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Bulls' Donovan challenges players to be mentally tougher

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Billy Donovan’s pronoun usage couldn’t have made his message more obvious.

Yes, he’s the coach. And, yes, he and his staff will try to put his players in the best position to succeed.

But Donovan’s repeated usage of “they” in his postgame comments following the Bulls’ second straight blowout loss Saturday night placed the onus squarely on players.

And guess what? His players agreed following the 125-106 stinker at the hands of the Pacers.

“It’s kind of bigger than the coaching staff at this point. We can’t blame the coaching staff for everything that happens,” Wendell Carter Jr. said. “Once we learn to hold ourselves accountable on the court, we’ll be able to make that turn. But until then it’s going to be the same thing.’’

After all, Donovan is the one who has two national titles on his resume at Florida and guided five straight Thunder teams to the postseason. Arturas Karnisovas, while the lead executive for the first time, played an instrumental role on building a Nuggets team that advanced to the Western Conference finals.

The Bulls returned 13 of 15 players from a team that finished 22-43 and already has succumbed meekly twice. So, yeah, Donovan’s message should ring true.

“They don’t handle it. They don’t at all. They internalize their mistakes. They internalize what’s going on. And I’ve said this before: They’ve got to do this together. They’ve got to fight together,” Donovan bluntly said. “We’re probably on most nights probably not going to be the most athletic or the most talented or the most experienced. But we can be a team – we have control over it – that can have a lot more fight in ourselves.

“I came out on the court one time because I saw them come out of the huddle and they just all looked totally dejected. The bottom line is this is professional basketball and you’ve got to be able to respond and deal with adversity. I think for anybody at this level if you can’t handle that, it’s hard to be a great, great player at this level. It’s something we’re addressing and talking about on a constant basis.”

Donovan praised his team’s work ethic. He said it’s a willing group who wants to improve.

But old habits can be hard to break.

“I think as young players, when you have experienced losing, it can beat you down. The bottom line is as they get further and further beaten down, they have to be responsible for their own rescue. If someone throws a life raft out there, you have to actually swim to it. You can’t say bring it to me,” Donovan said. “We have to be responsible for digging ourselves back out of the hole. I do think it is the mentality. I do think it is disposition. And I do think it’s an attitude.”

And then Donovan dropped the hammer. He talked about the incredible internal drive of players like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant and Chris Paul. You know, accomplished players whom he has coached.

“We need to get more of a relentless attitude and spirit,” Donovan said.

The Pacers put up runs of 21-0 and 18-0. The Hawks scored 83 first-half points on Wednesday.

Zach LaVine said “bad habits” are playing a role in such disastrous moments. He said he talked to teammates in the postgame locker room about the need to stick together and fight harder.

In other words, he didn’t disagree with Donovan either.

It’s a player’s league. I said that to you guys at the beginning of the year. Coaches and management can help us in so many ways, but we’re the people out there playing. So we have to be ready,” LaVine said. “We pretty much have the same team as last year. We’re trying to show that we’re a good team, and we haven’t shown that so far. We have to be able to dig ourselves out of this hole.”

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