 22 points with six three pointers.
“They scored 20 in transition (15-0 on fast breaks through three quarters). It seemed like 50,” lamented Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “We didn’t get back, we hung our heads, we scored 16 points in the first quarter (trailing by 11). You could see in our guys’ faces: It was going to be a long night. We didn’t have that fight to us, we didn’t have that ‘suck it up, find a way, go out and make little plays for your teammate.’ We didn’t have it.”
The Bulls never much found it except for a brief second quarter run behind Markkanen and Dunn. The Bulls trailed 45-35 at half, but then quickly by 20 early in the third as Hoiberg yanked Grant and then 80-61 after three. The Pacers kicked their lead up to 26 midway through the fourth quarter.
“We give them 15 points in the first three and a half minutes of the third quarter,” noted Hoiberg. “Not that it was all Jerian’s fault. We wanted to change up the lineup and see if we could get a spark in there and get us going.”
It wasn’t much, but it could suggest changes may be on the way.
Dunn with a more aggressive shooting game with eight of 14, mostly on drives and mid range jumpers, seems close to moving into the starting lineup. Though he continues to commit sloppy turnovers, which troubles Hoiberg.
“He makes two plays that get you really excited, getting into the paint, high flying dunks,” said Hoiberg. “And then he has a couple of really careless turnovers. He’s certainly showing flashes of being an excellent basketball player, but we’ve got to eliminate those careless turnovers. There’s too many of them. He didn’t have to dribble the ball behind his back four times, trying to make the spectacular play. He’s showing flashes of being a really, really good player. We still love him, and think he’s got a very bright future.”
For his part, Dunn admits he’s too average for now.
“My whole life I’ve been aggressive,” said Dunn. “People accepted my turnovers. From high school to college, but you can’t do that in the NBA. So that’s something I have to adjust. If I’d grade myself, it would be a C. I can definitely play a lot better. I’ve seen better in myself and I think the coaches have, too. It’s going to take time, but once I get there I think it will be exciting.”
Portis in his return has been exciting, and Hoiberg again mentioned how he liked the pairing of Portis with Markkanen. So perhaps a change is coming there as Robin Lopez got off to a poor star and finished with three points on one of seven shooting.
“Bobby’s just going out there and playing hard,” said Hoiberg. “He’s playing with energy, he’s rebounding at a high level, and he’s making shots. He’s playing with confidence. I like that lineup with he and Lauri out there; gives us two skilled players that can both knock down shots behind the three-point line. It’s about effort. And with our team right now, Bobby’s going to bring it every night.”
Portis is playing easily the best of his career, and not that it took a fight with Mirotic still out.
Portis attempted without success to meet with or talk with Mirotic, so he’s moved on. He’s said he regrets his actions, but the time away did allow him to study the game and himself.
“It kind of helped, actually, because I got to sit back and watch the game from afar on TV and I saw some spots where I could score,” said Portis. “At the same time, it hurt to sit out because I know I personally hurt my team.
“I’m still a young player,” said Portis, 22. “I’m a lot more confident than ever. I’ve always been a confident guy, but right now I’m at the top of my game. I’m not satisfied; I want more. I don’t know why anybody is surprised (at what he is doing). I’ve always gone hard my whole life. Me scoring 20 points is probably not going to be a regular thing, but I know my role on this team. It’s to bring energy and effort every day and that’s what I’m going to do; if the shots are there I’m going to take them.
“It’s a big year for me, having to prove myself that I’m a good NBA player,” Portis added. “It’s been fun to this point (the scoring), but I want to get some wins; great players win in this league. My role on this team is to be the best player off the bench for the Bulls and if I can do that and bring that edge I’ll be satisfied.”
It’s a long way, really, from two seasons without much of a role, backing up Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Mirotic and then Gibson and Mirotic and then out of nowhere even Joffrey Lauvergne.
“There’s always frustration,” Portis admits. “I try to tell one of my good friends on the team, AB, Antonio Blakeney. I went through some of the same things he’s going through now; he’s frustrated. We’re the same types of guys, very competitive. It’s always tough not being able to play and having to sit and wait your turn.”
So why not Blakeney now?
After all, the Bulls continue to be the 30th ranked team in scoring and shooting. Friday was their league leading sixth game scoring fewer than 100 points. And Blakeney, the G-league player with the two-way contract, poured in 44 points for the Windy City Bulls Friday night and now leads the G-league in scoring at almost 40 per game. He’s clearly too good for that league.
Talk about a guy who knows something about turning up the heat. Maybe help a team out of hot water.