Bulls drop home opener to Spurs, 87-77

Could it be the shoes again?

That, of course, was the line from the famous Spike Lee/Michael Jordan Nike commercial of the 1980s. And Saturday in the Bulls 87-77 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, the shoes were perhaps the most scintillating.

Well one, anyway, which was on the foot of Robin Lopez, and the colorful and erratic design could be something of a metaphor for this Bulls season. Lopez, the Bulls leading scorer for the second straight game, drew a compelling, graphic, asymmetrical kaleidoscope of colors on one shoe for the home opener in the United Center. It was a tribute—we think—to the Simpsons Sideshow Bob character, whom Lopez resembles, at least in hair style.

Ya dig? Which the shoe boldly asked.

And like this Bulls team, which hung in there for a half or so against the contending 2-0 Spurs with once again a knockout stretch, this season seems to be coming into view wildly unpredictable and irregular with blotches of creativity and confusion.

“It’s definitely going to be a challenge for all of us, but we’re all excited,” Lopez insisted. “Every time we get on the court we are looking to get better and make each other better out there. I can’t wait to wake up every day and get to the practice facility.”

Quietly amidst the surprising stability of rookie Lauri Markkanen, the emergence of Justin Holiday and the search for a point guard, Lopez has been the diamond in this rough stretch.

“I want to do whatever the team needs to me to,” said Lopez after leading the 0-2 Bulls with 16 points and seven rebounds.

“It us against my nature a little,” Lopez conceded.

Holiday had 15 points, though he shot five of 18, and Markkanen had a double/double with 13 points and 12 rebounds, shooting five of 14 and three of eight on threes. Markkanen did become the first Bulls rookie since Michael Jordan—always a good start to a sentence—to score at least 30 points combined in his first two NBA games. Jerian Grant had 13 points while the Bulls were eight of 28 on threes and committed 20 turnovers for 23 Spurs points.

Meanwhile, the man with a career scoring average of 7.4 per game who led the Bulls in scoring twice last season and tied for top scorer once, is the team’s new go-to guy. Robin Lopez? He is averaging 17 points and 7.5 rebounds and shooting 52 percent. Plus 33 percent on threes. That’s right, Lopez also made the first three pointer of his NBA career Saturday.

“It’s good to see him out there firing up threes,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg offered.

It was a rare light moment in a somber evening which began with Bobby Portis meeting reporters and apologizing publicly for his actions that disabled teammate Nikola Mirotic http://www.nba.com/bulls/news/portis-addresses-incident-media.

The Bulls then engaged in a taffy pull of a first half against a Spurs team missing top player Kawhi Leonard. Though the Bulls shot poorly, they defended earnestly, holding the Spurs without a three in the first half (one of 12 overall and they won?) and trailing just 41-38.

“I was proud of our defensive effort,” said Hoiberg. “I thought we came out with a really good mentality, defending the three-point line, defending without fouling. The thing that cost us was turnovers again and offensive rebounds that led to 17 points. That’s 40 points they get off our turnovers and second chance points and we hold them overall to 87. It’s been two games in a row with the turnovers, and that’s what kills you. We did not shoot the ball well, but I was proud of our guys for sticking in there and giving ourselves a chance on the defensive end.”

It was again another empty patch, this time midway through the third quarter with the Bulls trailing 52-49 after a LaMarcus Aldridge putback. The Spurs with Aldridge’s 28 points hit the Bulls with a 13-2 run to lead 65-55 going into the fourth quarter.

“Every time we get on the court we are looking to get better and make each other better out there. I can’t wait to wake up every day and get to the practice facility.”

– Robin Lopez

From there the Spurs stretched out their lead to 16 two minutes into the fourth quarter. The Bulls with this offense minus Mirotic, Portis, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine have little chance coming back on anyone from a deficit like that.

“We’re a team that doesn’t have a lot of room for error,” Lopez acknowledged.

The Bulls can have sequences of good defense because they do continue to play hard and hustle. But there are just too many necessities missing, especially on offense.

Hoiberg switched to Kay Felder as backup point guard, and though Grant had five assists, rarely does the ball get to shooters when they are open or prepared. Grant and Felder combined for seven turnovers. Plus, the Bulls rarely get to the basket and finish or create contact. They had nine free throw attempts, but were just one for two on free throws through the first three quarters.

“One thing we need to work on is attacking the basket,” Lopez agreed. “There are times we all get a little jumper happy from the perimeter. I think we need to have a nice balance like the Spurs of driving and kicking.”

The Bulls did get nice balance once again from Markkanen. He didn’t shoot well overall, but his 12 rebounds were impressive playing against Aldridge and Pau Gasol. He played a team high 37 minutes Saturday after just over 33 in the opener. Markkanen’s defense has been good, stripping Gasol on one possession and then scoring on a fancy spin and drop step move.

This Bulls group needs constant movement and penetration for offense without players to create, and there were too many lapses of individual dribbling. But even at just 20 years old, Markkanen showed a sophisticated game.

“Sometimes you get labeled as a shooter and that was the label Lauri had,” Hoiberg noted. “But he really is a complete basketball player. He’s versatile, he can put the ball on the deck, slides his feet very well for a guy seven feet tall at his age. He’s learning on the fly, will have ups and downs as young as he is, will have some struggles at times. But he’s done pretty darned well for all he’s been through understanding just two days ago he was going to be in the starting lineup.”

Like the Bulls with the microphone and the baseball cap painted on Lopez’ sneakers is saying, “Check it out.” It’s looking colorful and confusing.

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