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Bulls' late-season swoon raises questions on progress

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Let’s generously say the Chicago Bulls finish their final nine games by winning five.

That would give them a 47-35 record, which would represent a 12-game improvement over its 2020-21 record — projecting last season's 72-game schedule that was shortened by the pandemic to 82.

A 12-game improvement and the first playoff appearance since 2017 would be considered an improvement, perhaps even a success, right?

So why doesn’t it currently feel that way?

For starters, the Bulls’ offense — elite for much of the season — has quietly dropped to 10th, which is still good, but not enough to overcome repeated defensive lapses. The Bulls routinely are getting carved up at the latter end.

“We can’t give up 122 points,” Zach LaVine said, mistakenly selling the Pelicans’ total of 126 short. “Hats off to the Pelicans, but we can’t do that if we’re a playoff team.”

Despite losing for the fifth time in six games and 10th time in 13, the Bulls almost certainly will remain that. They sit in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, one game ahead of the Cavaliers and Raptors. They own the tiebreaker over the Raptors and face a huge game on Saturday in Cleveland against a Cavaliers team they’ve defeated twice in three tries.

Beyond the defensive woes, which certainly have been exacerbated by extended absences to critical players, the more troubling aspect is that this is the second straight season that the Bulls have swooned. 

Yes, it’s a completely different roster. But after failing to even qualify for the play-in tournament last season following management’s aggressive trade for Nikola Vučević, this is a troubling trend.

There always seem to be qualifiers. LaVine missed 11 stretch-run games last season following a positive test for COVID-19. First, Alex Caruso’s extended absence to a fractured right wrist and now Lonzo Ball’s possibly season-ending knee scope have diminished management’s fully-realized identity for this team.

For all the talk of the Bulls missing Ball’s defensively ability, which is real, he’s also important offensively. He’s shooting a career-high 42.3 percent from 3-point range on high volume of 7.4 attempts per game. His ability to push pace and serve as a connecting piece with his passing ability and high basketball IQ are missed.

But for much of this swoon, the Bulls’ "Big Three" of LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Vučević have been intact. DeRozan rested a sore groin against the Pelicans. And LaVine’s left knee isn’t 100 percent, although he looked spry in scoring a season-high 39 points and playing 40 minutes on Thursday.

Caruso and Ball are important pieces. But they shouldn’t be the difference between looking like a legitimate conference contender and a team trying to avoid the play-in tournament.

“We gotta start getting back to our brand of basketball,” LaVine said.

That’s aggressively defending without fouling and playing in transition and downhill. That’s showcasing ball and player movement when the defense gets set and it’s a half court game. That’s taking care of the ball and limiting second-chance points.

None of those things are occurring with much frequency these days.

Coby White revived a bench performance that was missing in action in Tuesday’s road loss to the Bucks with 23 points and six assists before fouling out. But rookie Ayo Dosunmu is crashing back to reality after, in Billy Donovan’s words, he has landed on opponents’ scouting reports following extensive film study.

To show how tripped up the Bulls are defensively these days, Donovan spoke pregame about the need to take more charges and play more physically. And then the Bulls went out and fouled 24 times, sending the Pelicans to the line an opponent-season-high-tying 34 times.

“We’re not the biggest, the strongest or tallest, but you know what? We can positionally be in a spot where we’re taking this on the chest right now,” Donovan said pregame. “That’s where we’ve got to be better. That’s our biggest challenge. That stuff needs to be talked about more, that stuff needs to be confronted more.’’

The Bulls created these increased expectations themselves by their stellar play early. They led the Eastern Conference from Jan. 1 through Jan. 20 and as recently as Feb. 25.

Since then, they’ve gone 3-10 and done little to quell pessimism they’re headed for a first-round exit.

“We’re trying to figure out how to get back in a rhythm,” LaVine said. “We want to catch this rhythm at the end of the year, going into the later part of the season on a high note. We gotta figure it out. Nobody is going to help us. We’ve done enough talking.”

Saturday night in Cleveland would be a good time for improved action.

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