9 observations: Embiid hands Bulls fifth straight loss

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The Chicago Bulls dropped their fifth straight game Monday night, falling 121-106 to the 76ers in a contest that clinched a season-series sweep for Philadelphia.

And the trajectory felt all too familiar.

Here are nine observations:

1. Nikola Vučević was a last-second scratch with a hamstring strain, clearing the way for Tristan Thompson to make his second start as a Bull — and first at center. In Joel Embiid, a brutal matchup awaited. One which Thompson has had trouble with in the past.

His first stint went about as well as you could ask. Thompson scored four points — including a contested right-handed hook over Embiid — pulled down four rebounds, and at the defensive end, made post entry passes difficult while doing his job within the consistent string of double-teams the Bulls hurled at Embiid. He checked out a plus-seven in eight first-quarter minutes.

But it was mostly downhill from there. Embiid finished with 42 points (15-for-27 shooting), 14 rebounds and three blocks, his 10th 40-10 game of the season. Thompson picked up his fifth foul at the 5:55 mark of the third quarter, giving way for increased opportunity for Tony Bradley — who struggled with Embiid even more than he did — and even Derrick Jones Jr. in an uber-small second half look.

Embiid is just about impossible to stop, but the Bulls are especially ill-equipped to slow the supremely skilled, physically dominant big man — as evidenced by his 11-0 career record against Chicago.

2. You know the saying “something’s gotta give?” Well, not always.

The Bulls entered play having conceded 28.3 free-throw attempts per contest to opponents during their four-game losing streak. In the four games Harden played with the 76ers (who rank second in free-throw attempt rate) before playing the Bulls, Philadelphia averaged 36.3 free-throw attempts.

So it was obvious that the foul line was going to be a storyline in this one, and indeed it was. The 76ers’ 27-for-34 mark from the charity stripe (79.4 percent) represented the sixth game in a row the Bulls conceded 25 or more free throws, a troubling trend that head coach Billy Donovan has attributed more to lacking defensive discipline than a disparity in officiating. 

Embiid led the way by going 12-for-16, his 36th game this season with double-digit free-throw attempts.

3. The Bulls actually got off to a nice defensive start, disrupting the 76ers offensive flow by blitzing Embiid on every touch and generating deflections en masse. They led 25-18 more than eight minutes into the game.

But the bleeding started in the final 3:18 of the first quarter when Philadelphia exploded for 19 points against a Bulls lineup of DeMar DeRozan, Coby White, Derrick Jones Jr., Troy Brown Jr. and Bradley.

4. That stretch pointed to the advantage in bench production the 76ers enjoyed in each of these teams’ first three meet-ups of the season. And while the Bulls’ reserves actually outscored Philadelphia’s 30-25 in this one — led by 19 points from White — Georges Niang’s 14 points and four 3s were back-breakers. 

In all, Philadelphia’s bench crew of Niang (4-for-7), Isaiah Joe (1-for-4), Shake Milton (1-for-1) and Danny Green (1-for-1 before exiting with a finger laceration) outshot the Bulls from behind the arc 7-for-13 to 4-for-11.

5. Zach LaVine started the game with two strong drives for layups, and DeRozan two midrange jumpers and a foul-draw on Tobias Harris. With Vučević sidelined, in addition to the long-term absences of Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and Patrick Williams, it was a night the Bulls need super-heroic efforts from those two.

In the end, each cracked the 20-point plateau — with LaVine notching 24 and five assists, and DeRozan 23 (11-for-12 from the foul line) with eight dimes — but combined to shoot just 14-for-36 from the field. It wasn’t enough to keep up with Embiid and Harden.

6. Neither was the Bulls’ 8-for-24 mark from 3-point range, which continues to be exacerbated by the absence of Ball. Even amid a down year, Vučević being out hurt their spacing as well.

The 76ers, meanwhile, went 12-for-30 (40 percent) from behind the arc, and slung 29 assists, led by 14 from Harden.

7. The result drops the Bulls to 0-9 against the Eastern Conference’s top three teams — Miami, Philadelphia, Milwaukee — and 6-17 against playoff teams, overall. While all five of the losses from the Bulls’ current skid have come against playoff teams, five of their wins against playoff teams came before the calendar flipped to 2022.

Shorthanded or no, it continues a troubling trend.

8. The loss also places the Bulls just a half-game ahead of Boston for the East’s four seed — and thus, homecourt advantage. Sixth-place Cleveland lurks 1.5 games behind, while Miami (four), Philadelphia (1.5) and Milwaukee (one) all widen their advantages atop the conference.

9. Tristan Thompson, though, insists that panic hasn’t set in. Not even close.

"No one's panicking," he said. "I think you gotta understand that when you come out that hot in the first half of the season teams are gonna start prepping for you differently. Instead of just treating it like, 'Hey, a walk-through the Bulls tonight,' it's like, 'Hey, this is a potential playoff matchup.' We gotta throw some wrinkles in our scheme to see how they react...

"I think it's on you guys to create that narrative, whatever the record is (against elite teams). I think for us we just gotta look at how can we get better each and every game?"

The next opportunity to do just that is a good one: At the lowly Detroit Pistons on Wednesday.

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