Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas talked to reporters for the first time in the regular season ahead of Monday’s showdown against his former team, the Nuggets. Karnisovas addressed the upcoming trade deadline, Zach Lavine, Lauri Markkanen and Billy Donovan, among other things, and then he settled in to watch his new team play another competitive game against a Western Conference playoff contender.
Unfortunately, the Bulls once again fell short, with Nikola Jokic’s 39 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists proving to be too much in a 118-112 defeat. Jokic scored 17 of his points in the fourth quarter, saving the Nuggets’ ass after it looked like they were on the verge of a total collapse. Denver didn’t score for nearly four minutes to start the fourth quarter, allowing Chicago to open up a six-point lead after trailing by as many as 15 points earlier in the game.
That’s when Jokic went to work, scoring at will over basically any defenders the Bulls threw at him. An ugly stretch from Chicago, including way too much Denzel Valentine, helped Denver get back in it, and then the two teams traded blows down the stretch. One killer sequence saw a Joker and-1 poster dunk of Patrick Williams followed by a bad Zach LaVine missed 3 and then a Jamal Murray PUJIT triple on the other end, turning a two-point Bulls lead into a four-point deficit with 1:39 to play.
Thaddeus Young wasn’t ready for the game to end, ripping down two consecutive offensive rebounds off missed triples, including a straight rip of Michael Porter Jr. on the second one and then a putback for a score. But Young and the Bulls had no answer for Jokic on the other end, and the Nuggets big man delivered one last dagger bucket in the final minute.
Chicago had to be feeling some déjà vu watching Jokic dominant like this after another MVP candidate in Joel Embiid did them dirty just over a week ago. Wendell Carter Jr. had another rough night trying to guard Jokic, but it’s not like Young or Luke Kornet had much success either. Carter was trying to be physical early on, which caused some frustration for Jokic and Michael Malone (he got REAL mad at a no-call in the first half), but the center ultimately took the game over. His inside dominance helped the Nuggets rack up 60 points in the paint.
There were a few times in this game where it felt like the Bulls were going to get blown out. They trailed by 14 points right out of the gate and took a timeout right out of halftime after going down by 12 again. The home team was able to stay in it by dominating in bench points (39-17) fast-break points (28-9) and second chance points (18-9). Chicago’s bench being a major advantage is never a surprise at this point, but it was especially predictable in this game given Denver’s injuries. The Bulls used a mostly bench group plus Coby White to turn a 10-point deficit late in the third quarter into that six-point lead early in the fourth, with White scoring 16 of his 20 points in the second half after a brutal start. White outplayed a frustrated Murray for much of the second half until Murray hit a pair of clutch 3s and two final free throws to finish with 24 points.
LaVine led the Bulls with 23 points, but this wasn’t one of his better games. He shot 9-of-20 from the field and 1-of-8 from 3-point land, including 0-of-4 from deep in the final frame. Chicago shot 1-of-11 on 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to drop to 12-of-38 for the game after going 11-of-27 through the first three quarters. LaVine did have nine rebounds and five assists, but he also had four turnovers and was a minus-20. He was just never able to put his stamp on the game as the Nuggets made it a point to throw defenders at him when possible, and he had an uncharacteristically off night with his jumper.
Williams also reached double figures with 13 points and had some flashes of offensive aggressiveness, plus a nasty block of Jokic in crunch time. However, the Bulls were crushed by 23 points in his 32 minutes on the floor.
Young and Valentine were the other two Bulls to score in double figures. Young was truly outstanding again with his 12 points (6-of-9 shooting), five boards, four assists and five steals after he took to Instagram earlier in the day to address the recent trade rumors:
Valentine had his moments with 13 points, four rebounds and three assists, but it took him 15 shots to get those points and that ugly stretch in the fourth quarter hurt.
Kornet actually made two more triples and, hilariously, was a team-best plus-16 in 11 minutes thanks to that bench surge in the second half.
With this loss, the Bulls dropped to 15-18 on the season. They wrap up the first half of the season in New Orleans on Wednesday.