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5 things we learned from the Chicago Bulls’ 5th loss in 6 games, including DeMar DeRozan’s night at the line and Tyler Cook’s defensive assignments

Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
 2022-01-23
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Ayo Dosunmu (12) and his Bulls teammates walk off the court after a 94-90 loss to the Bucks on Friday night at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS

The Chicago Bulls came inches from claiming the first round of battles with the Milwaukee Bucks this season, falling short by four points in a 94-90 loss Friday night at Fiserv Forum.

It wasn’t the prettiest game for either team — both shot under 20% from 3-point rangein a vintage Midwestern slugfest as the Bucks and Bulls jockey for position at the top of the Eastern Conference.

The Bulls tumbled out of the No. 1 spot with the loss, falling behind the Brooklyn Nets for the first time in weeks after a 1-5 skid. Here’s what we learned from the first night of a three-game road stint.

1. The Bulls offense struggled without Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball.

The Bulls couldn’t buy a basket for most of the loss, shooting only 36.5% from the field behind abysmal 7-for-38 (18.4%) 3-point shooting. The absences of Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball, whose injuries removed two of the most formidable shooters from the lineup, only hurt the Bulls.

LaVine and Ball fill irreplaceable duties for the Bulls. LaVine barely trails DeRozan — who could make a bid for league MVP — providing 24.9 points and 4.2 assists per game. Ball is a workhorse on defense and a sharpshooter on offense, averaging a deadly 42.3% shooting accuracy from 3-point range.

The team will need to adapt to the absence of Ball, who will miss six to eight weeks after he undergoes surgery this week for a small meniscus tear in his left knee. Ball already missed several weeks because of a combination of COVID-19 and injury; before that, he was on track to play more minutes than any Bulls player besides LaVine.

Depth player Matt Thomas filled part of the shooting void against the Bucks, going 3-for-5 during his 19 minutes. But the most noticeable poor performance came from Coby White, who went 0-for-9 on 3-point attempts and 3-for-15 overall in one of several recent ice-cold nights.

White has been a natural fill-in for long-range shooting — DeRozan rarely fires from 3-point range, and Vučević has been inconsistent from behind the arc. White’s accuracy will be an important key for the Bulls to manage this period without two of their starting shooters.

2. DeMar DeRozan dominated from free-throw line.

DeRozan shot 9-for-18 from the floor against the Bucks, but one piece of his game remained consistent — his ability to get to the free-throw line. DeRozan scored half his points from the line, making 17 of his 18 attempts from the line.

It was DeRozan’s 12th game with 10 or more free-throw attempts and his highest-scoring night from the line of the season. Although it isn’t the flashiest way to score, DeRozan’s free-throw shooting has been as reliable as his midrange jumper. He gets to the line 7.8 times per game and averages 85.3%, providing a reliable quarter of his scoring average.

3. The Bulls failed to close in the final moments.

Without two of their sharpshooters, the Bulls fell flat in crunch time. It wasn’t for a lack of chances. Alex Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu and Vučević each took shots on the Bulls’ final possession. Vučević and DeRozan missed potential tying shots on the two ensuing plays as the Bulls missed seven of their final eight shots of the game.

This wasn’t typical for the Bulls, and it was especially abnormal for DeRozan. The three-time All-Star bailed out the Bulls in the final minutes of several close games. He still scored eight of his 27 points in the final quarter Friday to help the team stay close, but his last-minute misses highlighted the fact DeRozan can’t be counted on to play savior every night. When other options couldn’t step up, the Bulls failed to close.

4. Alex Caruso’s return cut short by injury.

The biggest play of Caruso’s night wasn’t a scoring moment. Instead, it was taking a flagrant-2 foul from Grayson Allen, who ripped Caruso out of the air to prevent a fast-break layup, nearly rocking Caruso’s head against the court as he crashed shoulders-first onto the hardwood.

The foul — which earned a smirking Allen an ejection and a fine — fractured Caruso’s right wrist , leading to surgery and at least six to eight weeks on the sidelines.

It also earned the immediate ire of Bulls players, fans and coaches. Coach Billy Donovan didn’t hold back after the game , describing the foul as “really, really bad” and adding it “could’ve ended his career.” Donovan emphasized Allen’s history of dirty plays, which dates to kicking and tripping players during his tenure at Duke.

Caruso brought a spark to the Bulls on both sides of the court in his second game back from a monthlong hiatus because of COVID-19 and a series of injuries.

Although he only scored seven points, Caruso’s effect hounding Giannis Antetokounmpo — particularly in the final moments of the game – helped the Bulls keep the Bucks under 100 points. Caruso’s defensive spark will be a hefty loss for the Bulls as they manage injuries across the roster.

5. Tyler Cook filled the gap on defensive assignments.

Cook served as another key to shutting down Antetokounmpo, who is one of the toughest defensive assignments in the league. Even with his 6-foot-11 frame, Antetokounmpo can play any position on the court, and his versatility often burns larger players who attempt to cover him.

Although slightly undersized against Antetokounmpo, the 6-8 Cook locked on to Antetokounmpo throughout the defensive matchup, drawing a charge in the third quarter and helping the Bulls put the former NBA MVP into foul trouble.

The game was Cook’s first back from an ankle sprain, and Donovan showed trust placing him into the starting lineup. Although his stat line didn’t sparkle — four points, seven rebounds, a steal and a block — Cook’s physical presence helped to fill the defensive gap caused by Javonte Green’s injury absence. Filling in for Green defensively will be Cook’s main role in the upcoming weeks.

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