Bulls' effort level now a question as season slides

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MINNEAPOLIS — Much of Billy Donovan’s postgame news conference Sunday night following the Chicago Bulls’ latest defensive disaster centered on the most fundamental of elements.

Competing.

“If we want to be any good, we have to confront the fact that you’re not escaping competition,” Donovan said. “We need to compete a whole lot better on the defensive end of the floor. And that’s five guys being connected.

“I can switch to zone. I can switch to different pick-and-roll coverages. But if the compete level is not high enough collectively as a group there, it doesn’t make a difference... You gotta line up and physically put your nose, your body, your spirit and soul in front of people.”

The Bulls have done that, most memorably on the Nov. 23 night they went into Milwaukee and stood up to the prodigious physicality of the Bucks. That’s no small or easy task.

So how in the span of just over three weeks can the Bulls go from that defensive effort and performance to Sunday night? That’s when the Minnesota Timberwolves set a franchise record with 150 points, becoming just the fourth opponent — and first since 1982 — to post that number or higher against the Bulls in a regulation game.

The Timberwolves also set opponent season-highs for points, field goals (57), 3-point field goals (23) and field-goal percentage (65.5%).

Donovan basically said to ask the players. He did talk about the concept of sacrifice, about how the Bulls need to “get the mentality that I feel like I’m doing it for him and I’m not letting the guy I’m out there with down.”

So players fielded the question: How did the Bulls move from that Nov. 23 night in Milwaukee to this?

“Because we’re not playing for each other,” Goran Dragić said. “It’s as simple as that.”

That is as damning as it is currently accurate.

DeMar DeRozan fielded the same question.

“I think we all have to understand when you have games and moments like that (in Milwaukee), you gotta create those. They’re just not going to come when you play against the good teams. We gotta do it against the lower-level teams as well. It’s not who you’re playing against. It’s what is in us every single night that we have to carry. I think we lose sight of that a lot of times and we let the negative kind of steamroll and carry us into having games like this,” DeRozan said. “We can’t have that. We gotta have that competitive nature like we had in Milwaukee every night.

“Like I grew up playing in the park where you want to go home with your ball. You want to fight and make sure you play with your ball and take your ball home. We gotta have that kind of attitude. Until we buckle down and realize, like, we’re leaving this park with our ball regardless, we gonna keep getting the same results. I’m tired of going home without a ball.”

Zach LaVine offered his take next.

“Until we band together and start helping each other, you’re not going to see a different result. You can’t ask your team for effort each and every night. I think that’s the first thing you have to bring top to bottom,” he said. “Guys in here are talking. We’re trying to be leaders in our own way, but we’ve got to find a way to get it done.

“I mean, shoot, it ain’t like we’re not trying. We’re going out here talking a lot. We’ve just got to stop talking and go out there and do it. We’ll do it inconsistently, or consistently for one or two plays, but then won’t do it again. So it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating for all of us. I know it’s frustrating for the fans. It’s embarrassing. We’re all a little embarrassed about it. At the end of the day, you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror and be real about it and figure out how to come back and fight back.”

The fact the Bulls are 29 games into a season that began with heightened expectations and has devolved into postgame questions about basic concepts like competing and connectivity is certainly troubling. Donovan and the players all agreed that it’s time to stop talking about it and start backing up what is said.

In other words, execute along with bringing the mandatory effort.

“We have to get out of the mindset of worrying about scoring and how’s it going offensively,” Donovan said.

Indeed, 126 points and 52.3 percent shooting is more than enough to win. The Bulls even sank 16 3-pointers.

But whether it was allowing journeyman Nathan Knight unimpeded dunks at the rim or D’Angelo Russell to go nuclear with seven 3-pointers, they had no answer defensively.

“We have to play for each other,” Dragić said. “If you put two guys on the ball the weakside has to be there. So basically everybody has to be in the right position to help each other.

“And in the offense, the same thing. If we run the action, everybody has to be on the same page. And then run it with a purpose. Set a good screen. Try to get your friend, your teammate open. And when you get the ball, you have to be smart with it to make the right play. That goes both ways, defensively and offensively.”

As for Donovan’s concept of sacrifice, Dragić also agreed.

“Somebody told me — and he was right — it’s easy to talk about sacrifice. But somebody else’s sacrifice is easier to talk about. But when it comes to you, that you have to sacrifice for the team, then it’s a different story. You have to accept it. But it’s tough,” he said. “And everybody needs to do that because we’re in the same boat. Everybody’s playing for the same colors, for the same team, for the same city.

“That’s why we have to sacrifice for each other — to make a better play, to make a defensive stop, to screen somebody, to make a swing-swing pass. If you have a good shot, swing it and somebody’s going to have a better shot. It’s details, small details.”

Speaking of details, Donovan shared an interesting one about an offseason conversation he once had with Seattle Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman.

“I was talking to him about Seattle’s defense. And he was talking about, like, I know every single one of those guys’ wives, parents, brothers. We are connected. He talked a lot about that connectivity,” Donovan said. “I believe in it 1,000 percent. It’s hard to be a great anything as a group unless you’re really going to do it for the guy next to you. That’s what it comes down to. We have to do it for each other.”

That Milwaukee victory — not to mention two high-profile victories over the Celtics — show that the Bulls have the capability to play like this. To play selflessly and while sacrificing for each other at both ends.

But it’s not there now. Which is why DeRozan fielded a question on whether the Bulls need to work on strengthening relationships off the court to help them on it.

“Um, yeah? No? Just because at the end of the day, we got a great group of guys. We don’t got no big ego guys. We don’t have a bunch of superstars fighting against attention. That’s not an issue,” he said. “Whether we hang more or not, it’s just us understanding what needs to be done and going out there and competing.

“We all have to be on the same level when we compete and not think individually, like, ‘OK, lemme just do my job.’ It’s a collective team thing where we gotta be one.”

LaVine agreed, citing the general unselfish mindset that he, DeRozan and Nikola Vučević all play with consistently.

“All of us try to play the right way,” LaVine said. “I try to come off pick-and-rolls instead of trying to shoot it on the first side. Even if I think I can take a guy, I try to hit the other side, hit the pocket, and then swing it. I know Vooch in the post has a mismatch and sometimes they’re asking him to space (the floor). Same with DeMar.

“But for all three of us to come together, we’ve just got to do a better job of helping facilitate the offense to where everybody feels involved.”

The Bulls have lost four straight and seven of nine. They’re currently a mess defensively. Three games remain on this trip.

Will they stay connected and start playing for the teammate next to them? Donovan is waiting to see as well.

“In any high-level competitive thing, you have to handle adversity and embrace adversity and lean into adversity,” he said. “Adversity does one of two things. It either brings you really close together or it divides you. The harder things get, the harder you have to lean on each other.”

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