10 observations: Bulls' defense continues dive vs. Hawks

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For just the second time this season, the Chicago Bulls have lost three games in a row.

The latest, a 130-124 defeat to the Hawks in Atlanta on Thursday night, drops their record to 39-24 — and their standing in the Eastern Conference to third. At the worst time, the ongoing theme of defensive cratering continued.

Here are 10 observations:

1. Hawks coach Nate McMillan warned reporters pregame that his team — and Trae Young, in particular — acutely remembers the Bulls’ 112-108 win in Chicago last Thursday. Young scored 14 points and shot 3-for-17 that night — his lowest field-goal percentage in a game this season.

Let’s just say those words proved prescient.

Not only did Young tally 39 points and 13 assists — shooting 11-for-18 from the field, 7-for-9 from 3 and 10-for-10 from the foul line — he spearheaded a devastating Atlanta run in the final two minutes, slinging a no-look assist to a Bogdan Bogdanović 3-pointer, then nailing back-to-back pull-up triples over Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White, to turn a 118-116 deficit into a 125-118 advantage in a span of 57 seconds.

Dosunmu again drew primary defensive responsibilities on Young; he has defended the Hawks’ All-Star more than any other player in his rookie season, and entered play having held Young to 5-for-19 shooting across three matchups.

2. Dosunmu produced a handful of impressive sequences checking Young in the first half: A forced shot-clock violation on Atlanta’s first offensive possession, a lurching block after Young gained half a step on him off the dribble and more.

But Young is a two-time All-Star for a reason, and got the best of Dosunmu in winning time.

3. The Bulls traded blows for a time down the stretch, but eventually succumbed. DeMar DeRozan, in a series of rare crunch-time missteps, rimmed out two jump-shots, committed a travel, and fouled out of the game in the final three minutes. That was DeRozan’s first foul-out of the season.

4. In all, the Bulls played a pretty crisp offensive game, scoring 124 points, handing out 30 assists (they were averaging 18.7 per game in three post-All-Star break contests) and shooting better than 50 percent from the field (59.1 percent) and 3-point range (14-for-26, 53.8 percent).

That they still found a way to lose by six points — and it’s the first time this season a team has lost a game in which it shot 59 percent or better — is a nod to a few different facets.

5. One, the defense needs to be better. The Hawks entered play with the league’s second-rated offense, and scored 130 points (74 in the second half) on 52.4 percent shooting (45 percent from 3).

Donovan, though, was most perturbed by the Bulls’ tendency to over-foul, primarily by leaving their feet on shot fakes. The Hawks attempted 28 free throws — making 24 — while the Bulls shot just 6-for-7 from the charity stripe.

“Generally when you see a discrepancy like that, coaches complain,” Donovan said. “We fouled.”

And, of course, the Bulls coach again deflected from excusing the performance because of the absences of Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, which also showed up as the Bulls again struggled to corral the Young-Clint Capela screen-and-roll connection.

“I don’t think those guys have anything to do with staying down on a shot fake or blocking out on a free throw,” Donovan said, alluding to Atlanta’s seven second-half offensive rebounds (four in the third quarter and three in the fourth).

6. There was also the Bulls’ struggles protecting the ball. After committing six turnovers in the first half, they committed five in a paradigm-shifting third quarter, in which Atlanta scored 34 points and at one juncture grabbed a 10-point lead, alone. They scored 19 points off 14 Bulls turnovers for the game — and won fastbreak points 13-5 — with Zach LaVine and DeRozan giving away four apiece.

7. LaVine had his best shooting performance since returning from a three-game, knee-soreness-induced absence out of the All-Star break, going 8-for-14 from the field and 4-for-7 from 3 en route to 22 points. But the turnovers were harmful. 

LaVine has conceded the knee won’t be 100 percent until he can address the ailment in full in the offseason, and it’s true that, while still effective, he hasn’t looked his offensively dominant self since the Golden State game he initially tweaked the area in January.

8. Billy Donovan ran Nikola Vučević and Thompson alongside one another in the frontcourt for the first time — and for three separate stints.

In the first, a 2:46 stretch in the second quarter, the Hawks out-scored the Bulls by three points; but Donovan ran the Thompson-Vučević pairing back for the first 3:33 of the fourth, which the Bulls won 11-7 behind a midrange scoring spurt from DeRozan. With 3:55 to play, and the Bulls ahead 114-111, Donovan again turned to the tandem for 2:43, before the Hawks leapt ahead by four and he ultimately subbed in White.

“I just thought we needed some physicality around the basket,” Donovan said. “I think it’s something we can look (at) and go to.”

“I think it works,” Thompson added. “I’ve done it before with [Kevin Love], and I think Vooch and K-Love have a lot of similarities in terms of being a big that can pick-and-pop, can roll, can pass and make plays. 

“So, for me, I’ve done it before at a very high level with K-Love, been to four (NBA) Finals and held the Larry O’Brien (trophy) doing it. I think it helps us rebounding wise and with me I can switch and guard one through five (all five positions), so I think it helps us defensively. Coach let us know he was gonna throw that in there, and I think we did a good job with it when we were in there together. I think we just gotta keep building that continuity.”

Thompson went on to note that the potential for high-low actions, and him to take some dirty-work plays off Vučević’s plate, add to the intrigue. The Bulls ultimately finished the first go-around minus-six in their small sample of shared minutes.

9. One bright spot: Every Bull that touched the floor scored at least four points, and the bench tallied 36. Multiple reserve contributors warrant praise:

  • White scored 15 points, making three of five 3-point attempts and three of three 2-point attempts, off the pine — although one of those (heavily-contested) long-range misses came at a crucial juncture, with the Bulls trailing 122-118 late in the fourth.
  • Thompson brought his typical brand of energy, playing a Bulls-tenure-high 21 minutes and tallying eight points and five rebounds.
  • The often-maligned Troy Brown Jr., who has struggled with his shot for most of the season, went a perfect 3-for-3 from behind the arc and made an impact hustle steal as the Bulls made their initial run early in the fourth quarter.

10. But there’s no sugar-coating it: This was a damaging loss for the Bulls. The result drops them to third in the East, win-percent points behind the now-second-place 38-23 76ers, who have already clinched their season series, and just one game ahead of the fourth-place Bucks.

That means the victor of Friday night’s showdown at the United Center will leave with the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 seed in hand — at least for a night. 

Add in that it’s the first time these teams will face one another since Grayson Allen flagrantly-fouled Caruso into a fractured wrist on Jan. 21, and the stakes will be high.

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