CHICAGO — No longer should the Bulls’ trio of stars be referred to as a “big three.”
DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević have proven to be wholly unworthy.
A more appropriate moniker after Chicago’s latest lopsided loss, a 133-118 home embarrassment to the Western Conference-worst Houston Rockets on Monday, is “The Beatable Three.”
No one fears the Bulls despite their collection of talent, and opponents are lining up eager to expose that ugly truth.
The Rockets (10-23), with only three road wins before their lone visit to Chicago, stepped in as yet another underdog to thoroughly outclass the Bulls. They joined a growing list that includes San Antonio, Orlando, Oklahoma City and Minnesota. The Timberwolves took it to the Bulls, scoring an opponent’s season-high 150 points while playing without stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert.
Chicago fell to 3-8 against teams below .500, the Bulls once again putting on display their season-long penchant for inexplicable inconsistency. The Bulls carried a modest but season-long three-game winning streak into Monday, including consecutive buzzer-beating winners at Atlanta and New York that appeared to momentarily galvanize the team at the end of a turbulent week. They promptly gave back those short-lived gains Monday with another disappointing performance that left observers no choice but to conclude that this team, as constructed, isn’t it.
“At this point, I don’t think it’s surprising,” Bulls forward Patrick Williams said. “I think we’ve shown ourselves when we play the way that we played tonight, this is what happens. So I don’t think it’s surprising. I just think it’s more like a wake-up call. Just because you win three in a row doesn’t mean a team is going to lay down.
“This is the best league in the world, with some of the best players in the world. You’ve got to do what you did the game before, every night. What we did these past three games, we’ve got to do it every night. That’s the mindset we have to have.”
A glaring issue, possibly the Bulls’ biggest, is the lack of a leader capable of consistently transferring that mentality from the locker room to the court. Never has that been more clear than it was Monday, when the Rockets didn’t just show up with the best duo but also the game’s best trio.
Rockets guard Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green, along with center Alperen Şengün, bullied the Bulls as if the contest was merely an offseason open run. Houston held a 23-5 lead less than five minutes in. Porter, Green and Şengün combined for 85 points on 33-for-49 shooting. They made 13 of 23 3-point attempts, pulled down 24 rebounds and dished 18 assists with two steals, two blocked shots and only six turnovers.
DeRozan, LaVine and Vučević combined for 63 points on 24-for-50 shooting.
“They came out playing harder than us,” LaVine said. “We tried to come back, compete, but even with the refs, they usually give it to the team that’s playing harder.”
The Bulls were built, however hastily, to compete against the league’s best. Now, they’re suddenly struggling to keep up with up-and-comers. Green and Şengün are 20-year-olds in their second seasons. Porter is 22 and in his fourth season. Still, the Rockets didn’t just run circles around the Bulls but also looked like the better-coached, more experienced and more disciplined bunch while doing it. They cut and passed with precision, generated fouls when Bulls defenders couldn’t contain them and splashed in cold-blooded shots.
Zach LaVine on whether the Bulls lack discipline: pic.twitter.com/PkpLMiLZPE
— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) December 27, 2022
Chicago played about five minutes of quality basketball Monday. Maybe eight. The Bulls assembled a lively close to the first half, just good enough to seize a one-point lead, and managed to look competent at the start of the third quarter. Everything else was a waste.
“We can’t be a one-end team,” exasperated Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “And it certainly started that way defensively.”
It’s become the story of the Bulls’ season. Even against the West’s worst squad, Chicago struggled mightily with the basics. Opponents’ length and athleticism are proving to be too much for the Bulls to handle. For all the jokes the phrase elicited a half-decade ago under a previous management regime, it’s apparent the Bulls must get younger and more athletic. Key defensive stoppers Alex Caruso (concussion protocol, shoulder), Javonte Green (knee bruise) and Derrick Jones Jr. (sprained ankle) remain sidelined, along with starting point guard Lonzo Ball (offseason knee surgery). Without them, the Bulls can’t stop the ball from going wherever opponents wish.
The team’s repeated failure is not the system as much as it is the personnel.
“Whatever you have out there group-wise,” Donovan said, “there’s enough there to win, in my opinion.”
A shootout, maybe. A buzzer-beater, occasionally.
But enough evidence has been seen. For the Bulls to field a stable squad that competes consistently, changes must be made.
Chicago’s so-called “big three” has turned into a colossal failure.
(Photo of Zach LaVine driving around a pick set by Nikola Vučević: Jamie Sabau / Getty Images)