Perhaps it’s come down to this in the wake of the Bulls 133-94 Saturday loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Can Antonio Blakeney save the Bulls? OK, can he help cut their deficit at least in half?
With a third consecutive game in which the Bulls trailed by double digits in the first half, all losses as the Bulls fell to 2-9, it’s not so much about what happened as what will happen next.
“Everything is up for grabs,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said after the loss.
The Bulls were led by Robin Lopez and Bobby Portis each with 17 points and Kris Dunn with 15 points. Jerian Grant had nine points and eight assists. Portis has led or tied for the team lead in scoring in each of his three games since his return from suspension for his fight with teammate Nikola Mirotic. Dunn has gotten his season scoring average to double digits, shooting 18 of 35 the last three games and averaging 13.7 points. He has focused on a more reliable mid range shot. Dunn also has a team best nine steals the last three games. Lopez was eight of 11 shooting. But the Bulls again failed to aggressively attack the basket with five free throw attempts through three quarters. They are 24 for 80 on threes, just 30 percent, the last three games.
They need an offensive boost with aggressive play and shooting. The ball movement has been exceptionally poor. Markkanen, for instance, would go long sequences without seeing the ball and then have to force up a shot. The outside dribble handoffs have mostly produced quick perimeter jumpers without much penetration. There’s also been limited push out of the back court, which, of course, is difficult when you are giving up so many baskets.
So it seems almost certain the starting lineup, if not the rotation as well, is in for a shakeup with three consecutive games in which the Bulls had deficits of more than 20 points. Though the defense has been deplorable with each of the three opponents shooting more than 50 percent and the Spurs Saturday 60 percent, the Bulls’ offense has slowed to seeming ennui. Yes, 60 percent shooting with the Spurs best perimeter shooters not playing.
It was the seventh game in 11 the Bulls have scored fewer than 100 points at a time the league average is about 106 per game. The Bulls score 13 fewer points to rank last in the league in scoring and shooting. In this NBA, a team has to score to compete.
So perhaps the Bulls will turn to the G-league star who sat out Saturday’s Windy City Bulls game. Saving him? Blakeney is averaging a G-League leading 39.5 per game with his two-way G-league contract that gives him up to 45 days with the big league Bulls.
Hoiberg started the second half with Grant and Dunn in the back court and Justin Holiday moving up to small forward. Paul Zipser was ineffective again with two points in eight minutes. Portis replaced Lauri Markkanen at power forward, but that was because of a sprained ankle Markkanen suffered late in the second quarter. Markkanen told reporters afterward he didn’t believe it was serious and he expected to play the next game, Wednesday in Oklahoma City. Markkanen finished with six points, his first game this season under double digits.
Hoiberg also has said he’s liked the pairing of Markkanen with Portis, both of whom have shot threes well. Portis is six of 12 on threes in his three games back. It also presumably would take scoring pressure off Justin Holiday, who was one of 10 Saturday with his only basket a three.
“There’s a lot of things that we need to assess over these next three days (of practice),” said Hoiberg. “We have to find a way and it starts with me. I have to get our guys ready to play. I have to get us ready to get out there and prepare them to go out and play with the type of effort that it takes to give yourself a chance to win games. I told each and every one of those guys to look at themselves in the mirror to find out what they can do to help this team. Right now we are out there playing on both ends as individuals. We have to find a way to get that team ball back. We had it in September. I loved how we played in the pre-season, the effort we were playing with early. But the last few games we haven’t had it. We have to find a way to get it back. We’ll see who wants to compete at practice the next couple of days.”
“Everything is up for grabs”
– Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg
There wasn’t much from the start Saturday against a Spurs team without Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Pau Gasol was dominant with 21 points, 10 rebounds and three of three on three pointers in leading eight Spurs players in double figures. Irregulars like Brandon Paul, the former Illini guard, Davis Bertans and starting guard Bryn Forbes shot a combined 16 for 25. Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge were a casual 15 for 22 combined.
“Both teams played last night. Both teams lost last night,” Hoiberg noted. “They came out with much more of an edge than we did tonight and unfortunately it dug us a big hole.”
Talk about your bottomless pits. The Spurs sprinted to a 22-6 start and 30-8 nine minutes into the game. They led 37-15 after one quarter. Then the Spurs applied full court pressure to start the second quarter. It was 50-25 before the Bulls showed some life with a 13-0 run second quarter run led by Lopez.
“That was probably our best stretch of basketball that we played,” said Portis.
The Bulls cut the Spurs lead to 10 late in the second quarter. With all those San Antonio regulars out, the game was there to grab. But the Spurs took it right back with six straight points to end the half as the Bulls pulled up for four quick jumpers that missed. The Spurs hit the Bulls with an 8-2 start of the second half and it was 71-49. The Bulls with their latest lineup were scoring, but then were unable to stop the Spurs, who kept their 20-point lead even as the Bulls scored in seven of eight possessions. That’s all the Bulls had.
“We’re all aware that we haven’t been ourselves these past few games,” said Lopez. “I think we realize we have to get back to what we were doing. We haven’t been playing with that edge, I know we haven’t been talking. I know myself, I missed a couple of plays where I wasn’t communicating the right way and gave them the bucket. I feel like we haven’t had that contagious communication that breeds good play, that breeds hustle.”
The Spurs led 97-70 after three and then had the Bulls deficit more than 40 points until a last Dunn basket.
“We have to find a way to get it back, to compete,” said Hoiberg. “I can handle losing, but you have to go out and play the right way, go out and play for each other. We aren’t doing that right now.”