Bulls can’t beat the Zion-less Pelicans

With Zion Williamson sidelined Wednesday, it seemed like the Bulls — and Patrick Williams — would have a much easier go of it. But an all-too-familiar problem haunted the starting unit again, and now there are more questions for the Bulls after a third straight loss.

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New Orleans Pelicans forward Naji Marshall (8) looks to pass around Bulls center Nikola Vucevic (9) in the second half of Wednesday’s game.

New Orleans Pelicans forward Naji Marshall (8) looks to pass around Bulls center Nikola Vucevic (9) in the second half of Wednesday’s game.

Gerald Herbert/AP

Patrick Williams and the Bulls seemingly caught a break Wednesday.

All 285 pounds of one.

Hours before they took the floor at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans and were blown out 124-110, the Pelicans announced that Zion Williamson would miss the game with foot soreness. It sounded like it could be a good night for the Bulls, and even better news for Williams.

Since coming into the league, Williams has faced Williamson three times. Williams has come out victorious in two of the games, but Williamson has dominated Williams, averaging 25.3 points, six rebounds and 2.7 assists.

In last week’s matchup, Williams did a slightly better job, holding Williamson to 19 points.

“[Zion] is a great player, an elite player,’’ coach Billy Donovan said. “I think it’s very hard to put all that on Patrick’s shoulders.’’

So Williamson’s absence makes the embarrassment of this latest loss even tougher to swallow.

New Orleans was playing the second game of a back-to-back and missing its franchise player. But right from the tip, it was an all-too-familiar scenario: a lethargic effort from the Bulls’ starters.

At the end of the first quarter, the Bulls were down 32-28, and all five starters were on the minus side after allowing the Pelicans (9-6) to go 6-for-11 from three-point range.

New Orleans finished the game 17-for-33 (51.5%) from long range.

There were signs of life, however, from the second unit, which has been a staple early in the season for the Bulls (6-9). Goran Dragic, Andre Drummond, Javonte Green and Alex Caruso, along with Zach LaVine, clawed their way back into the game.

With a 9-0 run to start the second quarter, they built a five-point lead. But then the starters took the floor again and seemed allergic to defense.

The first unit was back in with four minutes left in the half and the game tied but went into the locker room down by five at the half. The starters’ effort was summed up in one play with 24 seconds left. Trey Murphy III had a nasty block on a LaVine jumper, grabbed the loose ball and went streaking down the floor and dunked over Nikola Vucevic.

There was no looking back for the home team after that.

New Orleans came out for the second half on a 9-0 run, outscoring the Bulls 37-25 in the third quarter.

C.J. McCollum led the Pelicans with 23 points, and Jonas Valanciunas added 22. The Bulls got 28 points from DeMar DeRozan. LaVine had 25 points but shot 9-for-22.

The bigger concern for Donovan coming out of this third straight loss, however, remained the lackluster effort by his starting group after multiple days of rest and practice.

The Bulls lost to the Pelicans last Wednesday, had three days off to recover and work on things, only to come out with a dismal performance at home against Denver on Sunday. Monday usually would have been a day off with two days between games, but Donovan brought his team into the Advocate Center on Monday and Tuesday for extra work.

And this was the best effort they could give?

The Bulls won’t play again until Friday, when they host the Magic. A change to the starting lineup? More minutes for several reserves? Things could get very interesting.

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