Chicago Bulls coach Billy Donovan recalled a film session following the second game of the season, a blowout loss against the Indiana Pacers. An Indiana scoring run in the second quarter flipped the game and Donovan was stunned by the body language he saw on the court.
“Their bench is going crazy and our guys were like just totally defeated. And it was like in the second quarter,” Donovan said after Friday’s 117-115 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “I was amazed at the competitive spirit.... there was like zero endurance, like zero resiliency, like zero fight back. I just kept talking to them about it.”
The Bulls could not overcome the talent gap to pull off an upset victory over the defending champion Lakers even with Anthony Davis sidelined, but the team that took the floor Friday night looked miles apart from from the team that suffered concerning blowout losses to the Pacers and Atlanta Hawks.
No, moral victories are not going to help the Bulls in the win-loss column right now. But after a disastrous start there is reason to be encouraged about this team’s path toward some level of competence. That’s a major upgrade from where they started the year.
“It was almost like a slap in the face,” said guard Zach LaVine, who scored 38 points and missed a potential go-ahead jumper with 4.7 seconds left. “Like, look if you guys don’t come out and play right, you’re going to get beat.”
To be clear, there are still areas the Bulls need to clean up and ways to improve, but the team, most of which is intact from last season, seems to be benefiting from an upgrade on the bench.
“[Donovan] just brings a certain aura with him, a certain kind of vibe that he has,” center Wendell Carter Jr said. “He will tell you what you did wrong, but at the same time, he’s an encouraging coach. I feel like we all need that, especially with us being a very young team.”
Here are three takeaways from the Bulls loss to the Lakers:
1. The Bulls look much more competitive. Will that translate to wins?
The Bulls were in position to steal a game from the Lakers without one of their stars. And while LaVine missed within the final seconds, some sloppy play in the fourth quarter doomed the Bulls well before that shot didn’t go in.
“I think overall, we played pretty damn good,” LaVine said. “It just sucks when you can’t pull them out when you play good.”
So while it is an accomplishment that the Bulls are starting to look much more competitive, especially considering their rotation has been a bit depleted recently, their next step is to start closing out some of these games and coming away with wins.
They overcame a 20-point deficit against the Portland Trail Blazers to pull off a victory. But they did not execute well enough down the stretch against the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday or Lakers on Friday.
“The thing I’m most pleased about because of what happened the first Houston preseason game and then the Indiana game and then the Atlanta game is when we got punched, we just kind of stopped,” Donovan said. “And I think we’ve gotten better competing. You have to at least start there. That’s what we’ve really tried to stress to those guys is the competing part. Now I think we have to start to address at getting better at not beating ourselves.”
He added: “I don’t know what’s turned it around or why, but I tried to explain or educate or talk to them about what competition is and how you have to respond to the adversity and why adversity is good. I don’t know if it’s helped a lot but we certainly have talked about it a lot.”
2. The latest test for Patrick Williams? Guarding LeBron James.
Clearly, the Bulls have decided the best way for rookie Patrick Williams to learn this season is to be thrown directly into action.
Didn’t start in college? Into the starting lineup you go from opening night. You want to be an elite defender? Okay, your assignment is guarding reigning two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Now try to do what a generation of players have been failing to accomplish: slow down LeBron James.
“I can’t really say much except I got better,” Williams said. “I got better tonight as a defender, as a player. Just being around him, watching him, guarding him — I got better. In the 10th game of the season, that’s all you can ask for. I took on the challenge.
“I mean — he is LeBron James, so he’s going to get his. He’s going to get to his spots. But you just kind of got to make him take the tough ones, and he’s making the tough ones.”
The Bulls threw a few different bodies at James, but Williams served as his primary defender and didn’t back down. He noted that his chest was “on fire” after the repeated blows that come from guarding Antetokounmpo, but he made an adjustment from that experience.
“From Giannis, I learned that you can’t lean on him,” Williams said. “You can’t really play with your chest, you gotta play with your hands to make him uncomfortable.”
So, what did he learn from guarding James on Friday?
“Just how to pick your spots,” he said. “He’s really good at picking his spots and then sticking with what works. And then just also getting his teammates available. He was so aggressive there in the mid-post area that then I had to help it means they would have kicked out and found shooters and things like that.”
James still had his usual strong game — finishing with 28 points, seven rebounds and seven assists on 11-for-21 field goals (0-for-5 from three) — hitting a few contested jumpers over Williams and beating him to a spot on the floor on a few occasions, but consider him the latest person to come away impressed with the Bulls rookie.
“His demanor isn’t something to back down from anybody,” LaVine said. “He just answers the call. Coach says alright you got LeBron today or you got Giannis, he’s like, ‘Okay.’ You don’t see any shyness or laughing about it.”
3. Otto Porter leaves game with lower back spasms
Otto Porter Jr. played just six minutes and took two field goal attempts in the first half before lower back spasms prevented him from returning to the game. Donovan did not provide an update on Porter’s status after the game, so it’s unclear whether he will be available for the team’s next game.
The Bulls have tried to manage Porter’s minutes early on due to his recent injury history, and any extended time out for Porter would deal a blow to an already thin rotation.
This team has been shorthanded its entire road trip, missing four players who remain in the NBA’s health and safety protocols: Tomas Satoransky and Chandler Hutchison, who each tested positive for COVID-19 as well as Lauri Markkanen and Ryan Arcidiacono, who were exposed to the virus, but have continued to test negative.
Before the game, Donovan made it seem unlikely Markkanen and Arcidiacono would rejoin the team during this road trip, which ends Sunday afternoon against the Clippers, but he seemed hopeful they could be available for Tuesday’s home game against the Dallas Mavericks.