In a Smoothie King Center stocked with Chicago fans, the Lonzo Ball/DeMar DeRozan-less Bulls managed to fumble away stellar turns from Zach LaVine and Coby White as the Pelicans broke loose in the fourth quarter to win a largely defense-free affair tonight. The final margin: 126-109. The Pelicans were missing two stars themselves, in Brandon Ingram and of course the MIA Zion Williamson.
With DeRozan sidelined, head coach Billy Donovan started Alex Caruso at point guard, Ayo Dosunmu at shooting guard, Zach LaVine at center, Javonte Green at power forward, and Nikola Vucevic at center. Troy Brown Jr. (ugh), Tristan Thompson, and Coby White were the first Bulls off the bench.
Before the ink had even dried on his lucrative new shoe deal, Zach LaVine kicked off the festivities with a vengeance tonight. He played every second of the first quarter and looked to score early. Zach Attack shot 5-of-6 from the field (including 3-of-3 from deep) and also went 3-of-3 from the free-throw line during the first period, finishing the frame with 16 points and two assists.
The Bulls won the first quarter 39-31, going 14-of-23 from the field overall (60.9%), including 6-of-9 from long range. Vucevic and Thompson, two of the few Bulls players with real size, got going early with a combined 5-of-8 in the period. Thompson did at least posterize Willy Hernangomez with this positively 2016core jam, so that was nice.
But in a sign of things to come, the Pelicans also got off to a solid start on offense. New Orleans went 11-of-22 from the floor, but the club’s shot diet was a bit different only took five triples in the period (and made just a pair). And then they opened up the second quarter on a 12-5 run run to start the frame with Zach sitting.
When LaVine returned, the Pelicans appeared determined to exhaust Zach by throwing a variety of defenders at him. Rookie reserve guard Jose Alvarado proved particularly pesky on defense early. Meanwhile the Bulls struggled with help defense (also transition defense — also just any defense), especially when players were able to cut inside. At one point, starting Pelicans guard Devonte’ Graham scored so easily over Coby White by slicing into the lane that Stacey King called out Zach for failing to slide over and double.
Ultimately, Zach was scorching in the first half. The Bulls’ All-Star swingman scored 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting across his 19:12 of game action. In the best moment of the first half for the Bulls (and the Bulls faithful), Ayo dished to Zach for an excellent one-handed dunk over starting New Orleans center Jonas Valanciunas:
The Pelicans outscored the Bulls 23-32 in the 2nd period, but headed into the break up just a point, 63-62, thanks to an amazing buzzer-beating three from Coby White. Coby was the Bulls’ other star of the half (and the game). He finished finished the first two quarters of the night with 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting (including 4-of-5 from deep) and three assists in just 11:08. The Bulls, not usually a high-volume three-point shooting team this year, went 10-of-18 from deep in the half.
In the third, the Bulls tried to play to their strengths, emphasizing a transition game to start the second half, which for a while proved disadvantageous to the taller Pelicans. Probably the game’s most Zach-tastic moment was here as he scored his 30th point midway through the third quarter:
Not to be outdone, Coby White — the only other Bull who seemed fully engaged tonight — subsequently got into the defense-into-offense action with a steal and dunk of his own a bit later in the same frame.
Both teams traded buckets for a bit, knotting the game at 90-90 early in the fourth quarter.
And then, all hell broke loose.
The Pelicans went on a crushing 12-0 run midway through the period, powered by Alvarado and Larry Nance Jr. (his first game as a Pelican and first this year since January 5th), from which the Bulls never really recovered.
The Bulls would reel in the Pels to 7 later in the period, but more huge makes from the diminutive duo of Alvarado (13 points in the 4th alone) and Devonte’ Graham (12) kept the Bulls from truly getting close again.
Chicago went on to be outscored 40-24 in the fourth period, after playing so much of the game evenly (17 lead changes and 12 ties).
One of the biggest advantages the Pelicans enjoyed on the night was free-throw shooting, DeMar’s specialty (even when accounting for some late technical fouls when the game was already all but over). New Orleans had 34 chances at the charity stripe, and made 32 of them (94.1% shooting). The Bulls got 19 such opportunities and converted 15 (78.9%).
The Pelicans made good use of their front court height advantage over the Bulls, too. New Orleans gobbled up 47 rebounds (including 10 on the offensive glass) compared to Chicago’s 39 (with just four offensive boards).
Zach wound up with a season-best 39 points on 12-of-23 shooting. Coby fouled out late, but before he did he managed to chip in 23 points of his own on a sparkling 9-of-15 shooting from the floor.
Nikola Vucevic’s final tally may appear respectable (16 points on 7-of-11 shooting, nine rebounds, three dimes, two steals and two blocks), but he was almost a total non-factor in the game’s pivotal second half, scoring just two points. As one of the Bulls’ few legitimate big men (with apologies to Green and Derrick Jones Jr.), Vucevic needed to step up against the jumbo-sized New Orleans front line late. He did not. Only one other Bull, Caruso, made it into double figures with 11 points on 3-of-7 shooting. It’d be nice if he looked for his own shot a bit more, too.
Following the loss, the Bulls drop to a frustrating 42-31 record on the season, and have now dropped five of their last six. They are currently just a game ahead of the 41-32 Cleveland Cavaliers in the race for the East’s fifth seed. Chicago’s next contest, in Cleveland on Saturday, could go a long way in determining both team’s postseason seeding fates.