To snap another losing streak, the key for the Chicago Bulls might lie in the opening minutes of the game.
The Bulls have developed a habit of digging themselves into holes against top opponents, cornering their wins and losses on their ability to mount a comeback. The Bulls never were a particularly hot-starting team, averaging 27.4 first-quarter points this season as they often found success via fourth-quarter takeovers. But the team scored only 22.7 points in the opening quarter of their last three games entering Friday night’s matchup against the Phoenix Suns.
Even when they aren’t outright losing the opening quarters, the Bulls aren’t winning them. They outscored only two opponents — the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers — in three sets of first quarters since the All-Star break. Two of those games resulted in victories.
This trend hurt the most in Monday’s loss in Sacramento, Calif., where the Bulls scored 17 points in the first quarter against the Kings.
“We didn’t start off the right way. We got punched in the mouth,” guard Zach LaVine said after the loss. “We’ve got to start punching these teams in the mouth. That starts at the top and trickles down. It can’t take being down by 20 for us to play like we’re supposed to.”
When it comes to starting games, LaVine is a tone-setter. Teammates such as rookie Ayo Dosunmu and third-year guard Coby White match his aggression when he slashes to the basket. His role as the secondary ballhandler also creates rhythm for the Bulls — the more he drives to the rim, the more opportunities open up for Nikola Vučević and DeMar DeRozan.
LaVine knows this and takes the responsibility seriously, blaming the slow start in Sacramento on himself for “tiptoeing” through the game. He made an immediate turnaround in the next game in Salt Lake City: two assists, two steals and seven points off five attempts in the first quarter to keep the Bulls level with the Utah Jazz.
The key balance for Bulls coach Billy Donovan is to help LaVine regain confidence in his left knee without overworking the guard amid his injury.
“Any time you have an ACL surgery like he had and you’re dealing with knee issues, there’s going to be a little bit of heightened awareness there,” Donovan said. “But that’s also part of his growth. How does he come out there and do that? This is new for him that he’s had to do this and he’s trying to give the group everything he has. But I think he’s also trying to figure out how he can be productive, not ease his way into the game and be more aggressive.”
For Donovan, the way the Bulls are starting and ending games is reflective of the team’s relative inexperience, a focal point for Donovan throughout the final half of the season as the Bulls worked to harden themselves into legitimate postseason competitors.
Opposing teams have found counters to the offense in the final stretch of the season, and the Bulls are struggling to make adjustments. In Miami, DeRozan said it took a full half for the Bulls to adjust to the Heat’s smothering defense along the perimeter.
Although DeRozan is better equipped for the postseason, Donovan has been focused on using this final run of games to grow players such as LaVine, Dosunmu and even Vučević who haven’t experienced playoffs teams. The next step in the players’ development, Donovan said, is expediting in-game adjustments before halftime.
“It’s an attention to detail and a concentration,” Donovan said. “It’s being able to come to the free-throw line and not (be) thinking about the last play or the next play. … It’s that ability to shift to the next thing quickly. That’s where we’ve got to get better.”
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