During their recent run of good play, the Bulls all of a sudden became darn near unbeatable in close games, especially at home. But after a 124-120 overtime loss to the Trail Blazers (who were without Damian Lillard) on Monday night, the Bulls suffered their second consecutive close loss and first home loss this season with Nikola Mirotic in the lineup.
The Bulls started the game sluggishly, but they roared back in the second quarter and played well for most of the rest of regulation. They looked to be in control when Lauri Markkanen put them up six with a corner 3-pointer off a nifty behind-the-back pass from Denzel Valentine:
Valentine behind his back to Lauri, BANG! pic.twitter.com/VJMdyAM4wU— ⓂarcusD (@_MarcusD2_) January 2, 2018
However, Al-Farouq Aminu hit a pair of triples to keep the game within reach, and C.J. McCollum scored the final four points of regulation to tie it. Both McCollum and Lauri Markkanen had chances to win the game, but they couldn’t convert and the game went to overtime (the Bulls also botched a potential 2-for-1 situation).
Evan Turner hit a 3-pointer to start the scoring in overtime as part of one of his best games of the year (22/6/4 on 10-of-14 shooting ... ugh). The Blazers never trailed in the extra frame, though the Bulls kept on coming and had the game tied at 120 apiece before McCollum put PDX up for good with 56 seconds to play. Kris Dunn missed two game-tying chances in the final minute, with the second miss featuring a questionable no-call:
Dunn isn't getting this call though :Shrug: pic.twitter.com/NQoG51NDnu— ⓂarcusD (@_MarcusD2_) January 2, 2018
Dunn had 22 points, seven assists and four rebounds in the loss, but he also had eight turnovers and was trying to do a bit too much himself down the stretch. You can chalk this up to a learning experience, but it also didn’t help that Fred Hoiberg strangely went away from Mirotic in crunch time.
Mirotic had another strong game, going for 18 points on 6-of-13 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds. The Bulls outscored the Blazers by 10 points in his time on the floor, which was only 19 minutes. He checked out with 7:34 left in the fourth quarter and didn’t play the rest of the game.
Mirotic admitted he got a bit banged up in the first half but also said he was available to play down the stretch. He was a good sport about it and said he respected Hoiberg’s decision. But the decision was still odd. Hoiberg said he played Robin Lopez over Mirotic because of the presence of Jusuf Nurkic. This from The Score’s Cody Westerlund concisely sums up the issue with the choice:
Regarding Mirotic sitting down stretch, I understand Hoiberg wanting size to defend Nurkic and that #Bulls' closing unit will have different looks. I just think the "let an average player dictate how much we use our best player" thought process is a bad process.— Cody Westerlund (@CodyWesterlund) January 2, 2018
Nurkic had a solid game overall with 11 points, 15 rebounds, three steals and two blocks, but it’s not like he was dominating (5-of-13 shooting). The Bulls were doing well with Mirotic on the court, and going with the Niko/Lauri frontcourt to close would’ve posed its own problems for Nurkic and the Blazers’ defense. That stretch lineup is really tough to guard, and it also gives Dunn more space to operate as the primary ballhandler. But alas.
On a more positive note, Markkanen had 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting and four triples. Bobby Portis again brought the energy off the bench with 14 points, seven rebounds (five offensive) and four assists in 17 minutes. Valentine didn’t shoot well (4 of 13) and struggled defensively, but he stuffed the stat sheet (10/7/6/2) and made some big plays in the fourth quarter before the collapse.
McCollum led the Blazers with 32 points, though it took him 30 shots to get there. Aminu’s 24 points and five 3-pointers were a killer, and this was a rare game in which a Bulls opponent shot well from 3 at the United Center. The Blazers made only three of their 14 3-pointers in the first half, but they went 11 of 19 in the second half and overtime.
The Bulls are now 13-24 after this loss, which has them with the seventh-worst record in the league. They easily could’ve won this game just like the New Year’s Eve game, but they were due for some crunch-time failures after winning so many tight games the last few weeks.
The Bulls are back in action against the Trashtors on Wednesday.