Too much Jokic as Nuggets hold off Bulls

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) scores past Chicago Bulls center Luke Kornet, right, as Bulls guard Zach LaVine (8) looks on during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, March 1, 2021, in Chicago.

    Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) scores past Chicago Bulls center Luke Kornet, right, as Bulls guard Zach LaVine (8) looks on during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, March 1, 2021, in Chicago. Associated Press

  • Chicago Bulls center Wendell Carter Jr., right, fights for the ball with Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr., left, forward Will Barton (5) and center Nikola Jokic, back, during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, March 1, 2021, in Chicago.

    Chicago Bulls center Wendell Carter Jr., right, fights for the ball with Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr., left, forward Will Barton (5) and center Nikola Jokic, back, during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, March 1, 2021, in Chicago. Associated Press

  • Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, right, is restrained by another team member after getting called for a technical foul against the Chicago Bulls during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, March 1, 2021, in Chicago.

    Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, right, is restrained by another team member after getting called for a technical foul against the Chicago Bulls during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, March 1, 2021, in Chicago. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 3/1/2021 10:32 PM

As the Bulls try to figure out what steps to take to become a more serious playoff contender, a negative trend is emerging.

Denver's Nikola Jokic became the third opposing center in less than a month to have a huge game against the Bulls. Jokic piled up 39 points, 14 rebounds and 9 assists as the Nuggets held off the Bulls 118-112 at the United Center on Monday.

 

The Bulls trailed by as many as 15 points, but held a lead with just over two minutes left. Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 23 points, while Coby White had 20 points and 10 rebounds.

In recent weeks, Philadelphia's Joel Embiid scored 50 against the Bulls, and Orlando's Nikola Vucevic scored 43. Third-year Bulls center Wendell Carter Jr. has played good defense at times, but can get overwhelmed by taller opponents.

"On some nights, it can be challenging for him," Bulls coach Billy Donovan said of Carter. "But he does give good effort, he does battle, he does fight, he tries to give you everything he has. Sometimes those guys just play over him."

Then with Jokic averaging 8.5 assists, it's dangerous to send double-teams at him, because he always find the open man -- if he doesn't just score over both defenders. Down the stretch of this game, Donovan sent the 6-9 Thad Young (12 points, 5 steals) out to guard Jokic.

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"He's one of those guys, you run into him, you've got to hope he has a bad night," LaVine said. "The thing with him, he's really patient. He doesn't let anybody speed him up. You come with the double, he's darn near the point guard on that team. We all know how good of a passer he is and one-on-one, he's so big, takes his time, knows his game and he punishes you. It's a tough one. We didn't have an answer for him."

The Bulls took a 108-106 lead on LaVine's layup with 2:14 left. But the next sequence turned the game around. First, Jokic dunked in traffic, was fouled by Patrick Williams and completed the 3-point play.

On the other end, LaVine tried to get it back with a step-back 3, but it clanged off the backboard, starting a Nuggets break. Jamal Murray then pulled up for a quick 3-pointer and drained it, putting Denver up 112-108 with 1:39 left.

When the Bulls needed a stop, Jokic scored again and that was the end. The Bulls (15-18) are now 3-12 against the top eight teams in both conferences.

Denver started the game by letting their all-star center go to work. The Nuggets raced to an early 16-3 lead, but the Bulls kept hanging around, then finally made a move in the third quarter. A lineup of mostly subs finished the quarter on an 18-9 run, pulling within 89-87 heading into the fourth. The poor performance in the first quarter was another sore spot for the Bulls.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I think our first and third quarters have been terrible," LaVine said.

"We don't have that kind of margin for error to throw away quarters," Donovan added.

This was supposed to be the second leg of back-to-back games for the Bulls. But their game Sunday against Toronto was postponed. Donovan said the Bulls were able to depart from Tampa, the Raptors' temporary home, by midafternoon and were back on the ground in Chicago by 5 p.m. Sunday.

The Bulls have one game left before the all-star break on Wednesday at New Orleans.

Carter fights for AK:

Bulls center Wendell Carter Jr. said the team's vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas was fired up about Denver coming to town. The Bulls hired Karnisovas from the Nuggets in April.

"Once we figured out our game (Sunday against Toronto) was canceled in Tampa, he was there in the film session," Carter said. "He told us, 'Our game is canceled. Now you get some more time to rest. I need y'all to win this next game for me.' He's really excited. He's a gamer."

No plans yet for Noah:

There was more talk on social media about former Bulls center Joakim Noah getting set to retire and wanting to retire as a Bull. The Bulls did that with Luol Deng, honoring him at a game in November 2019.

Bulls vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas said there are no plans in the works to honor Noah. Considering Noah is one of the most popular players in recent Bulls history, it would make more sense to do it when fans are allowed at the United Center.

Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls

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