Observations: Bulls' play-in hopes take blow in loss to Nets originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
In a game that was a must-win in the scope of their push for a play-in spot, the Bulls suffered a 115-107 home loss to the Brooklyn Nets.
Daniel Theis returned after a one-game absence with a hip contusion, while Troy Brown Jr. missed his 12th straight game with a sprained ankle. On the Nets' end, James Harden (hamstring) was sidelined.
The result snaps a three-game winning streak for the Bulls, once again stalling their quest for a four-gamer. They haven't strung four consecutive wins together since December 2017.
Here are 10 observations:
1. The Bulls' recent run of stingy defense stalled in the first half. The Nets -- who are of course on a different planet offensively than the Hornets, Celtics and Pistons -- dropping 115 for the night (64 in the first half) snapped a three-game streak of the Bulls holding opponents under 100 points. By night's end, all five Brooklyn starters notched 13 points or more (with eight in double-figures overall), and the Nets built sizable scoring advantages in the paint and on the fastbreak (though 41.2 percent long-range shooting in the first half marginally cooled down).
2. Joe Harris was particularly slippery early on. He flew off a screen and canned a 3 on the Nets' first possession of the game, missed another clean long-range look shortly thereafter and later in the period hit a pull-up mid-ranger attacking a closeout. In the second quarter, Coby White fouled him on a made 3-pointer, a bugaboo of this Bulls team. Harris (17 points, albeit 2-for-7 from deep) and Bruce Brown (15 points, five offensive rebounds) do a really good job of playing off of their superstar teammates, staying in constant motion and pursuit of cracks in opposing defenses.
3. Even without Harden, the Nets create matchup problems for even the best teams, but the Bulls felt particularly ill-equipped to handle them. To start the game, Billy Donovan matched Patrick Williams with Kevin Durant, Zach LaVine with Kyrie Irving, sent White chasing Harris and stashed Nikola Vučević on Bruce Brown. There's no much to quibble with strategically given the personnel, but not ideal nevertheless. The Nets made eight of their first 10 field goal attempts and eventually took a 32-23 lead into the second quarter, shooting 60 percent from the field in the opening 12 minutes. Irving led all scorers with 13 points and three 3-pointers.
4. Running into defensive issues against the Nets is no cause for blaring alarm bells, but the Bulls' struggles on the offensive end outside of LaVine were familiar in the wrong way. As a team, they struggled getting downhill, attempting just four free throws and shooting 9-for-17 in the paint in the first half (their first free-throw attempt didn't come until early in the second quarter).
5. The Bulls' solitary source of consistent offense was LaVine. He scored 10 of the team's 23 first-quarter points (4-for-5 shooting) and at the half led all scorers with 17 (7-for-10 shooting, 3-for-5 from deep). The rest of the Bulls combined for 34 points on 13-for-37 shooting in the first two quarters; White became the first Bull to join LaVine in double-figures early in the third.
6. While that's obviously not great, LaVine continued to look himself as he reacclimates from an 11-game absence due to a bout with COVID-19. He finished this one with 41 points (his fourth 40-spot of the season) on 15-for-27 shooting, 6-for-11 from behind the arc, in 37 minutes, with his full array of off-the-dribble jumpers and aptitude for making high-leverage shots on display.
Worth noting: A successful challenge by Donovan in the opening minute of the third quarter saved LaVine from picking up his fourth personal foul, which could have derailed his outing. Instead, an initial charge call on LaVine turned into two free-throw attempts, and he went on to post 24 points in the second half (11 in the third, 13 in the fourth) as the Bulls jockeyed for comeback position. Bottom line: Given the play-in implications, this was the Bulls' biggest game of the season, and against title-contender competition. LaVine delivered.
7. Irving left the contest early in the third quarter after taking an elbow to the face from Vučević (and didn't return). After picking his spots and scoring just eight points in the first half, Durant took over in Irving's absence, pouring in nine points and blocking two shots in the period. In a massive sequence, he swatted a LaVine layup attempt that would have cut the Nets' lead to seven, which led to a Blake Griffin 3 in transition that extended their advantage back to double-digits. The Bulls sent multiple bodies Durant's way all night, but when the Nets needed it most, he got his. Brooklyn ended up winning the third 29-23 and entered the fourth with a 93-74 lead.
8. Vučević typically owns the Nets -- he entered play averaging 26.5 points, 12.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists in four games against them this season -- but he endured a rare, poorly timed off-night. In the first half, Vučević posted just four points on 2-for-7 shooting, and he ended the third with six points on 3-for-13 (0-for-3 from distance). He did awake to hit a pair of triples in the fourth, but it was too late. The Nets sent doubles his way, to be sure -- which helped him sling six assists -- but there were also some uncharacteristic misses on clean looks. Vučević's 12 points on 5-for-18 shooting (2-for-6 from 3) mark just the eighth time in 24 games he's failed to reach 20 points since joining the Bulls.
9. White was probably due for an off shooting night given the tear he's been on of late (41.4 percent from 3 in 14 games since re-entering starting lineup), and he had one. He finished the night 6-for-17 from the field (for 16 points) and 4-for-11 from deep, but two of those 3s came with the game out of reach.
10. Donovan brought LaVine and White back into the game just over a minute into the fourth quarter, an indication of the significance of this game. Those two and Vučević played the majority of the contest from there. The Nets staved the Bulls' mini-runs off for most of the period, but the hosts did draw within six points with 99 seconds to play -- largely on the back of LaVine, who had 13 in the frame. The Bulls outscored the Nets 33-22 in the fourth quarter, but similar this season's likely outcome, it proved too little too late.
Standings update: The Bulls remain mathematically in contention for the final play-in spot in the East, but the already-arduous road is now just about impossible. With the loss, they can now no longer catch the Hornets, even if they lose out. And the Pacers beating the 76ers combined with the Bulls' defeat means they can no longer catch them either. Their only hope is to finish the season 3-0, and have the Wizards (who lead them by three games with three to go) finish winless. So that will just about do it.
Next up: Home for the Toronto Raptors, who, with a 27-42 record have already been mathematically eliminated from contention, on Thursday.