Coming in, the Chicago Bulls did as they have all season and continued to say the right things, highlighting the magnitude of a potential Play-In Tournament first-round preview.
Instead, they came away with a 123-105 loss at home versus the short-handed Atlanta Hawks.
“It was a must-win game for us, and obviously we didn’t do good enough,” offered Zach LaVine via Darnell Mayberry of The Athletic before making a jarring admission. “They wanted it more than us. It sucks to have this result at this point in the season.”
The Bulls made the game’s first basket and found themselves playing catch-up from that point on as the Hawks – missing star point guard Trae Young and forward De’Andre Hunter – jumped out to a 13-2 lead before Chicago made its second basket. Atlanta would grow the lead to as large as 20 points at the United Center.
LaVine finished with a game-high 26 points on better than 52% shooting from the floor adding six assists, three rebounds, and one steal but he was just 1-for-7 from deep on a night. The Bulls are now 6-15 when LaVine makes one or fewer threes this season.
They are 31-23 when he makes at least two triples.
As a team, the Bulls were outscored 15-6 from deep in the opening frame.
Asked whether he thought the Bulls had moved past such slow starts to games, LaVine answered bluntly.
“Obviously not,” he said. “We got to move forward, though, try to get ready for these next three. We don’t really have any time to dwell on the past. Obviously, you don’t want to come out flat like this in what I think was the most important game of the year.”
The Bulls had a chance to take over the eight-seed with a win over the Hawks.
Instead, they fall back a full two games behind the other three teams in the Play-In Tournament field with the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors both securing victories too.
“We understand where we are in the standings,” offered LaVine. “It took a lot for us to play ourselves out of the Play-In [Tournament], we’re trying to get a little bit higher seed. So it’s frustrating but we got to look forward to the next three.
“I just think they wanted it more than us, that’s all I think.”
Bulls Backed Into Play-In Spot
LaVine was responding to a question about the Bulls backing their way into a Play-In spot with the Orlando Magic suffering a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Though they will likely be getting the Bulls’ first-round pick as consolation.
“We’re happy that we’re going to be at least in it,” said current Bullsa and former Magic big man Nikola Vucevic, per Will Gottlieb of CHGO Bulls. “It hasn’t been the season so far we wanted. We were hoping to be higher in the standings, but it is what it is. It will give us an opportunity to get into the Playoffs.”
Vucevic — who finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three assists — previously suggested that expecting this team to figure out these things is unlikely at this point of the season.
Things won’t get any easier with the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks coming in on April 5.
Perhaps the Bulls were looking ahead. LaVine denied they took the short-handed Hawks lightly.
“We definitely weren’t trying to take it lightly,” LaVine insisted. “But they played well, played aggressive. We missed some shots, didn’t get the right energy into the game. When you get down by 20 points, it’s tough to come back.”
Bulls Can’t Repeat History
The Bulls pulled off an impressive comeback from down 23 points versus the Memphis Grizzlies just two nights earlier, their largest comeback of the season.
But several key factors went against them versus the Hawks as Atlanta came into Chicago and finished plus-13 in the fastbreak points, plus-eight in rebounds, and plus-eight in the turnover margin.
The Bulls flew too close to the sun this time.