The good times had to end at some point.
We all knew Chicago’s schedule was getting significantly tougher after the All-Star break. Though they more or less held their own against the visiting Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday night at the United Center. Chicago’s six-game win streak ultimately ended, as the Bulls fell 116-110 to the Grizzlies despite a valiant fourth quarter run (Chicago actually outscored Memphis 31-23 in the period). The Grizzlies saw their season record rise to 42-20 (now just 1.5 games behind the Warriors for the West’s second seed). Chicago fell to 39-22 on the year, good for second place in the East.
What hurt Chicago most in the spirited defeat?
Bulls Are Missing Their Defensive Guards
We’ve talked about this ad nauseam, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still true. Without Lonzo Ball or Alex Caruso guarding the point of attack, the Bulls are vulnerable against quick guards. Caruso was at least pretty active cheerleading from the bench. Rookie Ayo Dosunmu is generally a capable defender (not so much on Saturday), but is not yet nearly at their level.
DeMar DeRozan’s fellow 2022 MVP candidate Ja Morant scored a career-high 46 points tonight, on 15-of-28 shooting from the floor and 13-of-15 shooting from the free-throw line, in large part because he was being covered by Coby White and Dosunmu. Morant did a lot of his damage in a runaway third quarter for the Grizzlies, scoring 20 of the team’s 34 points in the frame. Dosunmu, the 38th pick in the 2021 draft out of the University of Illinois and no slouch himself when it comes to pace, often struggled to keep up with Morant, one of the quickest guards in the NBA.
Morant relied on a devastating pick-and-roll game with center Steven Adams to break loose for a lot of his offense, and Dosunmu in particular struggled to deal with Adams’s hard screens. Third-year combo guard White ultimately was given far more minutes off the bench (35:13) than Dosunmu was allocated in a starting role (22:21).
Ja Morant put on a ridiculous show in the win vs the Bulls— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) February 27, 2022
46 PTS (Franchise-High)
20 PTS in 3rd Quarter
1 360 Layup
1 1-Hand Oop
1 "CP3 Yo-Yo Dribble" pic.twitter.com/eeF9JqP3JA
Ayo would not score a single point in the game, though he had some nifty dimes. White went 5-of-11 from the floor overall (including 3-of-6 from deep) to nab 15 points for Chicago.
Technical Foul Calls Hurt DeMar’s Rhythm
I don’t want to sound like a homer who felt like the referees had quick whistles for DeMar DeRozan in this game but... well, they sure didn’t help? The King of the Fourth was first whistled in the first quarter for a technical foul while scrambling with Javonte Green to retrieve a loose ball from Steven Adams. A somewhat rattled DeRozan would go on to miss all six of his field goal attempts in the period.
DeRozan had a patchy first three quarters as a scorer, going just 5-for-18 from the field. He cranked things up to 11 in the fourth quarter, and looked well on his way to bailing the Bulls yet again with insane turnaround midrange jumpers. He went 5-of-11 from the floor during the frame.
Per K.C. Johnson, the league’s Last Two Minutes Report indicated that a technical foul was accurately assessed Saturday when a suddenly-en fuego DeRozan argued against a no-call for what he felt was contact from Grizzlies wing Kyle Anderson late in the fourth quarter, with Chicago down 113-110 at the time. Though the call may have been accurate, one would think an MVP candidate playing at home might get the benefit of the doubt. Or at the very least be allowed to kvetch about the call with so much on the line and just 10 seconds remaining. Instead, his debate ultimately yielded the ejection.
DeMar gets ejected after not getting the call pic.twitter.com/aT25ldluKq— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 27, 2022
Beyond the dubious technical calls, DeMar came down to earth in his scoring efficiency, too. He had 31 points, sure, but it took him a whopping 29 shots to get there, thanks in large part to engaged defense from a lot of Grizzlies players, especially Desmond Bane, plus some coverage from Ziaire Williams and the aforementioned Slow Mo. He shot a paltry 34.5% from the field, thus ending his otherworldly streak of consecutive games with 35+ points scored on 50%+ shooting at eight. His streak of 30+ point games lives on, however, and has now hit double digits (10 straight).
The Bulls’ Troubles Against Legitimate Size Persist
The Grizzlies outscored the Bulls 62-50 in the paint last night, thanks in large part to the deadly two-man game of Morant and Adams. The difference was even more pronounced for most of the game, until DeMarvelous got cooking in the fourth quarter. Adams, averaging the most offensive rebounds in the NBA this year per StatMuse, had a modest scoring night (12 points on 5-of-9 shooting), but easily outmuscled the Bulls down low, pulling down a season-most 21 rebounds. The Grizzlies as a team out-rebounded the Bulls by a massive margin of 61-41.
Chicago too often surrendered second-chance points, allowing the Grizzlies to feast on defensive boards. Memphis pulled down 42 defensive rebounds, compared to Chicago’s mere tally of six offensive boards. Being shut out of so many extra possessions ultimately cost the Bulls.
Note the lack of red jerseys asserting themselves for position under the bucket in the clip below, wherein Adams easily grabs yet another defensive rebound (he finished with 13 defensive rebounds and eight offensive rebounds), then makes a crazy Kevin Love outlet dish to Ziaire Williams:
steven adams is my favorite quarterback pic.twitter.com/zvA0ocu4FW— Molly Morrison (@mollyhannahm) February 27, 2022
What you don’t see in this clip is the few seconds before, wherein Adams’s staunch defense intimidated Nikola Vucevic, who was tentatively making his way into the paint for the first time all game. Vucevic passed the ball to Zach LaVine around the three-point line, LaVine sent the ball back to the big man to re-post, and this time Adams wouldn’t even let Vooch get into the painted area at all. Vucevic passed the ball out again, this time to Ayo Dosunmu at the top of the arc for a clunker. (To be fair, Vucevic did wreak his vengeance later on in that first quarter, besting Adams with speed on a nice cutting inside take.)
Adams, who finished the first quarter with nine points and 11 (!) boards, pestered Vucevic into an even worse shooting night than DeRozan’s (29.4% from the field to DeMVP’s 34.5%). Vucevic did register his 36th double-double of the evening, so that’s something. The 6’11”, 265-pound Adams is also an expert screener, as he demonstrated to irritably consistent effect in breaking down several Bulls actions on D and freeing up Morant on offense throughout the night.
6’4” Bulls starting power forward Javonte Green struggled to contain 6’11” Grizzlies starting power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. at times, though Jackson ultimately finished with a fairly pedestrian eight points and four boards. He did effectively seal up the paint, recording a whopping four blocks on the night. That said, Green fared well when he freelanced on defense, including a nifty sequence wherein he picked Morant’s pocket and drove down the court for a nifty and-one layup. Javonte finished 5-of-7 from the floor for 12 points, had three steals and two rebounds, and slipped in to do this over Adams’s head:
But he’s tiny. As is Derrick Jones Jr., the Bulls’ 6’5” power forward/center, who struggled to effectively foul Adams during a crucial possession late in the game. Yes, Green and Jones both boast unreal verticals. But it’s still tough to see them do battle against teams, like the Grizzlies, with legitimate old-school NBA size.
With Nikola Vucevic now combatting a left ankle sprain, Chicago might have to lean even more heavily on Tristan Thompson (and even, gulp, Tony Bradley) in the days ahead. Speaking of Thompson, he had a bit of a regression in his second Bulls appearance, notching five points (on 2-of-4 field goal shooting and 1-of-4 free throw shooting), four rebounds and a steal in 16:21. His size and athleticism did once again make their presence felt for Chicago in limited run. Thompson could see his number called more frequently while backing up Vucevic during the playoffs, when Chicago may have to do battle against such beasts in the East as Joel Embiid and Bam Adebayo.
The Bulls’ workload against talented big men won’t get any easier in the short-term, as they’ll face off against Adebayo and the Miami Heat tonight.