With starting guards Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball out with knee injuries and the Chicago Bulls facing the hottest team in the NBA in the Memphis Grizzlies, coach Billy Donovan knew the Bulls would have to play a near-perfect game Monday afternoon at FedExForum.
But that was a task the Bulls couldn’t handle in the Martin Luther King Day matinee, suffering their fourth straight loss with a 119-106 drubbing by the Grizzles.
“For us right now, our margin for error is not great,” Donovan said. “Turnovers here, offensive rebound, a couple easy transition points — we’re going to have to eliminate those things.”
The Grizzlies won for the 12th time in 13 games, opening a comfortable lead in the second quarter and never looking back. Emerging MVP candidate Ja Morant led the Grizzlies with a team-high-tying 25 points and showed again why he’s the most exciting young player in the game with a highlight-reel, 360-degree, spin-o-rama lay-in past Malcolm Hill during garbage time after getting in a minor tussle with Bulls reserve Tony Bradley.
The Bulls are trying to pick up the pieces from a brutal stretch in which they allowed an average of 127 points in losses to the Brooklyn Nets, Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics and Grizzlies. They committed 18 turnovers Monday and were outscored 64-38 in the paint, watching the Grizzlies score inside at will.
“In the second quarter, we just kind of fell apart in transition,” Bulls point guard Coby White said. “And that’s where they get a lot of their points from — getting out running.”
The Bulls played with 10 players Monday after waiving Devon Dotson and sending Ball back to Chicago, where a physician was to examine his left knee. It was their third game without LaVine if you include Friday’s blowout loss to the Warriors, in which he played only three minutes before leaving with a left knee injury.
If this is a glimpse of life without LaVine, the Bulls better be prepared to pay the man whatever he asks for this summer in free agency. LaVine’s absence Saturday against the Celtics was glaring in the final seconds when he could’ve been an option on the last play, which saw misses by Nikola Vučević and DeMar DeRozan.
On Monday the game wasn’t close enough to matter.
“We’ve got a lot of people out, but other teams had a lot of other people out earlier this year,” White said. “We’re not using that as an excuse.”
Help appears to be on the way.
Alex Caruso emerged Monday from the league’s health and safety protocols for COVID-19, and Donovan said Caruso might be ready to play Wednesday against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“The bigger issue … is what are his minutes going to look like when he comes back,” Donovan said. “He’s really been out since Dec. 4.”
A hamstring injury followed by a foot injury and then the COVID-19 protocols have sidelined Caruso for six weeks, and the Bulls defense has suffered accordingly. Forward Javonte Green, out with a groin injury, is practicing but not ready to return, Donovan said.
So Donovan inserted White, Ayo Dosunmu and Alfonzo McKinnie into the starting lineup with Hill — the former Illinois star who reportedly signed a two-way contract — Bradley, Troy Brown Jr. and Matt Thomas as his main reserves.
Without their starting guards and primary distributors, and with Vučević struggling from the outset, the Bulls offense was in stop-and-start mode. They committed eight turnovers in the first 9½ minutes, and outside of White, the other four starters shot a combined 1-for-9 from the field.
The Bulls managed to stay in the game with some solid defense early on and were tied at 20 at the end of the first quarter. But the Grizzlies pulled away with a 21-6 run to start the second. TNT analyst Stan Van Gundy soon called out Vučević, saying the Bulls have “got to get more” out of their veteran center in a favorable matchup against Steven Adams.
The Grizzlies ended the half with an uncontested dunk by Brandon Clarke at the buzzer as Vučević looked on, giving them a 58-47 lead. Vučević was scoreless at halftime and didn’t hit his first shot until 3½ minutes into the third quarter. Donovan sat him in the fourth, and he finished with seven points on 2-for-13 shooting.
“Everybody is not perfect,” White said. “Vooch is an All-Star. But everybody struggles from time to time. For me, all the shots Vooch took today in this game, if he takes the same ones he’ll knock them down, I guarantee you. We have the utmost faith in Vooch.”
The outcome was decided by the time Bradley and Morant got into a skirmish with 5½ minutes remaining after Bradley fouled Morant on a drive by sticking his leg out. After some jawing and jersey clutching, order was quickly restored when Adams physically removed Bradley from the vicinity of Morant by lifting him like a beer keg.
The Bulls had been manhandled all week, but never quite as literally as that moment.
After a day off Tuesday, the Bulls will be back home at the United Center on Wednesday to face the Cavaliers before Friday’s first meeting of the season with the defending champion Bucks in Milwaukee. The Bulls knew the skeptics would multiply after the back-to-back blowout losses at home to the Nets and Warriors.
Sure enough, ESPN studio analyst Jalen Rose declared after the Warriors game that the first-place Bulls were good enough for only a fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. It will be up to DeRozan and Vučević to right the ship as they await LaVine’s return.
When the Bulls started getting their first real taste of national exposure last week, DeRozan said: “You do your job right, you get a raise.”
They got their raise.
Now they have to prove they deserved one.