(670 The Score) After drawing a fair deal of praise for their solid play recently, the Bulls were reminded Saturday of how big the gap is between the middle and upper echelon in the NBA.
The defending champion Lakers jumped all over the Bulls from the start, leading by as many as 30 in an eventual 101-90 victory at the United Center. Chicago dropped to 7-9 and had its three-game winning streak snapped with the loss. Here are a few observations from the game.
Will the events of Saturday quell the misguided few who believe the Bulls should start Daniel Gafford over Wendell Carter Jr. at center? Let’s hope so.
With Carter sidelined for a second straight game by a quad contusion, Lakers star big man Anthony Davis had a season-high 37 points, 26 of which came in the first half as Los Angeles got nearly anything it wanted down low. While the Bulls defended star forward LeBron James fairly well – he had 17 points on 6-of-16 shooting – the veteran Lakers picked their foe apart elsewhere and relied on Davis. Los Angeles had 54 points in the paint, and it was so ugly for Chicago that coach Billy Donovan inserted rarely used center Cristiano Felicio in the first quarter to give his team more size.
Donovan refused to cite Carter’s absence for any of the Bulls' struggles, pointing out many teams are missing players in a season in which COVID-19 has caused havoc regarding player availability. And while there’s little doubt that Davis would’ve found success against anyone on the Bulls, Carter would’ve been a help in organizing Chicago’s defense. He’s also a far superior defensive rebounder than Gafford, a point those who are enamored with the idea of starting Gafford seem to overlook.
On Saturday, one could argue Carter’s presence was missed more on the offensive end. The Bulls couldn't get hardly anything going early, with those not named Zach LaVine shooting just 2-of-16 in the first quarter. It was a struggle for the Bulls to get good looks as their passing couldn't outpace the Lakers' superb rotations.
Carter’s passing ability helps the Bulls be more versatile offensively, as he can facilitate action from the elbow. Gafford brings the vertical threat of the lob, but he’s more of a finisher. Against the Lakers, the Bulls needed more creation and better ball movement. They shot just 39.3% on the night.
"We didn’t play to our identity like we’ve been trying to do," Donovan said. "We penetrated and charged too much. We didn’t find open people when they were there. They were coming in and really protecting the paint. We had some turnovers, gave up some offensive rebounds. The first half, it wasn’t who we’ve been."
Coby has gone cold
The Bulls need more from point guard Coby White, who’s been mired in a shooting slump lately. White is averaging 12.2 points on 35.5% shooting in the past six games.
On Saturday, White had 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting while adding seven rebounds, four assists and two turnovers. Of those 14 points, five came in the latter half of the fourth quarter with the game long out of reach.
Asked if the team could help White become more efficient or if it’s simply a case of him needing to make more shots, Donovan offered an initial thought.
“Listen, as a coach, it’s hard to put the ball in the basket for a player,” Donovan said. “So I don’t know how much I can help him do that.”
Then Donovan had much more to say about White, who entered the night shooting 40.3% overall and 35.3% from 3-point range.
“He’s a very, very good shooter,” Donovan said. “When he gets open looks, you feel really good about the ball going into the basket. I think for him, when he gets the right kind of shots for himself, that’s when I think he’s at his best and most efficient. Sometimes if he gets in there a little too deep, if he has to shoot over bigs, I think a lot of times, that’s where it’s hard to be, to have great numbers in terms of efficiency.”
Smarts over size
Donovan made an interesting point about how his Bulls aren’t all that physically imposing compared to many of their opponents, notably a Lakers team with Davis and James. He was asked specifically about that in regards to the offensive end, where he explained that the remedy comes in the form of passing, smarts and the system.
“When we’re playing against size and physicality, a lot of times we’re not the biggest team and we’re not the strongest team,” Donovan said. “The only way you can beat size and physicality is through ball movement and a willingness to committing to cutting and moving.
“We have to, against those kinds of teams, we have to move around. If we get stationary and teams can use their length and size and physicality, that’s going to overwhelm us. And I think you can see in that first half, we got overwhelmed because we weren’t able to do those things.”
After the Bulls’ narrow loss to the Lakers in Los Angeles earlier in January in which he went head-to-head against James, Bulls rookie forward Patrick Williams said postgame, “I got better."
So what’d he learn in his second matchup against James?
“Just how smart he is,” Williams said. “He wasn’t as aggressive as he was last time as far as scoring the basketball. But he was out there just making plays, making plays with his mind, with his communication even when he didn’t have the ball. Offensively and defensively, when he was off ball, he was calling out our plays, telling guys where to be, what was coming next. You could tell that he watches a lot of film.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.