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4 takeaways from Bulls' first quarter of season

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SAN FRANCISCO --- After 21 games, the Chicago Bulls sit outside the Eastern Conference play-in picture and are on pace to finish 35-47.

Given that, according to multiple advanced metrics, they have faced the NBA’s toughest schedule to this point, that they own the third-easiest remaining schedule and they, well, hope that Lonzo Ball returns, the record certainly could improve.

It will have to if the Bulls want to meet Artūras Karnišovas’ publicly stated goal of improving on last year’s first-round playoff exit.

With two victories over the Boston Celtics, a road victory over the Milwaukee Bucks and a road victory to open the season in Miami, the Bulls have proved several times that when they’re engaged and active, they can beat anybody. Disturbingly, they have proved the opposite more often.

Here are four takeaways from roughly the first quarter of the season.

Zach LaVine isn’t himself

Any talk of the Bulls reaching their ceiling begins and ends with their two-time All-Star guard regaining his game.

The NBA is a star-driven league. The Bulls signed LaVine to a maximum five-year $215 million extension this offseason to not only play like one but continue the ascent he appeared to be on before injuring his left knee in January. At that point, LaVine had displayed elite shotmaking and improved defensive attention for a season and a half.

It’s well documented how LaVine’s arthroscopic knee procedure and limited offseason training has affected his lift, explosion, rhythm and timing. While LaVine has shown flashes of his elite scoring ability, he also has consistently admitted he’s “getting there” when it comes to fully finding his rhythm.

LaVine is shooting 40.7 percent, the second-lowest of his career. After cracking the vaunted 60 percent true shooting mark in the last two seasons, he’s at 53.1 percent this season. That’s the third-lowest mark of his career.

Worse, LaVine has occasionally resorted to shot-hunting in an attempt to find his rhythm. This played out most dramatically in a 1-for-14 outing against the Orlando Magic in which coach Billy Donovan benched him for closing minutes in favor or second-year guard Ayo Dosunmu.

Simply put, LaVine needs to play better if the Bulls want to become a playoff team, much less one which wins a series.

The Bulls keep getting outshot from 3-point line

Granted, LaVine, at 34.8 percent, shooting almost four percentage points below his career average of 38.4 and Ball’s continued absence aren’t helping in this department.

Nevertheless, the discrepancy borders on shocking at times, particularly when adding shooting was talked about and written about as an offseason priority since the Bulls limped out of the playoff series versus the Bucks.

Through 21 games, the Bulls rank 28th in made 3-pointers and last in attempts. Their opponents have shot 95 more 3-pointers and converted 51 more. Over their 12 losses, the Bulls have been outscored by 108 points from the 3-point line.

Granted, the 3-point shot isn’t the be-all, end-all. DeMar DeRozan, for instance, remains a midrange assassin and the Bulls wanted to emphasize more paint touches in their attempt not to rely so much on isolation.

“A lot of our games are not about shooting 3-pointers. That is not the M.O. Guys that do take shots have to make them. Obviously, I have to shoot better and try to make more threes. But we have to do what we are good at,” LaVine said. “If we are not going to take or make a lot of threes, then we have to eliminate them. It can’t be that much of a discrepancy to where, you know, it’s almost like a 10 to one.”

That’s the thing. The Bulls are tied for 29th in allowing opponents to shoot 37.9 percent from 3-point range. So not only would making more be beneficial but stopping more is essential as well.

Defense does it

Most acutely in Milwaukee, the Bulls have displayed the ability to play playoff-level defense. In that game, Coby White kept diving on the floor for loose balls, DeRozan took charges from Giannis Antetokounmpo and Patrick Williams blocked the two-time NBA most valuable player at the rim twice.

This is when the Bulls are at their best---forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. They rank fifth in deflections, seventh in defensive loose balls recovered and second in percentage of points off turnovers.

Unsurprisingly, Alex Caruso stands---or sprawls, given his ability to take charges---at the center of this. The Bulls are plus-6.2 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court and minus-8.18 points per 100 possessions when he’s off it.

Overall, the Bulls’ defensive rating is 11th. But the discrepancy between games in which the Bulls are active and locked in and when they’re not is jarring. Players have talked consistently about this dynamic.

This is where the cloud of Ball’s absence continues to hang over this franchise. His impact is so apparent at both ends; in fact, when healthy, he can address most of the aforementioned needs, including 3-point shooting and defensive identity. Ball could even help LaVine get going given his ability to push the ball in transition and space the floor.

But there is no timetable for Ball’s return.

Clutching in the clutch

The Bulls are a league-worst 2-8 in “clutch” games this season, defined by NBA.com as games within a five-point margin and five minutes or less to play.

The Bulls sit middle of the pack in terms of amount of time spent in such situations, tied for 15th with the Washington Wizards at 43. But their net rating of minus-17.2 in such minutes ranks 25th.

That’s a far cry from last season. That’s when the Bulls went 25-16 in “clutch” games, including a net rating of plus-15.3 that ranked third.

Plenty of factors are at play here. But much of them boil down to the team’s inconsistent ways. Offensively, the Bulls typically get stagnant down the stretch. Defensively, they’ve been prone to surrendering one big play---a missed boxout or slow rotation.

Late Wednesday in Phoenix, coach Billy Donovan said the Bulls’ ideal offensive identity is finishing a game with five to seven players in double figures and 25-30 assists. The Bulls are 6-2 when that happens, including both victories over the Celtics and the one over the Bucks.

Donovan isn’t wrong. It’s on the Bulls now to make it happen.

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