Bulls blow 23-point lead, fall in embarrassing fashion to Spurs

The ball-handling and execution against pressure have been suspect too often this season, and that was the case in Wednesday’s loss. But fairly or unfairly, coach Billy Donovan needs more from Zach LaVine, especially on the defensive end.

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There has to be more.

Coach Billy Donovan believes in his heart there is.

That’s why he won’t stop pushing his players till they actually begin to understand that. And fairly or unfairly, it starts with Zach LaVine, the face of the franchise.

It usually does.

LaVine helped build the Bulls’ lead to 23 Wednesday against the Spurs. He came back into the game with a three-point lead and 9:37 left, but the Bulls continued to disintegrate in embarrassing fashion.

In one of the bigger choke jobs of the season, the Bulls (18-21) allowed a 17-0 run in the fourth quarter and were outscored 39-19 to snap a two-game winning streak with a 106-99 loss.

LaVine did finish with 29 points, but he had an awful turnover late and also seemed to lose the defensive focus he displayed earlier in the game and Tuesday night in the victory against the Thunder.

It’s the next phase that Donovan would like to see from LaVine defensively: sustained intensity.

“To be honest with you, he’s so gifted and so talented, he’s one of those players that everybody wants more out of,’’ Donovan said. “They want him to do more. ‘Be more, do this, be more aggressive on offense, attack the basket.’ He’s obviously so gifted, and obviously he has the foot speed, the athleticism to defend. He’s got that. But we really have tried to push him to continually play both ends. I think he’s made strides; he’s gotten better.

“Like any player, there are lapses that he needs to continue to get better at. He’s pretty accountable for those things and understands the importance of that. He’s grown, but I still think there’s a lot more he can do defensively, to be quite honest with you. We bring it to his attention, and we talk to him about it. And to his credit, he watches every game, and he knows.

“Being six years into the league, for him to want to compete and play against really good teams, he’s going to have to play both ends of the floor. And when he does that, it makes us a lot better, and I do give him a lot of credit that he’s really tried to work to get better in that area.’’

But the blame for this loss to the Spurs doesn’t fall directly on LaVine. Not even close.

The game changed in the second half when San Antonio turned up the pressure on the Bulls’ ball-handlers, which has been a concern of the coaching staff for most of the season.

Pressure has led to turnovers this season, and it seems to make Donovan’s ball-movement offense stagnant as well as hard to watch.

“I think it’s something we’ve had a challenge with all year,’’ Donovan said of the second-half meltdown. “Once they turned up the pressure and heat, we had a difficult time getting into the offense. Everybody’s got to contribute in that area, and it’s certainly not Zach’s fault. I don’t mean to say this in that way, but we got caught watching him, and we become very easy to guard that way.’’

LaVine agreed with those points.

“It’s been our MO,’’ LaVine said. “When they put the pressure on us, some of us handled it well. That’s going to happen when you can’t execute.

“You’re [ticked] off. It’s upsetting. . . . I think I could have been better.’’

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