The Bulls sat in prime position to secure their third-straight win Friday after back-to-back victories over the NBA’s two best teams.
The scrappy Oklahoma City Thunder stood as the weakest link on this six-game road trip and a contest the erratic Bulls seemingly couldn’t afford to lose. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise then that Chicago lost, 123-119, to the Thunder in overtime, capping a crazy Thanksgiving week that perfectly encapsulated the unpredictable bunch the Bulls have been in the first half of the season.
DeMar DeRozan once again tried to will the Bulls to victory, scoring all nine of Chicago’s points in overtime. He finished with a team-high 30 points, but it was his unfortunate defensive blunder inside the final 30 seconds that will be remembered. His miscue didn’t cost the Bulls a victory, but it contributed to the defeat.
Here are three moments, including DeRozan’s error, that brought the Bulls’ modest two-game winning streak to an abrupt end in a place you probably least expected.
Fast start fizzles
It was a rare strong start by the Bulls. They jumped to a 9-0 lead, stretched it to 12 on two occasions and led by 10 inside the final 7 1/2 minutes of the opening quarter. Chicago made its first eight shots and didn’t miss until a DeRozan midrange attempt 4 minutes, 11 seconds into the game. Six of those first eight field goals were assisted. The offense was flowing. The Bulls were clicking, finally coming out of the locker room looking to crush their opponent.
But when does this team make things easy?
Poetry in motion @DeMar_DeRozan pic.twitter.com/YETTyAwWFn
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) November 26, 2022
The Thunder closed the quarter on a 25-11 run, led by slippery guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. His buzzer-beating jumper effectively offset all the Bulls accomplished in the first part of the period and gave Oklahoma City a 32-30 lead entering the second quarter. The pattern of inconsistency had arrived. Despite missing five of their first six shots, the Thunder finished the first quarter shooting 54 percent from the field (13-of-24), 40 percent on 3s (2-of-5) and 100 percent on four foul shots.
A 29-27 second quarter went in favor of the Bulls, sending the game to halftime tied at 59. But the Bulls’ volatility immediately emerged in the second and backfired.
Suspect third-quarter shot selection
The first five minutes of the third quarter looked vastly different than the opening minutes of the game.
No longer were the Bulls passing the ball for quality shots, and it had long been clear the same level of defensive effort they put forth in consecutive games against Boston and Milwaukee wasn’t present. The result was a turbulent opening stretch that allowed Oklahoma City to flip the game and build a 10-point lead — forcing the Bulls to claw back yet again.
Five of the Bulls’ first seven shots in the quarter came from 16 feet and beyond. Only one, an assisted Zach LaVine 3-pointer, found the bottom of the net. Meanwhile, the Thunder relentlessly attacked the rim. Oklahoma City opened the period on a 12-5 run, aided by six point-blank points and another four free throws stemming from the Bulls’ sudden inability to defend without fouling.
The contrast was stark, particularly for a young team against a veteran-laden squad. On the rare occasion the Bulls attacked the basket, they missed layups or reacted as though fouls should have been called. DeRozan had two strong drives that he didn’t finish. Patrick Williams made an authoritative baseline drive only to be blocked at the rim on a dunk attempt.
The tone had been set. And the Bulls couldn’t snap out of it. Midway through the third quarter, the Bulls trailed by 10 twice. Oklahoma City held a seven-point advantage entering the fourth. The Bulls scored only 21 points in the third quarter, making just 7-of-24 shots. Ten attempts were 3-pointers. Another eight came between 12-19 feet.
DeRozan’s late blunder
Gilgeous-Alexander was getting anything he wanted.
Bulls coach Billy Donovan turned to Alex Caruso after Ayo Dosunmu allowed him to start cooking early. That didn’t work. Gilgeous-Alexander matched DeRozan’s point total with a team-high 30 points. He made just 8-of-21 field goals but went 14-of-15 at the foul line. At the end of regulation, he slithered his way into the paint and tossed up a potential game-winning floater over Nikola Vučević, whose arrival appeared to be all that disturbed Gilgeous-Alexander’s shot. He missed, giving the Bulls new life.
In the final minute of overtime, the Bulls needed one more stop after DeRozan sank two free throws to put them ahead 119-118 with 50 seconds remaining. And it was DeRozan who found himself on Gilgeous-Alexander.
For a moment, the version of DeRozan emerged that showed up in Milwaukee and turned in arguably his best defensive performance as a Bull. DeRozan switched onto Gilgeous-Alexander after a ball screen forced away Dosunmu. And for 7.7 seconds, DeRozan gorgeously denied Gilgeous-Alexander. He slid his feet and shut off the initial drive attempt. DeRozan pivoted his hips when Gilgeous-Alexander changed directions and shut down a second attempt to the left. DeRozan even stayed disciplined and stayed down on Gilgeous-Alexander’s subtle but quick-twitch hesitation move. He bodied Gilgeous-Alexander with his chest as he tried a spin, ultimately forcing a pass.
But Gilgeous-Alexander got it right back at the top of the arc — an unenviable one-man island reserved for DeRozan. He closed the distance anyway and defended another four dribbles as the shot clock ticked. Gilgeous-Alexander pump-faked, much like DeRozan does to so many defenders, and with 0.3 seconds left to shoot, DeRozan bit. He fouled Gilgeous-Alexander in the act of shooting. Gilgeous-Alexander made all three.
The sequence put the Thunder ahead by two with plenty of time for the Bulls to tie or take the lead. DeRozan, however, missed another midrange pull-up, and Gilgeous-Alexander iced it with another pair of free throws with 4.9 seconds remaining.
It was the second time in a little more than two weeks that DeRozan committed a massive late-game miscue. With 17 seconds remaining in a four-point home loss to New Orleans on Nov. 9, DeRozan lost the ball off his leg on an inbounds pass with the Bulls down three.
Friday night had a similar feel. The Bulls wouldn’t have been in it without DeRozan, yet they couldn’t overcome his uncharacteristic late gaffe.
(Photo of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and DeMar DeRozan: Alonzo Adams / USA Today)