April 15, 2024

As Bulls drop pivotal home game to Hawks, bad things come in 3s

CHICAGO — Remember the feeling.

That’s what DeMar DeRozan said he and his Chicago Bulls teammates must do following a critical 113-101 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Monday.

“If it’s them we’re going to match up with, we’ve got to understand what went wrong,” DeRozan said.

Before the Bulls can think about the playoffs, they first must make their way through the Play-In Tournament, a spot they clinched despite defeat, a loss that dropped them only a half-game ahead of the Hawks for ninth place. However, Chicago owns the tiebreaker after winning the season series 2-1.

The Bulls entered the game with a chance to further separate themselves from the Hawks and move closer to assuring a home Play-In game. A win would have put them 2.5 games ahead of Atlanta, with the tiebreaker and only six games remaining for the Bulls and seven for the Hawks.

It would have kept the Bulls moving in the right direction after one of their best wins of the season Sunday at Minnesota, a team jockeying for the Western Conference’s top seed. Instead, the setback showcased the Bulls’ chronic inconsistency.

One night after making 17 of 29 3-pointers, a season-high 58.6 percent at Minnesota, the Bulls made only 7 of 28 3s against the Hawks.

The pattern was the same from long distance in their three contests before that: a 10 of 35 performance (28.6 percent) in a home loss March 25 to Washington, a 12 of 27 showing (44.4 percent) in a home win against Indiana two nights later and a 9 of 30 effort (30 percent) in a loss Friday at Brooklyn.

“All year, we just show too many signs of inconsistency,” DeRozan said. “We go out (Sunday) night and beat the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the Western Conference. And we come out, it was a back-to-back, but that’s no excuse. We’ve just got to have that mindset that whatever happened the game before, win or lose, we’ve got to treat the next one like it’s just as important and not worry about trying to split games; split four games. We’ve just got to try to get every single one, whether it’s home or away.”

Atlanta exposed and exploited one of Chicago’s biggest weaknesses — 3-point defense. The Hawks made 19 of 40 3s, finishing at 47.5 percent only after cooling off late. Six Hawks made at least two 3s. Only Coby White and Alex Caruso made at least two 3s for the Bulls.

“They shot the ball extremely well,” DeRozan said. “We couldn’t get nothing to drop. We competed and played hard. But it felt like one of those games where nothing could go our way.”

It’s been a season-long theme when opponents are scorching hot from beyond the arc. The Bulls (36-40) fell to 6-21 when teams shoot at least 40 percent on 3-pointers. The Hawks (35-40), who are the Bulls’ most likely Play-In matchup, have averaged 36.5 3-pointers in 20 games since the All-Star break and have shot 38.6 percent over that span.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan has consistently attributed the effectiveness of his team’s 3-point defense to its performance at the point of attack in ball screens. That hasn’t been a strength consistently for the Bulls’ guards this season. It has to be a concern in a win-or-go-home game against the Hawks. Against a top-10 shooting team like the Hawks, the 3-point line alone greatly reduces the Bulls’ chances of advancing.

Chicago won the first two meetings with the Hawks in large part because of a much more palatable 3-point margin. In the first meeting on Dec. 26 in Chicago, the Bulls shot just 7 of 25 on 3s (28 percent), but the Hawks shot only 13 of 45 (28.9 percent) from that distance. In the second contest, a 10-point Bulls win Feb. 12, the Bulls went 13 of 28 on 3s (46.4 percent), while the Hawks made 14 of 43 3s (32.6 percent).

“You could look at it the other way, too,” Donovan said. “You can try to take away all the 3s and then basically give up higher percentage shots. You can give up more shots at the basket. You can give up more free throws. Sometimes when the ball goes to the paint, everybody’s going to be in rotation. So you’re almost having to do that.

“A lot of times when teams take a lot of 3s, just generally, I think it’s a byproduct of the ball getting to the paint and the ball being sprayed out. And maybe it’s creating a closeout or (a chance for) another guy to drive it to the paint. But everybody’s trying to get to the paint.”

What makes the task more challenging for the Bulls is they’ve averaged only 31.5 3-pointers since the All-Star break. Atlanta became the 38th instance of a team launching at least 40 3s against the Bulls this season. DeRozan said the Bulls’ counter to that type of barrage is additional aggressiveness.

“Aggressive getting to the basket,” DeRozan said. “Dominating the free-throw line. Dominating rebounding. Getting out in transition. Playing to our strengths and trying to take away their strengths and force them to miss those long shots so we can get out and play in transition.”

There’s nothing fancy about the formula. But the Bulls haven’t found a way to be consistent.

(Photo of DeMar DeRozan: Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)