The Chicago Bulls had a Steven Adams and Ja Morant problem Saturday night in their loss to the Grizzlies, which snapped a six-game win streak.
Plenty of teams can claim the same. And the Bulls project to more effectively defend screen-and-roll actions whenever Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball return from their respective injuries.
But between Morant shredding their defense for a career-high 46 points and Adams falling two rebounds short of his career-high with 21, the Bulls continued their struggles against the league’s elite and against physical teams.
They’re now 0-2 against the Grizzlies, matching their record against the Heat as they travel to Miami for Monday’s showdown.
Overall, the Bulls are now 2-8 against teams currently in the top-six of the Eastern Conference and 4-6 against teams currently in the top-six of the Western Conference. That's 6-14 against playoff teams, in all.
“We take it on as a challenge to play better against the better teams,” Coby White said.
Facing the problem head-on is the right approach. It echoes comments from coach Billy Donovan coming out of the All-Star break in which he embraced the Bulls’ challenging closing schedule because hard games are playoff primers.
But if the Bulls want to make any noise in the playoffs, they’re going to have to defend better. Particularly in the rough-and-tumble world of postseason basketball, where possessions and points become even more valuable and officials’ whistles often scarcer.
“We have to do a better job coming out of the gate with the right attention to detail,” Zach LaVine said.
Indeed, in Saturday’s affair, Adams set the tone early, bullying his way to offensive rebounds and nearly posting a double-double by first quarter’s end. Nikola Vučević struggled in both matchups against Adams, shooting 7-for-30 while Adams grabbed 12 offensive rebounds.
The Bulls’ net rating of plus-1.9 is 12th of the 12 teams above the play-in picture from both conferences. It’s what happens when you possess the league's fourth-best offensive rating but just the 19th-best defensive rating.
The Bulls sat 7th in defensive rating on Dec. 3, the day before Alex Caruso suffered a hamstring injury in a victory at Brooklyn that started his unavailability. Caruso has played just 118 minutes since, missing two games with the hamstring, six with a sprained left foot, six in the league’s health and safety protocols following a positive COVID-19 test and 17 following surgery to repair a fractured right wrist.
The Bulls still owned a top-10 defense at No. 9 when Ball started moving in and out of the lineup starting on Dec. 26. He missed five games in the league’s health and safety protocols following his own positive COVID-19 test and two games with left knee soreness before succumbing to surgery to repair a meniscus tear in late January.
If the Bulls are that reliant on two players to impact games defensively, that could be troubling come playoff time. Physical front lines — like the ones the Heat, 76ers, Cavaliers and Bucks possess — also have bedeviled them at times.
Donovan cited better communication at the defensive end, more efficiency guarding the 3-point line and limiting penetration as focal points.
“What we’ve done up to this point and time, in my opinion, is just not good enough,” Donovan said before the first game out of the All-Star break. “And I’m not trying to be negative. It’s just not. We’ve got to get better. I think the guys know that.”
They do. DeMar DeRozan has talked all season about the difference between regular-season and playoff basketball. That’s when there are games against good opponents every time out.
If the Bulls want to have any type of playoff run, their fortunes against such opponents must change. Getting whole will help.
"If you look at where our defense was before we dealt with a lot of these (injuries), it took a dive," Donovan said. "I think I even mentioned when we won nine games in a row (in December), you could just see we were outscoring people. You've got to be really good on both ends of the floor. And we have shown signs of being really good on both ends. We have to be more consistent."