The Bulls used 100 possessions Saturday night against the Detroit Pistons. Only one mattered.
As good as Zach LaVine’s game-tying three-pointer was, the outcome of the next possession ultimately determined the game.
We knew the defense would be bad. It was always going to cost the Bulls games. That proved true in a 118-116 loss to the Pistons.
The Final Possession
Isolating a single possession and using it as the sole reason a game was lost can be misleading. But in this instance, in the dying moments of a tied game with shot and game clocks virtually aligned, I don’t understand the rationale behind leaving two of your worst frontcourt defenders on the floor.
Opting to close a game with Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker as your 4-5 combination, knowing one (or both) would likely have to guard a pick-and-roll set, is huge mistake by coach Fred Hoiberg.
Exploiting the Bulls’ porous defense, the Pistons ran a basic horns set, using a double screen to set free the ball-handler. LaVine, a below-average defender himself, easily got caught on the pick, leaving Ish Smith with a choice: blow past Parker or Portis?
Why not both?
Technically, this mistake is on Parker, who was directly responsible for Smith after he elected to go left and use the screen set by his man. Portis isn’t without blame too — his feet were stuck in cement as Smith glided past.
As poorly as the Bulls defended this possession, it was entirely predictable. The players deserve blame for not being able to stop an easy bucket in the paint, but this one ultimately falls on Hoiberg.
Closing the game with two floor-spacing forwards to draw out the lumbering Pistons big men made sense on offense. The Bulls did make a run with Parker on the floor late. For one final defensive possession, however, such logic doesn’t hold when you know those players are incapable of preventing dribble penetration. Asked after the game why he didn’t make a defensive substitution with Wendell Carter Jr., Hoiberg offered up this response:
Fred Hoiberg said Pistons we’re small and he stayed with group that got Bulls back into game when asked why Wendell Carter Jr. wasn’t in game on possession Ish Smith scored game-winner.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) October 21, 2018
Sorry coach, but that isn’t a suitable excuse.
There’s only so much we can say about this Bulls defense before it becomes old, tired, and nauseating — if it hasn’t already. On this occasion, though, Hoiberg needed to understand the moment. He didn’t, and it cost his team.
Zach LaVine might be for real
There is no stopping Zach LaVine right now.
As each game passes, the more it appears the preseason version of LaVine is here to stay. This a welcome sight for a Bulls team sorely lacking efficient offensive creation whilst Lauri Markkanen remains out through injury.
There’s so much to like about what LaVine shown thus far in this young season. The change in his offensive mindset has been welcome documented. Instead of settling for bad, contested midrange jumpers, more of his points are coming from drives to the basket.
Using his incredible speed and leaping ability, LaVine has also become a menace in transition.
Despite the box score indicating the team was better when LaVine was off the floor — his -14 plus/minus was a team-worst — the Bulls weren’t in this game without LaVine’s second quarter explosion. Shooting 80 percent from the field and scoring 15 of his game-high 33 points in the quarter, LaVine dragged the Bulls back from a 10-point deficit to end the half down only two.
Though he did less damage in the second half, LaVine came up big once again, hitting the Bulls biggest shot of the night. Down three with 27 seconds to play, LaVine pulling up off the bounce for a game-tying three-point jumper further emphasised how fluid his jump shot is, even late in games with tired legs.
Beyond the impressive highlights, LaVine heading to the free throw line nine times has unlocked another facet of his game. In his first two games this season, LaVine is averaging eight free throw attempts. With his pure shooting stroke, combined with a new-founded ability to consistently get to the rim, LaVine adding extra points via the free throw line will only increase his efficiency as a scorer, making him a more credible lead option.
The next step for LaVine is impacting the box score in other ways other than scoring — three rebounds and three assists are meager numbers for a player with his usage. That will (hopefully) come in time.
Where are the threes?
No one predicted the Bulls would be a good defense. We did, however, expect a decent-to-good offense, built primarily around the power of the three-point shot.
Thus far, outside of a flurry of made jumpers in the first quarter against the Sixers, the shooting has been completely absent.
Here’s something I didn’t expect to see so early in this season: the Pistons (40) almost doubled the Bulls (21) in three-point attempts. That can’t happen again. More importantly, the Bulls can’t go games where they allow opponents to connect on 18 threes whilst only making seven themselves.
Being outscored by 33 points from the three-point line typically spells disaster. Somehow, the Bulls managed to stay in this game, even with Pistons dominating from behind the arc. Despite such a discrepancy in threes, remaining so close to the visitors sours this loss even further — this would have been a perfect fluke game to steal.
In some ways, the Bulls struggling from three isn’t too surprising — two of their most prolific shooters on the team, Lauri Markkanen and Denzel Valentine, are out injured. That explains part of the problem. Maybe, though, we also overstated how good this team can be from deep.