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Sports Saturday

Old habits die hard as Bulls suffer meltdown in Oklahoma City

Coach Billy Donovan watched his team blow a 22-point lead in the third quarter, then a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter as turnovers and defensive breakdowns continued.

Bulls guard Zach LaVine shoots against Thunder forward Luguentz Dort on Friday in Oklahoma City.
Sue Ogrocki/AP

The first half Friday night in Oklahoma City was a thing of beauty — “Billy Ball” at its finest. The ball was moving, the Bulls had the paint under control, and they were doing what an up-and-coming team should do: dominating it.

But the ugliness of the last few years still hangs over the Bulls. And as coach Billy Donovan saw in a 127-125 overtime loss to the Thunder, his former team, their bad habits aren’t dying easily.

The Bulls (4-8) have now lost four straight, and none more embarrassing than this one, blowing a 22-point lead in the third quarter, then a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter as 24 turnovers and more breakdowns on defense overwhelmed them and left everyone searching for answers.

That was especially true for guard Zach LaVine, who scored a team-high 35 points but had six turnovers and struggled to hit clutch shots late in regulation and overtime.

“We’re all at a loss for words on how we lost the game,” LaVine said. “We just folded — we straight up folded. You guys saw the game. I played in it. I think we all saw the same thing. We can’t lose games like that. I take that upon myself. I made a lot of mistakes in the fourth quarter.”

He wasn’t alone. In addition to the Bulls spitting the ball up left and right, even before the Thunder (6-6) started pressuring late in the fourth quarter, there was miscommunication on defense that allowed the Thunder to get back into the game.

That was evident with 52.2 seconds left in overtime when center Wendell Carter Jr. dropped too deep on his help defense; the kick-out to Mike Muscala resulted in a three-pointer and a 126-122 Thunder lead.

LaVine connected on a three-pointer with 6.8 seconds left to cut it to one. Thunder guard George Hill split his free throws, giving LaVine a chance to win it, but his 26-footer missed, and the collapse was complete.

“I think these guys are bright guys — they’re smart guys,” Donovan said. “They know a lot of this stuff is self-induced. I thought it was all on us, personally. That’s what I felt. I felt like we kept turning the ball over and couldn’t generate getting into the offense. Because they didn’t really start turning up the pressure until they felt like they were close enough.”

The big concern for Donovan: What now? He knew when he took this job that he was inheriting a team that frequently played lethargically after halftime under former coach Jim Boylen.

“This has been kind of something these guys have dealt with,” Donovan said. “They’ve dealt with this for a while. I’m whatever it is — 12, 13 games into it with them. As a coach, you feel bad. You want to do more to help. And I’ve got to try and find some different ways to help them as a group.”

Said LaVine: “When you’re up 20, there’s not a lot to talk about. You’re up by 20, you can’t lose.”