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Bulls vs. Nuggets recap: a moral victory when the rookies perform well

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defensive rebounding killed them, but otherwise a lot to like

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Chicago Bulls Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

One failed defensive possession can cost you a ball game. That proved true for the Bulls in a two-point loss to the Detroit Pistons, and did so again in a 108-107 overtime loss to the Denver Nuggets.

Closing with an undersized defensive unit — and Jabari Parker on the bench — on the final possession of the game, after defending the first action well enough to cause a miss, the Bulls couldn’t secure the rebound, losing on a final second put-back.

Hindsight asks whether Justin Holiday, a small forward, to guard Paul Millsap was the wrong move — his slight frame had no chance of keeping his opponent off the glass. Inserting known defensive sieve Jabari Parker, and using his bigger body to box out Millsap (probably) made more sense. The irony in questioning coach Fred Hoiberg for making a defensive substitution to get Parker out of the game isn’t lost on me, more so it highlights the depth problems the Bulls temporarily have at power forward.

Still, despite losing the game on the final play of the game, there was a lot to like.

Two first-round picks, two great performances

Dropping games in the final seconds are typically frustrating. This one wasn’t. The fact the Bulls - without four rotation players- were in this game, against a rising Western Conference team, is notable considering the embarrassing performance against the Golden State Warriors on Monday.

For a rebuilding team, you can live with competitive losses if the young players are flashing signs of their future selves. The Bulls got a glimpse on Wednesday, with rookies Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison both having strong games.

Against Nikola Jokic, a dynamic, All-Star level talent, containing the Nuggets center has been a tall order this season. Fortunately for the Bulls, their own young big man is a seriously talented prospect in Carter.

Be it instruction or becoming more comfortable with his place within the league, from the jump it was clear we were witnessing a more aggressive version of Carter Jr. After putting up 13 shots against the Warriors, his highest total attempts prior to this game, Chicago’s most recent No. 7 pick had no fear, launching 21 field goals, putting up a career-best 25 points.

More than just points, the rookie was all over the floor, filling out the box score with eight rebounds, five assists, and three blocks and steals.

Considering the context, playing against one of the best centers in the league, this performance from Carter Jr. was seriously something. It’s still early, so we shouldn’t go off the deep end just yet, but it’s hard to deny thoughts of what Lauri Markkanen’s return and eventual pairing with Carter Jr. will look like, and how their ability to stretch the floor can create a runway into the paint for the Bulls guards to stream into.

Hutchison, returning to the bench in place of Jabari Parker, looked much more comfortable in a reserve role. Scoring eight points and pulling down seven rebounds, the first-year forward was a plus-4 in 30 minutes, showcasing his ability as a defender and playmaker.

Zach LaVine scoring 25+ is routine

We’ve already grown used to Zach LaVine being a walking 25 point per game scorer, so much so that his team-high 28 points felt like just another run-of-the-mill performance.

LaVine’s evolution as a scorer has been well documented, and it has gone a long way to bridging the gap between his production and contract value. Through five preseason and eight regular season games, it appears this version of LaVine is here to stay.

The next step in his development is improving his ability as a playmaker. It may have only been one game, but the guard sliced through Nuggets’ defense and created good shots all night. Finishing the game with seven assists and only two turnovers, it was LaVine’s most controlled performance as the lead ball-handler this season.

All game, LaVine moved the ball and found open teammates — his best dime was this bullet pass thrown to Justin Holiday on the other side of the floor.

Whilst the pass didn’t perfectly hit Holiday in his shooting pocket, the intent was key: Find an open shooter in transition.

LaVine still has a way to go before we can feel comfortable with him consistently handling the ball and running an offense, but against the Nuggets, it was a step in the correct direction.

Other Notes

  • I keep telling you guys Ryan Arcidiacono is good. In another strong showing, the guard was influential in the second half, again playing more minutes than Cameron Payne over the final two quarters. Finishing the game with seven assists, three scrappy steals, and only one turnover, ‘Baby Kirk’ [no. -yfbb] was a team-high plus-8 in a one-point loss.
  • In his first game as starter, Jabari Parker wasn’t good: Six points (3-of-10), nine rebounds and four fouls in 35 minutes. Thankfully, if there was concern that the ascension of Parker would leave the reserves with no scoring, gunner Antonio Blakeney came through, catching a heater and contributing 15 quick points off the bench.
  • The Nuggets only shot 26.9 percent from the three-point line. Some of that was good defense, some of it was open misses. More importantly, though, the Bulls only allowed their opponent to shoot 26 threes. That’s a huge improvement from a team who currently ranks 29th in opponent three-point attempts.
  • While the Bulls defended the three-point line well, they were destroyed on the glass. The Nuggets were plus-13 in rebounds, with seven additional offensive rebounds, leading to a 23-8 advantage in second-chance points. In that sense, it was fitting they lost the game to an offensive rebound.
  • The Bulls are back at the United Center on Friday night against the Indiana Pacers. Can they make it two ‘competitive losses’ in a row?