The Chicago Bulls had a chance to get off the schneid and send a message to the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday night in the City of Brotherly Love. Instead, their struggles against the NBA’s elite teams continued.
Philly had full control of the game for most of the contest en route to a 121-106 victory. Joel Embiid maintained his dominance over the Bulls, while James Harden exhibited tremendous patience as a playmaker in pick-and-roll. Meanwhile, Chicago struggled to generate rim pressure and shot the ball woefully from beyond the arc.
The Bulls will keep looking for answers on the heels of a five-game losing streak. In the meantime, here are four takeaways from Monday’s loss.
1. Free-throw disparity still haunting the Bulls
Any team facing the 76ers will have a hard time keeping them away from the free-throw line. Embiid and Harden are as crafty as they come at initiating contact and still receiving an overwhelming amount of whistles.
But fouling has been a significant storyline for the Bulls over the past several games.
Chicago attempted 11 fewer free throws than the Miami Heat on Feb. 28. The disparity became more apparent in the following two contests. The Bulls had a combined 18 free-throw attempts compared to 61 for their respective opponents, the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks.
Indeed, fouls again proved problematic for Chicago against the Sixers.
Philly attempted 34 free throws, including 20 in the first half. Embiid had nearly half of those, and he routinely baited the likes of Tristan Thompson and Tony Bradley into getting their hands caught in the cookie jar.
The Bulls ended the game with 26 free-throw attempts, but 12 of those came in the fourth quarter with the game mostly out of reach, and a few calls came on DeMar DeRozan jumpers. They have consistently failed to hunt contact at the rim while showing a lack of discipline on the other end.
Some of the fouls came as a result of a discombobulated defense.
2. Chicago’s poor defense at the point of attack
Team defense has been a consistent issue for the Bulls as Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball try to work their way back from injuries. And while Caruso might be nearing a return, Chicago needs more stinginess in the meantime.
Instead, head coach Billy Donovan’s crew look lifeless, especially at the point of attack.
The 76ers had no problem getting into the paint. James Harden carefully worked off screens and weighed whether to get downhill, find Joel Embiid on hard rolls, or spot shooters and cutters when the help arrived. If Chicago tried to lock-and-trail, he fed Embiid for easy baskets around the rim. When the Bulls hedged, they typically overhelped, allowing The Beard to find the likes of Matisse Thybulle flashing from the elbow or Georges Niang spotting up on the perimeter.
Sometimes, the Bulls just looked downright sluggish. Sixers breakout star Tyrese Maxey had multiple blow-bys for easy layups, and he missed a couple of other opportunities. Harden seemed to create separation at will.
Chicago’s inability to contain straight-line drives is a major issue. It stems from a lack of communication and awareness at the point of attack. Rookie Ayo Dosunmu is the team’s strongest (healthy) individual defender, but his presence feels worthless when he consistently has to run through screens, particularly given his smaller physical frame. It’s taxing.
The defensive effort must improve.
3. The highs and lows of Zach LaVine
Zach LaVine knows his knee will never feel 100% for the rest of the season. Still, the All-Star Bulls combo guard recently professed confidence in his ability to play at a high level.
At times, LaVine looked like the offensive savant from earlier in the season.
The UCLA product had more success getting downhill and exploding to the basket. He also displayed more confidence in his outside jumper in the second half, neglecting contests and pulling without hesitation. The playmaking was there, too, as LaVine had a nifty sniper-like dime to Tristan Thompson early in the game and often showed good distribution.
However, LaVine had too many moments of sloppiness.
The Bulls had 13 turnovers. Five of those came courtesy of LaVine, who lost the handle on a few occasions and simply lost his place on the floor on another, catching the ball with his feet out of bounds. Some of the shot selection appeared questionable, as well, like when he tried a floater over Embiid instead of attacking the body.
Additionally, LaVine — though he wasn’t alone — played some pretty weak transition defense. He can occasionally get caught lobbying for foul calls instead of sprinting back on “D,” which typically leads to numbers for the opponent. This happened a few times against the 76ers, with DeMar DeRozan also a guilty culprit.
LaVine hasn’t been bad as of late, necessarily. But he hasn’t really popped, either. The Bulls need more of that from him, given DeRozan is bound to have off shooting nights, such as he did on Monday.
4. Aggressive Ayo
Ayo Dosunmu has been a revelation for the Bulls with his terrific two-way play. His stat line against the 76ers doesn’t look overly impressive, but his play reflects his value and continued growth.
Dosunmu did what he does best in transition, getting out on the wings and filling the lane for easy buckets. But he also showed more aggressiveness in the half court, attacking on-ball defenders and creating in the restricted area. He missed a couple of floaters and push shots that should make him more threatening as a scorer if he can add them to his repertoire.
Moreover, the former Fighting Illini star competed hard on the defensive end. He still has an issue getting through screens but showed the kind of on-ball harasser he can be when he forced a jump ball on a dribble-handoff between Embiid and Harden.
Even when Ball and Caruso return, the Bulls must get Dosunmu some minutes with the other starters and even consider using him in some closing lineups. He has been that important for Chicago and should continue to play with an attacking mindset.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.