MINNEAPOLIS — Billy Donovan started his postgame interview by stating his disappointment.
The Bulls had just been blown out for the second straight game, a 150-126 loss at Minnesota on Sunday, and yet the Bulls coach quickly pivoted to a compliment.
“On a positive side,” he said, “I really thought we, coming out of the two New York games, with the limited time we had going into this one, did some really good things offensively with the way we moved and shared the basketball.”
It was a confusing message as opening statements go, if not one that completely risked missing the mark after Chicago’s fourth consecutive loss and its seventh in nine games. But then the unvarnished truth began flowing from the other side of the Bulls’ coach’s view. He called into question his team’s competitiveness. He challenged what he deemed a singular focus on scoring. And before he was done, Donovan essentially dubbed all remaining talk of improvement cheap.
With that, harsh realities no longer could hide, and difficult topics were brought to the table.
Minnesota, playing without All-Star big men Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns, toyed with the Bulls and thoroughly torched their defense. The Timberwolves didn’t just set an opponent’s season high for points. They became the first opponent to reach 150 points in regulation since Nov. 3, 1982, when Detroit posted 152 points in a home win. The loss dropped the Bulls to 11-18, with few signs that point to a speedy turnaround.
Zach LaVine following the Bulls’ fourth-straight loss, which dropped them to 11-18: “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.” pic.twitter.com/3eU6dniY4i
— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) December 19, 2022
“It’s frustrating for all of us,” Bulls guard Zach LaVine said. “I know it’s frustrating for the fans. It’s embarrassing. We’re all a little embarrassed about it.”
After watching the Timberwolves shoot an opponent’s season-high 65.5 percent, the Bulls were left with no choice but to confront the problem. Their perimeter defense, starting with a lack of sufficient ball pressure, remains suspect. It allowed Wolves stars Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell to slither to whatever space they chose and spray passes to any open teammate they desired after repeatedly collapsing the Bulls’ defense. The Wolves made 23 of 43 3-pointers, the most by an opponent since Charlotte matched that number in the team’s season opener Oct. 23, 2019.
Minnesota feasted on the Bulls’ pick-and-roll defense, allowing Wolves center Naz Reid to score Minnesota’s first 10 points on 4-for-4 shooting, although he didn’t score again. The Wolves then happily capitalized on more Bulls carelessness, converting Chicago’s 11 turnovers into 20 points.
“We need to compete a whole lot better on the defensive end of the floor,” Donovan said. “And that’s five guys being connected.”
That wasn’t the tone anyone anticipated two nights after Donovan discussed in detail the need for his team to have greater resolve. Those comments followed the Bulls’ 23-point home loss to New York. The message didn’t so much as grow worse in Minnesota as it was merely made clear.
A candid Goran Dragić on all that currently ails the Bulls:
“We’re not playing for each other.” pic.twitter.com/9tm7JHzUDG
— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) December 19, 2022
“We’re not playing for each other. It’s as simple as that,” Bulls guard Goran Dragić said. “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.
“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 pass. If you have a good shot, if you swing it somebody’s going to have a better shot. It’s details. Small details. And in this league everybody can beat you, and we can see that.”
As outside observers wonder what’s wrong the Bulls, the team has a basic diagnosis. It doesn’t boil down to matchups, personnel or schemes.
“You can name whatever you want to. We’re just not getting it done as a unit,” LaVine said. “And until we band together and start helping each other, you’re not going to see a different result. I think that’s the first thing you have to bring. 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. 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.”
It’s clear the message is flowing from the top. DeMar DeRozan echoed similar sentiments following Friday’s loss to the Knicks, repeatedly stressing the importance of the Bulls competing harder and more consistently. Donovan also had a turn Sunday.
“I can switch to zone. I can switch to different pick-and-roll coverages,” Donovan said. “But if the compete level is not high enough, collectively as a group out there, it doesn’t make a difference.”
Donovan said he was most disappointed in the team’s rickety defense Sunday, which did not at all resemble the top-10 unit he’s seen throughout the majority of the season. And even though the Bulls’ 31 assists on 46 field goals prompted Donovan’s opening compliment, he still sees too many moments where the team’s offensive performance dictates its defensive effort.
“We’ve got to get out of the mindset of worrying about scoring and how’s it going offensively and realize the ball scores,” Donovan said, “And if the ball’s moved and passed whoever scores, scores.
“Tonight, I liked the way we played offensively. But the ball’s got to find the open man. And when shots are going in or not going in, or (the opponent’s) making shots, you have to be able to keep coming back and competing.”
Dragić, the team’s oldest and most experienced player at 36, summarized the missing ingredient in a single word.
“Trust,” he said. “I think that’s the big thing. We have to trust each other defensively that we’re going to be in the right position, that rotations are going to be there. And in the offense, same thing. Spacing. Set a good screen. Make the right pass play. Only like that you can build on it.”
LaVine offered an insightful retort to claims that selfishness is the issue.
“I mean, I think guys are pretty unselfish, to be honest with you,” he said. “When we all came here, we all took a little bit of a backseat. All of us try to play the right way. 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 (Nikola Vučević) 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 facilitating the offense to where everybody feels involved.”
DeRozan, sitting two cubicles over from LaVine, said personalities aren’t the problem either. Donovan told a story about how picking NFL defensive back Richard Sherman’s brain about the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom defense led to perspective on how closely bonded that unit was. Donovan and Bulls management share the opinion that Bulls players would benefit from strengthening their relationships.
“We got a great group of guys,” DeRozan said. “We don’t got big ego guys. We don’t have a bunch of superstars fighting against attention. That’s not an issue. 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, let me just do my job.’ It’s a collective team thing where we got to be one.”
Maybe this rough patch will prove beneficial to the Bulls in the long run. They’ve clearly plateaued and currently are mired in a vicious cycle, bumping their heads against the same nagging deficiencies from one night to the next. No longer can the Bulls get by solely on talent, shot-making or what one might assume to be a softer opponent.
This is who the Bulls are, a discombobulated team still learning to compete and trust. Maybe a breakthrough will come this season and the Bulls will reach new heights. For now, the goal is much smaller.
“I don’t know if it’s another level,” LaVine said. “We’re just trying to get back on track, to be honest with you. That’s the most important thing. Go in and win a game and try to get back on track. Start feeling good and confident about yourself and your teammates.”
(Photo of Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan: Stacy Bengs / Associated Press)