Five weeks ago, after what the Chicago Sun-Times‘ Joe Cowley described as a “blowup between players” at halftime of the Chicago Bulls‘ loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. NBC Sports’ K.C. Johnson reported that “multiple teammates directed frustration at Zach LaVine, and the situation intensified.” Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that the team had held multiple meetings “to try to work our their issues,” including “one-on-one, face-to-face sitdowns” between LaVine and DeMar DeRozan.
The Bulls were 11-18 at the time, and the Wolves had just beaten them by a score of 150-124. Everything was terrible.
After that, though, Chicago won 11 of its next 17 games, a stretch in which it was above average on offense and ranked eighth on defense. There was an embarrassing loss against the Houston Rockets the day after Christmas, but, in general, the Bulls looked like normal, pretty good team for a while.
And then there was Tuesday’s game against the Indiana Pacers, who were on a seven-game losing streak and were without likely All-Star Tyrese Haliburton and starting guard Andrew Nembhard. Chicago started the game on a 20-5 run and built a 21-point lead in the first half, but then it completely evaporated. Indiana outscored the Bulls 70-48 in the second half and dealt them a 116-110 loss. Pacers rookie Bennedct Mathurin scored 15 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter on 6 for 7 shooting. LaVine committed four turnovers in the fourth quarter, and Alex Caruso turned the ball over on an inbounds pass with 27.5 seconds left when Chicago trailed by two.
Following the collapse, the Bulls had — guess what? — a team meeting.
Some post-game, post-meeting quotes, via The Athletic’s Darnell Mayberry:
Nikola Vucevic: “Honestly, there’s not much to be said. There’s nothing you can say. It’s just a lot of frustration. We did all the talking. So we’ve just got to do it or this is where we’re going to be.”
LaVine: “A game like this, we’re supposed to win. Especially the way we played in the first half. You can put that on us not being able to close the game out and execute down the stretch.”
Vucevic: “It’s very frustrating because we keep talking about the same issues, and if they don’t get fixed and we keep repeating the same mistakes, it’s hard to expect better results. We don’t do it. It’s all the details. It’s not the big things.”
Coach Billy Donovan: “It’s not one player. It’s not one thing. It’s a multitude of things where we look overwhelmed when the intensity level goes [up]. We’ve got to be able to respond better to that.”
More than halfway through the season, Chicago has, to borrow a phrase from Minnesota coach Chris Finch, the ability to beat anybody and the ability to lose to anybody. (Finch called this “scary as a coach” and “an immature trait.”) That means that one cannot simply assume that the Bulls will rebound from this loss against the Charlotte Hornets on Thursday and the Orlando Magic on Saturday. And if they don’t, then you can expect some of the trade rumblings from December to get much louder.
The NBA trade deadline is Feb. 9. If Chicago’s latest debacle turns out to be a blip in an otherwise-solid January, then perhaps the team will have done just enough to justify keeping the core together. If the Bulls need to have more team meetings in the next couple of weeks, then all bets are off.