It feels weird to say, but the Bulls missed the suspended Rajon Rondo in Monday night’s loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. With Michael Carter-Williams still sidelined with a wrist injury, the Bulls were forced to rely heavily on Jerian Grant and Isaiah Canaan against one of the league’s most explosive pair of scoring guards.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined to score 54 points and shoot over 50% from three as everybody not named Jimmy Butler was torched the entirety of the game. Canaan and Grant died on screens and lost track their dangerous opponents away from the ball constantly, allowing wide open jumpers to excellent shooters.
The Bulls were able to storm back to a lead in the third quarter when Fred Hoiberg opened the half with Jimmy Butler locked on to Lillard. For some reason, Fred did not stick with that strategy in crunch-time.
Grant and Canaan were also ice cold shooting the ball, a combined 5/18 on field goals and 1/7 from three. Two of Canaan’s three attempts from beyond the arc were ill-advised low percentage looks: a pull up jumper in transition (PUJIT) when the Bulls had a three on two fast break advantage, and a deep step back at the top of the key early in the shot clock in the fourth quarter. Those are not the kind of heat check shots a 30% shooter should be allowed to take.
Grant was just as frustrating in this game, albeit on slightly less horrible shot attempts. The young point guard looks for his own offense every time he touches the ball, and only looks to pass after taking a few probing dribbles that go nowhere. His passes do nothing to set his teammates up to score. He recorded one assist in 23 minutes.
Back to the defense, where the Trail Blazers are a uniquely bad match-up for Robin Lopez. For all the positioning intelligence RoLo brings to the floor, his inability to step above the free throw line on pick and rolls only exacerbated the perimeter defense problems. Something smart that Portland did to take advantage of Lopez was set the initial screen for Lillard or McCollum a few feet above the three point arc. That strategy forced Lopez to cover even more space on the court, and it turned some shots that would normally come from mid-range into three pointers. Lopez played 33 minutes compared to 26 from Taj Gibson. I would’ve liked to see those totals reversed against a team like Portland where athleticism and the ability to switch is crucial.
The Bulls were kept in the game in the first half because of a fantastic stretch from Dwyane Wade. 23 of Wade’s team-high 34 points came in the first two quarters as the well-rested veteran carried the offense.
Jimmy Butler cracked twenty points for the fourteenth consecutive game, the longest streak in the NBA this year. Butler finished with 26 points on 50% shooting from the field and from three and was a perfect 8/8 from the foul line. He also managed grabbed eight rebounds, dish five assists and record one steal and two blocks.
But Butler struggled in the final period when the Bulls needed him most. Jimmy shot 1/4 in the fourth quarter, his only make coming on a three pointer in the final seconds when the game had been decided. Portland slowed down Butler by following the blueprint the Lakers laid out for the NBA last week. Every time a Bull set a screen for Butler, the Blazers would send a hard trap to either force a pass or a wild shot attempt.
This is just something that Butler is going to have to get used to seeing to close games for the rest of the season. He’s going to have to get better at making quick passes and trusting his teammates. On the video above, Butler could have attempted to thread a pass to Lopez as he darted into the lane. Lopez could have either turned and finished a layup, or even flung a pass out to Mirotic if the defense over-helped.
After the disheartening loss against the Mavericks on Saturday, it would have been nice for the Bulls to pull out a win at home before heading into their fourth game in five nights. Instead, the Bulls will try and stop this losing streak tomorrow in Detroit.