The Bulls’ Big Blunder Against the Hawks Served as a Sobering Reminder
The ball was on the tee and the Chicago Bulls still struck out.
In one of the most important games of the year — if not the most important — the Bulls were handed a gift. The Atlanta Hawks were missing both De’Andre Hunter and Trae Young. The two players have combined for an average of roughly 41 points per game this season. Young, in particular, has continued to be the driving force for this organization. And the team had gone just 2-5 in games where he wasn’t able to suit up this league year.
If the Bulls managed to beat this shorthanded .500 team, they would have secured the tiebreaker advantage ahead of the Play-In Tournament. In other words, they would have controlled the higher seed if the two squads finished with an identical record (which they would have had if the Bulls won last night). Chicago would have also moved to 39-40 on the season. This would have vastly increased their chances of ending the regular season in either the 8 or 9-seed.
Why does that matter? Well, while the 9 seed would still mean the Bulls have to win two Play-In games to make the playoffs. And they would at least get to host the first at the United Center. Meanwhile, if they were able to pass the Toronto Raptors and get up to No. 8, they would only have to win one Play-In game to make the playoffs.
While moving into either of these spots isn’t technically off the table just yet, it might as well be. Thanks to last night’s loss, the Bulls now sit 2.0 games behind both the Hawks and Raptors with three games to go. Basketball-Reference’s Probabilities Report gives the Bulls an 87.4 percent chance of finishing 10th.
Look, at the end of the day, the Play-In Tournament is the Play-In Tournament. These teams are fighting for nothing more than the right to likely get their butts kicked by the Bucks or Celtics in the first round. But if the Bulls’ whole goal for the second half of the season was to accomplish that (and it was), this loss is another embarrassing moment in a season full of embarrassing moments.
Speaking of which, Zach LaVine provided a quote after the game that should be first on the syllabus in How to Make a Bad Loss Worse 101.
“It was a must-win game for us, and obviously we didn’t do good enough. They wanted it more than us. It sucks to have that type of result at this point in the season,” LaVine said (h/t Darnell Mayberry).
I admire LaVine’s honesty. But those are some brutal words to speak when we consider how high the stakes were coming into last night. For me, it also erases a lot of the good fortune this team has built up since the All-Star break.
One of their best qualities in recent weeks has been their sense of urgency and overall aggression. Unlike earlier this season, they were recognizing the moment and taking care of business in the way a team as experienced as them should. But now I have no choice but to question if that mentality has already run stale. I mean, seriously, how do they want it more than you!?
Billy Donovan’s words after the game also didn’t do much to lift my spirits. In game 78 of the season, he had to sit there and say that consistency remains a glaring weakness:
“I think this is kind of what’s been our challenge all year long is the consistency component,” Billy Donovan said after the game. “I think we show signs or flashes, but we’ve got to be able to do it for over a long period of time. And I think we knew coming into the night this was a team that got out on the break and is really really, since the All-Star break, the No. 1 offensive rebounding team. And we couldn’t stop those two things.”
Consistency is supposed to be generated by continuity — the front office’s favorite word. I finally thought we might be seeing the benefits of continuity as the Bulls turned things around this year. But an 18-point beatdown in that big of a game suggests this wasn’t the case.
To be honest, I don’t even know what the point of voicing all this frustration is. I guess in a small way I’m actually happy that last night’s game happened. While some of the progress they have made is legitimate, we can’t let it blind us from the major work that still needs to be done. Change is needed this offseason and that is regardless of how the year ends. This is just a sobering reminder.