As much as they've improved, Bulls can't avoid late-game misery
As much as this rebuilding Bulls team needs to learn how to win, there's also no denying they've been the victim of horrible luck this season.
They've been on the losing side of four incredibly clutch 3-point baskets by the opposition: two from Denver's Jamal Murray, and one each by Portland's Damian Lillard and Golden State's Damion Lee.
The Bulls could have played exactly the same and watched all those shots bounce off the rim. Those four baskets are the difference between a 22-18 record and fourth place in the East, instead of their current 18-22 and tied for ninth.
Of course, one of the important traits of winning teams is not letting the game come down to one shot or one close call. The Bulls led Denver by 14 points early in the fourth quarter and were up by 6 with 45 seconds left. But after a Nikola Jokic 3 and a costly Bulls turnover, Murray drilled the tying 3-pointer with 0.4 seconds left in regulation. The Nuggets won 131-127 in overtime.
After the game, Bulls coach Billy Donovan was both frustrated and agitated when discussing the Bulls' latest collapse. They are 4-10 this season in games decided by 4 points or less.
"It kills me for them," Donovan said after the game. "These guys played their hearts out for 42, 43 minutes. It's not good enough. We don't have the margin for error to play anything but a full 48 minutes. And it doesn't need to be mistake-free basketball but it can't be self-inflicted wounds on a regular basis.
"It's a multitude of plays that you can draw attention to. It's not one play. My heart bleeds for them because these guys are great guys. They've worked hard. They're putting themselves in position. And we've played really good basketball. The last two games are against teams in the playoffs. But you know what? Jokic and Murray found a way to get their team over the hump."
When Denver beat the Bulls 118-112 at the United Center on Mar. 1, Murray's shot wasn't a buzzer-beater, but it was impressive, a pullup 3 on the break that put the Nuggets up by 4 with 1:39 left.
Lillard hit a pair of 3-pointers in the final nine seconds to beat the Bulls 123-122 on Jan. 30. In the third game of the season, Lee drained a 3 with 1.7 seconds left to give the Warriors a 1-point win. Another rough loss happened in Oklahoma City on Jan. 15 when the Bulls squandered a 16-point lead in the final 4:40 and lost in overtime.
Sometimes young teams learn from these heartbreaking experiences and start to turn the tables. The Bulls clearly need more experience on the floor late in games. At the very least, they will be searching for a younger and more talented version of Garrett Temple this summer in free-agency.
"I was really emotional on the bench with them," Donovan said. "I just said that, 'We need to go back winning plays and go win the game. Go win the game.' I just saw the body language coming back. I just didn't like it. It was just the shoulders down, the head down. You can't be a great competitor doing that.
"I've got to help them see that. Ultimately, they've got to make those choices as pros. But I always think there's always something I can do to help. I haven't been able to necessarily get them in that mental space to be able to overcome some of these things. I'm going to keep trying."
Next up is another set of back-to-back games, at Detroit on Sunday, followed by West-leading Utah at the UC on Monday.