The Bulls suffered a second straight loss to the Sixers on Saturday night, this time at the United Center with a final score of 114-105. While the Sixers are a good team even with all their absences, this was a game in which Chicago needed to make a statement and win on its home court. There was no Ben Simmons (obviously), Tobias Harris, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle or Isaiah Joe available, so Philly went with an eight-man rotation.
Instead, the Bulls came out flat and then tried to make another big comeback after a brutal 15-0 second-quarter run gave the Sixers some breathing room in the first half. Philly kept the home team at arm’s length until the customary fourth-quarter surge, only to bat Chicago away with a 3-point barrage down the stretch.
With the Bulls dropping to 6-3 with these two losses, let’s look at some takeaways from this game, all which have been major themes to start this season.
The shorthanded Sixers looked dead in the water to start this game, only scoring six points in five and a half minutes. While Lonzo Ball’s alley-oop off the backboard to Zach LaVine was a showtime moment, the Bulls weren’t all that much better offensively. They weren’t able to get much separation early and wound up trailing by a point after one thanks to three Furkan Korkmaz triples to close the frame.
The Bulls have made a bad habit of starting slow offensively. They managed just 21 points in the first quarter in this game and 19 in the first Sixers game. On the season, they have a putrid 98.2 offensive rating in the first quarter, per NBA.com. While they’re not getting routinely crushed in the first quarter because the defense has been good, the slow starts mean they’re not building sizable leads themselves, and then big runs by the opponent later in the game put Chicago in big holes to climb out of.
Both of the Bulls’ primary starting lineups this season (one with Patrick Williams and one with Javonte Green) have been terrible offensively, and it certainly hasn’t been helped by the struggles of Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic early in games (more on Vooch’s overall struggles in a bit). LaVine actually started pretty well in this game with eight points on 4-of-7 shooting, but he’s under 39% from the field and at 18.2% from 3 in the first quarter. Vooch shot 2-of-7 in the first on plenty of good looks and is at 40% shooting in the opening frame (an improvement over his overall numbers).
While the big names have to be better to start games, something that LaVine mentioned specifically after this loss, I’m wondering if we’ll see a lineup change coming soon in an attempt to shake things up. Javonte Green plays his ass off and should be commended for that, but opposing teams simply don’t care about guarding him because of his limitations on that end. He also botched a few bunnies early in Saturday’s game, which didn’t help matters.
If Billy Donovan doesn’t just want to go with Alex Caruso and the closing lineup to start, the Bulls don’t really have any other great options right now to take Patrick Williams’ place. However, Derrick Jones Jr. has been making a case for more minutes with his activity level. He was terrific off the bench on Saturday and helped spark the comeback. DJJ has some of the same offensive flaws as Green, but he’s a better player who should get a look with the starters if things don’t improve.
First off, Vucevic hasn’t been a total disaster, because his passing has been legit and he has battled on defense, even if he can look really bad at times because of how slow he is. But, man, has it been painful watching him brick shots offensively, from both inside and out.
Vucevic missed two great looks to start Saturday’s game and wound up finishing 5-of-16 overall and 1-of-7 from 3-point range. His wide-open miss from deep to go up four with just over five minutes left was a killer, especially with Joel Embiid cashing a triple of his own on the other end.
Vooch is now shooting 38.0% overall and 25.6% from 3-point range this season. He’s a shocking 14-of-32 inside the restricted area. There has been some chatter around the league about the new Wilson ball causing shooting problems, so maybe that’s playing a role here, but he hasn’t been close on a lot of these misses. He does seem to be battling some confidence issues, and perhaps he’s also struggling to adapt to being the No. 3 option behind LaVine and DeMar DeRozan.
One has to imagine the big man will have some big-time positive shooting regression soon. He’s at 49.4% shooting for his career and 35.4% from 3-point range, and I don’t think he just became washed overnight at 31 years old. Maybe he’s not the 40% 3-point shooter he was at last season, but getting back to league average would be helpful. As would making the gimmes around the basket, and perhaps they try to get him more post touches to get a rhythm. Forcing too many of those, though, wouldn’t be ideal.
The bottom line is the Bulls really need Vucevic to find himself, because their offense needs him to be a versatile inside-outside scorer to perform at a high level. It feels like a miracle that they’re in the top 10 given some of the issues (free throws have been huge).
The 3-point shooting
The Bulls are at 36.1% from three on the season, which is somehow still sixth in the NBA with shooting down across the league so far. But they are last in attempts per game. They were brutal against the Sixers, shooting 6-of-21 from deep on Wednesday and 7-of-29 on Saturday. Meanwhile, Philly made it rain by going 12-of-28 and 13-of-26.
The poor 3-point success rate the last few games only made the lack of attempts more problematic. We knew 3-point shooting could be a problem with Coby White out to start the season, and they’re only getting up 26.4 triples per game.
Ball is propping up the 3-point percentage at 40.7% on 6.6 attempts per game. However, he took over eight per game last season and should be firing up more now. DeRozan is actually shooting over 42% from deep, but his volume is obviously low at just over two per game.
LaVine and Vucevic struggling from 3 has been a major issue. LaVine is at 33.9%, which is well below his scorching success rate from last season (41.9%), and he’s taking under seven treys per game after taking over eight per game in 2020-21. Vooch’s 3-point attempts are also down from just under six 3s per game with the Bulls last season (he was at 6.5 per game with the Magic) to 4.3 per game so far this season.
One has to wonder how much that thumb injury is affecting LaVine. He has had a number of 3-pointers go halfway down and out. Maybe the injury plus the new ball can explain this. Whatever the case, the Bulls’ offense is way less explosive because of it.
White’s return should help. If there’s one thing he’s good at, it’s launching up 3-pointers. The guard faced live contact in practice on Sunday and is close to returning to full participation, so his return seems to be right around the corner. The Bulls could really use his spark off the bench and another guy who can knock down triples.