The Chicago Bulls are sliding precipitously.
If it wasn’t clear already, Thursday night’s 126-109 loss to the Pelicans in New Orleans confirmed that fact. And with only nine regular-season games remaining until the playoffs, they’re running out of time to right the ship.
“I think everybody’s on high alert right now,” Zach LaVine said. “We just gotta stop talking about it and get a win. It’s as simple as that.”
Until they do, here are 10 observations:
1. Don’t be fooled by the Pelicans’ 30-42 record entering play. They’re a team on the ascent, while the Bulls have rocked in and out of decline for some time. In 13 games since the All-Star break (pre-Thursday), New Orleans owned a 7-6 record with the NBA’s 10th-ranked offense and fourth-ranked defense. In that same span, the Bulls were 4-9 with the 26th-ranked offense and 23rd-ranked defense.
2. Add in that the Bulls played without DeMar DeRozan, who is managing a mild groin strain, and this one had trap game written all over it, even if Brandon Ingram remained sidelined for the Pelicans.
3. The good news for the Bulls was that their other two All-Star-quality scorers — LaVine and Nikola Vučević — came out of the gate aggressive. Vučević scored seven points in the first three minutes of the game, working inside out with a post-hook, midrange jumper, then top-of-the key 3.
LaVine, meanwhile, played all 12 minutes of the opening frame, and scored a season-high 16 points on a blend of strong drives and pull-up triples (3-for-3 from 3-point range) — plus a perfect 3-for-3 line from the charity stripe.
LaVine entered the halftime locker room with a game-high 23 points, then scored another nine in the third, punctuated by two separate sequences in which he turned a block of CJ McCollum and a strip of Jonas Valančiūnas into fastbreak buckets.
LaVine finished with a gaudy stat line of 39 points (a season-high) on 12-for-23 shooting, and displayed some impressive defensive intensity. Forget the knee soreness storyline until further notice.
But his fingerprints were missing from the stretch run. After playing the entire third quarter, and the first 1:37 of the fourth, he checked out with the Bulls trailing 90-88, but re-entered with the team down 99-90.
4. New Orleans turned this game in its favor between the 9:29 and 6:26 mark of the fourth quarter, surging to the tune of a 17-4 run that flipped the game from a 90-90 tie to a 107-94 Pelicans lead.
The first 12 points of that run came unanswered, and were keyed by Jose Alvarado. The diminutive, but undeniably disruptive, two-way guard scored seven points in that span, and forced a turnover on Alex Caruso with this cagey move:
In all, the Bulls lost the fourth quarter by a whopping margin of 40-24, allowing the Pelicans 61.1 percent shooting. And the final seconds completely unraveled, with Tristan Thompson getting ejected from the team’s bench after an Ayo Dosunmu flagrant foul.
5. Alvarado’s spurt was the exclamation point, but it spoke to a familiar trend that popped up again on Thursday: The Bulls struggling to contain opponent ball-handlers on the perimeter. In this one, Devonte’ Graham (30 points) and CJ McCollum (25 points) combined to shake free for 55 points, 10 assists and six made 3s. The Pelicans, as a team, shot 41.4 percent from long range.
6. But that’s not not all. The Pelicans also attempted 34 free throws for the evening, a testament to both the Bulls’ defense scrambling from disadvantaged positions, and more than a little bit of carelessness. And behind 19 rebounds from Valančiūnas, New Orleans outrebounded the Bulls 47-39 (10-4 offensive) and dominated the second-chance points battle 12-5.
"Some of the fouls that we had, they're unnecessary," Donovan said. "Running into people. Just put your hands up, and you're slapping down when you've got an opportunity to make a guy finish his shot. Just maybe (a lack of) composure, carelessness."
Caruso's foul trouble was the most damaging. He was limited to 28 minutes by picking up his third personal midway through the second quarter, and fourth midway through the third.
7. Coby White was about the only non-LaVine bright spot for the Bulls. He scored 23 points (20 through three quarters) and dished six assists while shooting 5-for-8 from 3. Yes, he fouled out late in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach, but his shotmaking also led Donovan to go to him over a struggling Dosunmu early in the third quarter and in closing time.
For White, it snapped a cold spell dating back to the team’s recent west coast road trip. For Dosunmu, who shot 2-for-8, it continued a bit of an offensive slump toward the end of his rookie campaign.
8. Vučević finished with 16 points on 7-for-11 shooting. Particularly early on, he was effective finding gaps in the New Orleans defense created by double-teams on LaVine.
But Donovan, scoring aside, was quick to note postgame that he didn’t think the Bulls guards did well enough to find the big man in his spots. That was only the eighth game this season Vučević has attempted 11 or fewer shots. With DeRozan out, it should have been more.
9. The Bulls dropped to 16-21 on the road with the defeat — by far the worst away record amongst winning teams in the NBA. Injuries are one thing, and falling to elite competition is another. But the lapses in focus Caruso spoke of after the Milwaukee massacre continue to pile up, casting a dark cloud over this team’s playoff prospects.
"These guys have been on the road before. I don't know what, necessarily, to make of the record," Donovan said. "I've said this before: Sometimes, in some of these road situations, are team has been totally different from road trip to road trip. So it's hard to sit there and say, 'OK, you're 16-21 with this group.' It's been a lot of different groups. And then we've played fairly well at home.
"I think young players learning how to play on the road's important. Finding out how to be able to do that. Trying to find some consistency on the road. But the record certainly says we have not been good on the road. I don't know necessarily what would be the reasons for that. But clearly that's what the record is."
10. So, too, does the fact that the Bulls have now dropped 10 of their last 13 games. They enter Saturday’s road matchup against the Cavaliers one game ahead of both Cleveland and Toronto, who are tied for sixth/seventh in the Eastern Conference with a 41-31 record.
The Bulls have plummeted from 38-21 — and tied for first in the East — to 42-31 since the All-Star break.
Next up: At the Cavaliers on Saturday.