Paul Sullivan: What did an epic Chicago Bulls loss during a snowstorm in a pandemic sound like? No audible groans — just silence.

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Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune
·6 min read
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A sound effect conspicuously absent at most sporting events during COVID-19 has been the audible groan that occurs during the defining moment of a shocking loss.

You may remember it.

It’s the sound heard at Soldier Field when Chicago Bears kicker Cody Parkey double-doinked the game-winning field-goal attempt at the end of the playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in January 2019. Or the one heard at Wrigley Field when Chicago Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel served up back-to-back, ninth-inning home runs to the St. Louis Cardinals in a mind-numbing loss during the final homestand of the 2019 collapse.

“Poom-poom,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said afterward. “Two shots to the jaw.”

These are moments indelibly etched in your mind. The collective gasp of exasperation from tens of thousands of rabid fans expecting a completely different outcome creates a sad symphony of agony that serves as the soundtrack of a game you’ll never forget, no matter how hard you try.

But when Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard hit a step-back, buzzer-beating 3-pointer in a stunning 123-122 win over the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night at the United Center — his second 3 in the final eight seconds of one of the most unbelievable endings imaginable — the sounds of silence were overwhelming to anyone who ventured out to the West Side in the snowstorm to watch the game.

Fortunately for the Bulls, there was no one there but the two teams, stadium employees, announcers and three lonely reporters.

Bulls players trudged off the court in a virtual daze, like marching off to the DMV on Elston Avenue to stand in line for a few hours to get their Illinois driver’s licenses renewed.

“You should be upset,” Zach LaVine said afterward. “Everybody shows human nature. You’ve just got to rewire your brain to get ready for the next one. But, yeah, it hurts being on the side of a loss like that where you think you have the game wrapped up and you fought back and put yourself in position to win.”

LaVine’s heroics went to waste. After not taking a shot in the first quarter, he poured in 26 points in the final three quarters, hitting 9 of 12 shots and 6 of 8 3-pointers, including one with 33 seconds left to give the Bulls a seemingly safe five-point lead.

It was reminiscent of their earlier game against the Blazers at the Moda Center in Portland, where LaVine iced a win with a 3 in the final seconds to cap a stirring 20-point Bulls comeback.

But this time LaVine’s role in the loss was outsized as well. After Lillard’s 3 with eight seconds left pulled the Blazers within two, LaVine took the inbounds pass and momentarily was tied up by Gary Trent Jr., resulting in a jump ball that of course wound up in Lillard’s hands with just enough time to nail the game-winner over Lauri Markkanen.

Two shots to the jaw. Beep-beep. Drive home safely everyone.

“Obviously he’s one of the few guys in the league who can make that shot,” Markkanen said. “He’s a heck of a player. I thought I jumped before him and had both my arms up. Obviously in that situation you start thinking of the small things you could’ve done better so we wouldn’t have been in that spot.

“That’s a tough loss, man, from that.”

Coach Billy Donovan said the Bulls “need to learn how to win and close out these games,” a bit of an understatement.

“Sometimes the losing is painful, and with some of the ways we lost …” he said. “When you think about Oklahoma City, you think about Golden State, you think about this one. And we need to learn and grow from it and get better from it.”

Donovan conceded he probably should’ve called a timeout instead of having Thaddeus Young inbound the ball quickly to LaVine after Lillard’s 3 pulled the Blazers within two points.

“I feel bad about that,” he said. “Who knows what would’ve happened on the inbound, being out of timeouts? But we got the ball inbounds and I thought it was a very, very quick jump ball in that situation.

“We got the ball to Zach, who is a great free-throw shooter, but looking at the outcome, I would’ve liked to have used a timeout.”

That being said, Donovan also believed the jump-ball call by official Dannica Mosher “was about as quick of a jump ball as I’ve ever seen.”

And Donovan has seen a lot of basketball.

“I didn’t think it was really a good call at that point in time,” he said. “I get tie-ups. But they just kind of like grabbed the ball and she called jump ball. But listen, we’ve got to be stronger in those situations. I could’ve helped a little more, possibly called timeout.”

In case it wasn’t clear, Donovan was kicking himself for not calling time.

LaVine agreed with his coach and said the call was made too soon.

“It was a quick whistle,” he said. “I mean, a lot of things you can’t control. But it happened. I didn’t think it was a jump ball. I didn’t think they had their hands on the ball.

“But it was called, so that’s the way it goes.”

No reason to cry. Like the song goes, “That’s just the way it is. Some things will never change.”

As a connoisseur of epic Chicago sports failures dating to my childhood in 1969, I was glad to be an eyewitness to this little piece of Bulls history. There were only three reporters in the United Center press box because, in the age of Zoom, there’s really no reason to be there in person as all interviews are done over your computer.

The Associated Press had to be there, of course, and NBC Sports Chicago, which aired the game and is partly owned by the team, sent a reporter from its website. I didn’t need to be there and could’ve easily Zoomed from home like the other writers, but frankly I needed a break from my couch.

What’s a little snowstorm in Chicago?

Sure, my windshield wipers were frozen stuck afterward, but at least I got to wish Chuck Swirsky a happy birthday while simultaneously Zooming with LaVine in the concourse. And, yes, the treacherous drive home down Ashland Avenue wasn’t driving so much as it was trying to stay in the tracks made by the car in front of you, but at least most of the carjackers seemed to take the night off.

When I finally got home and a neighbor helped me push my car out of a snow drift and into a parking space, I returned to my couch, rewired my brain and got ready for the next one.