Bulls fans who paid good money to see one of the best players in the NBA probably were disappointed to find out that Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo would not play because of a sore knee.
Not only did it rob them of seeing an entertaining MVP candidate, but it also gave the Bulls a much better chance to do what many fans don’t want: win the game.
As it turned out, the Bulls — short-handed themselves without Otto Porter Jr. and Kris Dunn — couldn’t beat the Bucks without Antetokounmpo, losing 117-106 before 20,936 at the United Center to snap a season-high three-game winning streak.
But it wasn’t a total loss. Lauri Markkanen continued his outstanding play, with 26 points on 11-for-22 shooting and 12 rebounds. Zach LaVine added 11 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. And Robin Lopez scored 26 points.
With Porter and Dunn joining Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison on the sidelines, the Bulls’ depth was exposed as expected. Wayne Selden, Shaquille Harrison, Cristiano Felicio and Antonio Blakeney combined for seven points on 2-for-12 shooting through three quarters before finishing with 24 points on 9-for-24 shooting.
“I’m proud of our guys,” coach Jim Boylen said. “There’s no consolation prizes at this level, but to have 6½ days off [and then] play three in four against three playoff teams and the way we played and competed — I’m really happy about our team. And with being short-handed . . . I thought our guys really tried to honor what we do and play hard. We’re going to learn and grow from this, and we’re going to get better.”
This wasn’t a good loss or a bad loss. It was one more day marked off the calendar. And nothing to celebrate. The obsession with losing, tanking and the draft isn’t nearly as critical as it was a year ago.
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After an awkward attempt at tanking last season that left them with a 5.3 percent chance at the No. 1 pick and minimal development and chemistry, the Bulls (16-45) are in better shape down the stretch this season. They’re not only winning; they’re improving. Markkanen and LaVine are making perceptible improvement.
And unlike last season, when the Bulls short-circuited their chances for the No. 1 pick by going 8-1 against teams ahead of them in the draft order after Jan. 1, the cost of winning might not be that great. With a four-game “lead” over the fifth-place Hawks in the lottery standings, the Bulls can still win the games they have a chance to win and finish fourth in the lottery standings and have a 12.5 percent chance at the No. 1 pick.
Even in losing to the Giannis-less Bucks, the Bulls showed some promise. Their starters — including point guard Ryan Arcidiacono for Dunn and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot for Porter — took a 38-25 lead after one quarter. And Markkanen (14 points, four rebounds) and LaVine (10 points, four assists) led the way.
It wasn’t until the short-handed second unit came in — Selden, Harrison, Felicio and Blakeney with Luwawu-Cabarrot — that things went awry. The Bulls were outscored 38-16 in the second quarter and never recovered.
“[We scored] 38 points in the first and gave up 38 in the second,” Boylen said. “I was disappointed in our intelligence and our energy in the second. We had a young crew out there, but there’s no excuses. I thought that was the difference in the game — the second quarter.”