McGraw: Analyzing the Bulls' historically bad night in Minnesota

A first-time-in-40-years performance is deserving of a second look, even if it was miserable to watch.

During their loss in Minnesota on Sunday, the Bulls gave up 150 points in regulation for the first time since 1982, and only the fourth time in franchise history.

So went what wrong? Does anyone deserve extra blame for this defenseless effort?

After reviewing the game tape, it's safe to say the Bulls have played worse defense than this since the rebuilding era began in 2017. This night wasn't great, by any means, but it wasn't absolutely pathetic, either.

There were a couple of circumstances that pushed the score higher: For one, several Timberwolves had it going. D'Angelo Russell went 7-for-10 from 3-point range and almost always had a hand in his face. One time, he lost control of the ball, let it fly from the midcourt logo and buried it.

Anthony Edwards, who scored 37 points, also hit some tough shots. Then there was the time when he put a shoulder into Alex Caruso, sent him stumbling into the photographers' area, then finished a lay-in as no offensive foul was called.

When the Bulls managed to get the ball out of the stars' hands and Minnesota moved the ball to a big, those guys were deadly from the 3-point line. Center Naz Reid went 2-for-2. Backup Nathan Knight made his first 3-pointer of the season.

Austin Rivers (4-for-6) has been known to get hot, but has just 15 made 3-pointers this season. Bryn Forbes has 8 on the season and knocked down 2 against the Bulls. But if you leave NBA shooters open, bad things can happen.

Another factor was this game was somewhat competitive. The Bulls trailed by 9 with nine minutes left, and by 13 with five minutes left. The benches weren't cleared until the last couple of minutes.

One memorable Bulls defensive disaster was the home game against Golden State early in the 2018-19 season, when Klay Thompson set an NBA record with 14 3-pointers and the Warriors had 92 points at halftime. That game was so far out of reach, there was plenty of garbage time and Golden State sputtered late to finish with 149 points.

What were the Bulls' biggest problems against Minnesota? Well, nothing new.

Opposing teams love to put Nikola Vucevic in pick-and-rolls, always have and always will. Against the Timberwolves, Vucevic was staying out high on the screen, in an effort to not give up 3-point looks to Russell.

So typically the ballhandler will move around the screen and the Bulls need to bring help into the lane. And when a pick-and-roll involves the point guard and a big, there's a 66.7% chance the help in the lane needs to come from either Zach LaVine or DeMar DeRozan, and neither is likely to slow down a big guard with a head of steam.

What the Bulls really need is the power forward to be a basket-protector, someone who can just stand in the lane and convince dribblers not to challenge him. Patrick Williams is not that guy right now. Maybe he can be someday, but he's not particularly aggressive on defense and doesn't have the experience to deal with challenging scenarios very well.

In Orlando, the Magic started making the playoffs when it put Jonathan Isaac at power forward to help protect Vucevic. The Magic would probably be happy to send Isaac north, but he hasn't played since the Bubble.

Then again, the Bulls made the playoffs last year with 6-foot-5 Javonte Green starting at power forward most of the time, so there's more to it than having a shot-blocking power forward.

The Bulls also let the Timberwolves get in a rhythm thanks to poor transition defense early in the game. On Minnesota's second basket, the ball was poked away from Vucevic. With the T-wolves on the run, Caruso sprinted across the court to stop Russell from shooting an open 3, but he just tossed an easy pass to Reid, who buried an uncontested 3 while the four other Bulls stood in the lane and watched.

Later in the first quarter, Jaylen Nowell picked off a pass and hustled downcourt with Caruso in pursuit. Caruso knew he needed help and signaled to Vucevic and LaVine to stop the ball. Neither one did. It looked like both guys expected the other to block the lane, but Nowell converted an easy lay in.

On a screen-and-roll, the Bulls kept two players out high to stop Edwards, but Williams somehow let him turn the corner for an easy drive and lay in.

The Bulls led after the first quarter 34-32. That was actually their best quarter of defense. So in conclusion, it's complicated. Except when the Bulls tried to play zone in the third quarter. That went awful.

"If we want to be any good, we're going to have to confront the fact that you're not escaping this," coach Billy Donovan said after the game. "You've got to line up and physically put your nose, your body, your spirit and your soul in front of people and put your body in plays.

"Block-outs, loose balls - all those things. The physical confrontation of a game, you're not escaping."

That game was just the first stop on a four-game road trip. The Bulls will face Miami on Tuesday, followed by Atlanta and New York.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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Chicago Bulls head coach Billy Donovan, front left, talks to guard Goran Dragic (7) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022, in Minneapolis. Associated Press
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