Pivotal Problem Plagues Bulls During Playoff Push

Nikola Vucevic versus Brook Lopez

Getty CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - APRIL 30: Nikola Vucevic #9 of the Chicago Bulls moves against Brook Lopez #11 of the Milwaukee Bucks at the United Center on April 30, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois.

Over a week has passed since the Chicago Bulls last scored more than 20 points in the first quarter. If this were 2011, then perhaps that number would be less concerning. But it’s 2021 in an era of NBA basketball that is centered around offense and features high-volume scoring.

On April 22, Chicago scored 34 first-quarter points in its 108-91 victory over the Charlotte Hornets. In the game prior, the Bulls scored just 12 first-quarter points against the Cleveland Cavaliers. According to Bulls radio coordinator Jeff Mangurten, this marked a season-low for them.

Most recently, in their 108-98 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night, the Bulls put up only 16 points in the opening period. It marked the continuation of their recent trend for poor starts.

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First Quarter Woes

In the past four games since that win over the Hornets, the Bulls have been averaging 18.25 points on 35.6 percent shooting in the first quarter. They’ve gone 1-3 in that time, so it’s not that the slow beginnings have completely resulted in losses, but it’s clear that it has been a factor.

With their push to the playoffs, it’s an inopportune time for such struggles. Because it’s not as though the Bulls and their opponents have both been struggling with first-quarter play. And it’s not like the Bulls’ low first-quarter scoring has been matching the slow tempo of the game. More often than not, Chicago has also been facing a double-digit deficit after the first 12 minutes.

Down 28-16 to the Bucks last night. Down 32-19 to the New York Knicks on Wednesday. Down 26-20 and 33-18 to the Miami Heat on Monday and last Saturday, respectively.

The Bulls have been failing to start the game well on either ends of the court as of late. They have trouble scoring and defending in the first quarter, so they have to work twice as hard to get back into the game. By doing so, the Bulls have been putting themselves at an early disadvantage, losing the ability to control the game from the get-go.

In Friday night’s loss to Milwaukee, Chicago could have taken advantage of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s absence from the start. Instead, the Bulls went 6-for-23 from the field in the opening quarter.

The Zach LaVine Effect

Chicago’s slow starts as of late aren’t a complete surprise, though.

It’s partially a result of Zach LaVine’s absence in the past nine games, which is telling of the impact and importance he has on the team. LaVine’s ability to create for himself and others and provide an instant boost has been missed. He is, after all, Chicago’s leading scorer at 27.5 points per game. His presence alone can alter how the opposing team defends, potentially creating opportunities for other Bulls.

But LaVine’s absence also isn’t an excuse for the Bulls’ continued first quarter woes. Other starters — and bench players, too — need to step up, and head coach Billy Donovan needs to make adjustments if certain players can’t get the team going.

Plummeting Playoff Potential

With a 26-37 record, the Bulls stand at No. 11 in the Eastern Conference. While their playoff hopes are still alive in a mathematical sense, the likelihood of postseason continues to dwindle. Their latest loss puts them three games behind the Washington Wizards with just nine games to go.

Five Thirty Eight now lists the Bulls’ playoff chances at one percent. This is worst in the league when excluding teams with fewer than a one percent chance of making the playoffs.

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