10 Observations: Bulls' Defense Rests in Setback Loss to Spurs

10 observations: Bulls’ defense rests in loss to Spurs originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Chicago Bulls scored 122 points Friday night against the San Antonio Spurs (19-31), but lost by nine points.

Billy Donovan and DeMar DeRozan summed up that development well in their postgame comments.

“When you score 122 points, you've got to be able to play good enough defense that that's enough points to be able to win,” Donovan said.

“We scored 122 points, that's more than enough points to win,” DeRozan added. “And we can’t give up 131 points. That’s unacceptable.”

With the loss, the Bulls drop to 30-18 on the season. Here are 10 observations:

1. Let’s begin by saying this was a bad night for the Bulls’ defense. Despite scoring 122 points and shooting over 52 percent at the offensive end, San Antonio won by nine and led by double-digits for long stretches of the fourth quarter. It’s the third time this season the Bulls have allowed an opponent to exceed 130 points – adding to the blowout losses to the Nets and Warriors earlier in January.

“Terrible,” Zach LaVine said of the Bulls’ defense. “It didn’t matter what (coverage or scheme) we were in, we couldn’t stop the ball.”

2. Dejounte Murray led the Spurs’ charge with 29 points and 12 assists (plus nine rebounds to flirt with his 11th triple-double of the season). Javonte Green, Ayo Dosunmu and LaVine all got cracks at him, but he was on point from start to finish.

Particularly in the second half, Murray and Jakob Poeltl (21 points, 14 rebounds) picked the Bulls apart in screen-and-roll – a department in which fans should expect struggles without Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. The point of attack defense each of them provides transformed the Bulls from the worst pick-and-roll defense in the NBA last season to – when healthy – one of the best now. But the team won’t be whole for at least the next one-to-two months.

3. The Spurs also won the 3-point line by a resounding margin, shooting 16-for-37 (43.2 percent) to the Bulls’ 8-for-30 (26.7 percent). Many of San Antonio’s looks were open, and outside of Coby White – 4-for-6 – only LaVine (2-for-10) on the Bulls made multiple triples.

“The difference in the game was the 3-point line,” Donovan said. “Now why was that? I thought we had a really, really hard time controlling the ball (defensively). I didn’t think that we closed very, very well in terms of ball containment. And that’s when the 3s come. Ball gets downhill, you’re having to pull over and help, they start spraying it out. The initial thrust, you’ve got to be able to contain the ball.”

4. In related news: The Spurs, who entered play the NBA leaders in assist average, carved the Bulls up for 35 dimes on 50 makes.

5. The Bulls carried a 68-63 lead into the halftime locker room, but lost the third quarter 35-23 and the fourth 33-31. That added up to losing the second half 68-54.

In wins over the Thunder and Raptors, the Bulls built big first-half leads that dripped away in the third and fourth quarters, but did enough to emerge victorious. In this one, the initial cushion didn’t exist, and so San Antonio ran away and hid.

6. DeRozan returned to San Antonio for the first time since last summer’s sign-and-trade that shipped him from the Spurs to the Bulls. The city and fans welcomed him with warm tribute:

Then, he went off for 32 points on 13-for-22 shooting – his 13th 3-point game of the season – and eight assists.

7. LaVine also got on the board for 30 points, but is now quietly 6-for-25 from 3-point range since returning from his five-game, knee-soreness-induced absence.

8. White entered play 3-for-27 from 3 in his last four games – a drought that dropped his season-long percentage from a career-high 39.7 to a career-low 34.8. But he came out firing in this one, drilling all three of his 3-point attempts in the first quarter off the catch. In all, White made his first six field-goal attempts on his way to 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting for the night, including a 3 early in the fourth quarter that looked at the time as if it could mark the beginning of a rally.

In addition to returning from shoulder surgery rehab, and a bout with COVID-19, White’s role has shuffled more than any player on the Bulls’ roster this season. With Ayo Dosunmu starting at point in Ball’s absence, White now appears firmly established as a sixth-man sparkplug.

9. Twelve of Nikola Vučević’s 18 points came inside the paint – and on 6-for-6 shooting, at that. He’s lately looked more comfortable on the interior when the Bulls find him despite continuing to struggle from 3-point range. Defensively, he was finished over on a few occasions, but LaVine stuck up for him postgame.

“It’s not Vooch’s fault. Vooch is doing what the coaches, what we’re asking him to do,” LaVine said. “We have to help support him. Everybody has to give more effort, but it’s not one guy’s fault.”

10. The Spurs’ size, at times, also gave the Bulls trouble. Their front-line of Poeltl (six) and Drew Eubanks (four) combined for 10 offensive rebounds, and as a team, they scored 10 second-chance points. That was only two more than the Bulls, but the Spurs’ seven extra field-goal attempts undoubtedly helped.

Next up: The Bulls jet back home for a matchup with the Magic on Sunday.

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