The Chicago Bulls haven’t had much fun on their current West Coast swing.
After dropping a game to the lowly Sacramento Kings, the Bulls had a chance to rebound with a marquee win over a tough Utah Jazz team. Despite getting off to another slow start offensively — a worrisome trend as of late — Chicago hung tight and competed on the defensive end. But old issues crept back into the mix as the game slipped away in the second half.
The Bulls laid an egg in the final two quarters as the Jazz romped to a 125-110 victory. What’s worse, Chicago still cannot seem to solve the defensive problems that have been evident for some time now.
Head coach Billy Donovan’s team remains in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings. But the outlook feels bleak. The Bulls could just as easily end up in the play-in tournament.
The Bulls gave up 71 second-half points in loss to Jazz
Despite shooting 40% from the floor in the first half, the Bulls hung tight with the Jazz. Chicago forced nine turnovers, many of which led to fast-break points.
However, the defensive effort slowly began to wane in the third quarter.
Although Chicago forced five more turnovers in the third period, Utah scored 35 points. Most of them came from a red-hot Donovan Mitchell, who got in quite the rhythm from beyond the arc.
Mitchell went 7-of-9 from deep for the quarter. To his credit, the Bulls contested a couple of those triples. Another was essentially a heat check. Too often, however, Chicago gave him just enough space to get his jumper off, typically getting caught between playing drop coverage and hedging on screens.
Spida ignited the Jazz out of the break, and the Bulls could not contain Utah in the final period.
Chicago appeared ready to make things tight after a 15-6 run cut the Jazz’s lead to just four points. But the Bulls forgot how to get stops, let alone string them together. Utah put the game to bed with a 14-0 run of its own.
Chicago plagued by the same defensive shortcomings
As previously noted, the Bulls could not have prevented some of Donovan Mitchell’s triples. He showed little hesitation off the dribble and got into a nice groove.
Still, the continued collapse in the fourth quarter highlighted persistent problems in Chicago’s defensive scheme.
The Bulls could not slow the Mike Conley-Rudy Gobert pick-and-roll. Gobert repeatedly sealed on-ball defenders as the screener, allowing Conley to get into the paint at will and forcing help defenders to cut off drives, which then led to numerous open three-point attempts.
Dribble drives also proved problematic. Billy Donovan said after the game (h/t K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago) that the inability to stop Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson from steamrolling to the bucket contributed to bad trapping and poor rotations.
Indeed, Chicago had trapping issues. Nikola Vucevic began to hedge too long on pick-and-roll, and the Jazz responded by finding short rolls and sparking ball movement. The Bulls could not recover or figure out their rotations, contributing to numerous open looks from the perimeter.
Some possessions showed downright laziness. Alex Caruso, who has demonstrated his quality as a clear defensive standout, left Nickeil Alexander-Walker wide open for an open corner three-pointer on an inbounds play because he was too busy complaining to officials.
At some point, the Bulls have to make adjustments. Yet, these problems have existed for the better part of the season, and Chicago has failed to scheme accordingly.
The repeated defensive shortcomings and ongoing slide in the conference standings paint a dire picture for the Bulls.
Sliding all the way to the play-in?
Chicago went into the All-Star break with the same record as the No. 1-seeded Miami Heat. About four weeks later, the Bulls have fallen to the No. 5 seed in the East. Will the slide ever end?
This is a precarious position for the Bulls. The good news is that second-year forward Patrick Williams could be nearing a return, shortly after Caruso rejoined the team. But the bad outweighs the good right now.
The Bulls cannot defend against elite offensive teams and are still finding out how best to address issues at the point of attack. They’re not going to have an easy time getting wins, especially with Lonzo Ball still absent from the defensive backcourt.
Moreover, the teams on Chicago’s heels could build momentum down the stretch. In fact, the No. 7-seeded Toronto Raptors have already done as much. Toronto has won five straight games and went undefeated during its own West Coast swing. The Cleveland Cavaliers have lost three of four, but they have a somewhat friendly closing schedule and could get a boost if Jarrett Allen returns before the end of the season.
It’s not impossible to envision the Bulls dropping to the No. 7 seed. Should that happen, a play-in date with the Brooklyn Nets likely awaits them. That’s a terrifying prospect.
Chicago can still find a way to right the ship. But the Bulls haven’t done much to prove they’re real contenders in the East. Fans should prepare for the worst.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.