MILWAUKEE --- It’s a statistic that’s so stark, so sobering, that it almost seems hard to believe.
With their 126-98 blowout loss to the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night, the Chicago Bulls dropped to 0-16 against the current top-three teams in each conference.
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That’s not a typo.
“You can’t just flush it,’’ guard Alex Caruso said of the latest loss. “It’s happened too many times. You gotta learn from it.”
So what can the Bulls take away from their latest example of getting outclassed by an elite team? What can the Bulls learn from a night in which they trailed by as many as 35 points, allowed an opponent-season-high 61 percent shooting and produced zero fast-break points, eight bench points and only five free throws through three quarters before mop-up time commenced?
“That’s a good question,” DeMar DeRozan said. “You’re playing against the defending champs. Seeing, feeling, understanding how hard they compete, how well they execute, physicality, everything that comes with it to get what they deserved last year.”
DeRozan has played in an Eastern Conference finals, so he’s afforded some slack. Caruso has won an NBA championship, so he is too.
Both players have talked throughout this season of getting teammates like Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White and even Zach LaVine---who has won an Olympic gold medal but never appeared in an NBA playoff game---to understand the intensity of each possession in these games that matter---and those playoff games to come.
Are enough teammates getting the message?
“If we haven’t got it, we’re getting it now. Understanding what it’s going to be like, and even tougher come playoffs,” DeRozan said. “We’re going through it right now, what you call battle wounds, battle scars. We’re kind of taking them all on the chin right now. It’s going to show us what we’re made out of.”
This season once carried with it the potential for storybook feel. No longer. The Bulls are 16-19 since Jan. 7 and, still without Lonzo Ball, getting exposed defensively more nights than not.
What looked to be a strength in Monday’s impressive home victory over the Raptors----Caruso entering the lineup, Ayo Dosunmu coming off the bench and players more properly slotting into their right roles---flipped painfully against the Bucks. Through three quarters, the bench shot 3-for-14.
“When we came out with that second unit, I thought we really struggled. That’s where that run happened,” coach Billy Donovan said, citing a 13-0 Bucks run in the first. “It wasn’t necessarily one person. It was collectively the group.”
Indeed, Dosunmu finished minus-35, White was at minus-22 and Patrick Williams, in his second game back following a five-month absence to wrist surgery, was minus-12. Donovan pointed to White fouling Pat Connaughton on a 3-pointer that kick-started the run as a learning opportunity.
These moments extend to other examples across the board. Caruso talked about not settling for easy routes on offense---in other words, embracing the physicality that comes with hard cutting---or making sure to compete on boxouts or pushing offensive catches out further or mastering game-plan coverages.
This is the specificity and sacrifice that championship teams master.
“We have plenty of talent on our team. It’s not about a talent issue. It’s about executing,” Caruso said. “Basketball at any level---middle school, high school, college, pro---winning basketball is winning basketball. It doesn’t change no matter what level you’re at.
“If you want to win an NBA championship, you want to compete in the playoffs, you want to play in March Madness, get to the state finals in high school, you have to execute and do your (expletive) really well. And we’re not doing our stuff good enough right now.”
DeRozan sounded similar with his final assessment.
“Sometimes we have to understand how to channel our frustration on our opponent. It’s not a talent issue at all. Because we’ve proved we’re a great team,” he said. “It’s just execution, especially when you play against the top-notch teams. They understand the value of executing on both ends. They understand their assignment every time they step out there on the court, 1-5. Those teams are always on a string.
“We show it in spurts. But the good teams that go far do it as close to 48 minutes as possible, not just a quarter or half a quarter.”
The Bulls are running out of quarters to prove they belong with the big boys.