Bulls’ ‘disappointing’ loss to Nuggets raises questions about team’s makeup

CHICAGO — The mental makeup of the Bulls has quickly come into question.

If it wasn’t apparent throughout Chicago’s disturbing 126-103 home loss to the Denver Nuggets on Sunday, there was no more doubt by the time Bulls coach Billy Donovan provided his perspective on the debacle.

Most troubling is Donovan’s view still echoes similar principles he routinely voiced in his first year in Chicago two seasons ago. In analyzing his team’s second home loss in eight games by at least 20 points, one can’t help but wonder how much growth is taking place. Slow starts, shaky defense, stalled offense, sloppy turnovers and streaky shooting have been sustained issues. Much of it is roster-related. But the Bulls’ inability to adapt has been a constant.

Against the Nuggets, the Bulls never led and trailed by as many as 28 points. Making the result more concerning is the Bulls were on three days’ rest, while the Nuggets were on the last leg of an eight-day, four-game trip. Still, the Bulls allowed the Nuggets to shoot 60 percent. Denver opened a 15-point first-quarter lead and maintained that margin at halftime.

“I think anytime you have a little bit of a period of time off considering (the schedule) we’ve had, it’s always a little bit of a concern, to be quite honest,” Donovan said. “I don’t think that should at all be used as an excuse. We had three days of no games, so we should have been an extremely fresh basketball team.”

When asked if he thought the Bulls played with low energy, Donovan gave a telling response.

“I thought as the game went, yes,” he said.

“Energy’s a choice. You can’t play off of feelings because feelings come and go. You’ve got to eliminate feelings and choose to do things. So when you sit there and say, ‘Did we come out with low energy?’ Yeah, if we did, that was our choice. We have a choice with what kind of energy we play with. Circumstance cannot impact or affect our energy. We’ve got to choose energy. That’s all it is, is a choice.”

As Donovan spoke, his words were reminiscent of his debut season, when even he was shocked at how easily a far worse roster would fold after the first run an opponent put on them. What does it say that the franchise is still figuring out how to consistently compete for four quarters two seasons later and with a vastly improved, albeit still flawed, roster?

“There’s always some form of adversity that hits the game, and we’ve got to be better thriving in that,” Donovan said. “We’ve got to be better thriving in the struggle. I think what happens sometimes is when there is a struggle, sometimes for us it can snowball. We’ve got to be able to embrace those kind of moments.

“We did start off slow. That part was disappointing. But we don’t need to compound it with, I don’t want to say feeling sorry for ourselves, but I think we’ve got a lot of guys that care. And when things don’t go well, we can get into a place where we can live in past plays that are over and done with. And we’re not getting back. And we’ve got to be able to compete and embrace the challenge of the next play. That’s an area we’ve really got to get better at.”

In essence, the Bulls are giving in emotionally when things don’t go their way and giving up on the game plan when things get difficult. Donovan noted that players reverted to “hero ball” Sunday as the Nuggets started to run away, settling for isolations and over-dribbling. It was another troubling truth, one the Bulls can’t afford to ignore.

“I think that definitely took place,” Donovan said. “We see it maybe not going well and it’s like, ‘OK, let me try to do something to try to get us going.’ We’ve got some very gifted offensive players. That may happen on a possession or two that they can just overcome that. But that’s not sustainable. And I think it’s a way of sometimes our guys fighting back instead of underststanding we’re going to have to do it collectively. Because that’s only going to get you so far.”

The Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, meanwhile, appeared to effortlessly dominate Sunday despite taking only four shots. He made all four but controlled the flow of the game as a playmaker, turning down his scoring opportunities to pop pinpoint passes to teammates. By halftime, he had 12 assists. He finished with 14 and didn’t play the fourth quarter. When Jokic wasn’t dishing helpers, Michael Porter Jr. was pouring in shots. Porter scored a game-high 31 points on 11-for-16 shooting, making 6-of-9 3-point attempts — as many makes as the Bulls mustered on 22 attempts.

“We didn’t look good offensively. We couldn’t stop them defensively. And that’s the result you get,” Zach LaVine said.

“We looked worse than we did the (game) before. That’s on all of us collectively. You just can’t have a showing like that at home. It’s upsetting.”

Asked if he and fellow leader DeMar DeRozan might speak to the team at practice Monday, LaVine gave another telling answer.

“You can only say so much,” he said. “It’s all about action after that. Sometimes we’ve just got to shut up and go out and play our games.”

(Photo of Bulls coach Billy Donovan: Kamil Krzaczynski/USA Today)

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