Westerlund: Bulls-Spurs Observations

The Bulls honored the late Kobe Bryant, then held off the Spurs for a one-point win.

Cody Westerlund
January 27, 2020 - 11:36 pm

CHICAGO (670 The Score) – The Bulls held off the Spurs for a 110-109 win Monday night at the United Center, where DeMar DeRozan missed the second of two free throws with 0.2 seconds left as San Antonio looked to tie the game.

Here are the notes and observations of the evening.

1. The death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant on Sunday was top of mind all evening, as the tragedy has devastated the entire league.

The exterior of the United Center was lit in purple and gold and featured photos of Bryant on the electronic signage. Fans wrote messages remembering Bryant in chalk on the United Center sidewalk and wall along Madison Street.

The Bulls ran a tribute video of Bryant and then held 24 seconds of silence pregame to honor him. The Bulls and Spurs also traded an eight-second and 24-second violation to begin the game, a nod to Bryant’s two jersey numbers.

In his pregame message to his players, Bulls coach Jim Boylen expressed his desire for them to honor Bryant’s tenacity with their work.

“Kobe goes on the court, he leaves it all on the floor,” Kris Dunn said. “And Jim talked about it. What Kobe would want us to do is just go out there and play our hearts out. And that’s what we tried to do. We’re just happy to be able to get the win for him.”

From the top of the organization to the gameday operations staff, the Bulls struck the right notes in memorializing Bryant. 

2. Zach LaVine came up with the winning play for the Bulls, as he often has this season. With the game tied at 108-all, he split a couple defenders and was fouled at the rim by Jakob Poeltl with 2.1 seconds left.

Did LaVine get away with a travel? Perhaps. Was he actually fouled by Poeltl? Ehh, you be the judge. The Spurs certainly were displeased by a really late whistle on the foul call.

What mattered for the Bulls was that LaVine attacked with the game on the line. There was a few occasions early in the season in which he settled for long jumpers or 3-pointers at key moments late. Since then, the Bulls have seen him get more comfortable late.

“The nature of just being poised and patient, understanding where he wants to go, what he wants to do with the basketball,” Thad Young said of what he sees in LaVine in crunch time.

LaVine is 33-of-37 on free-throw attempts (89.2%) this season in what the NBA defines as clutch situations. On Dec. 18, LaVine hit two free throws to tie the game with 0.5 seconds left in regulation against the Wizards, and the Bulls went on to win in overtime.

“I’m not scared to fail or miss any shot,” LaVine said. “So give me the ball. I think I’ll make any of them. I’m ready to take them, good or bad with the results. I’m thankful my teammates are putting me in that position and trusting me. I think I’m coming through for them lately.”

3. With second-leading scorer Lauri Markkanen sidelined for the next four to six weeks, the Bulls are accepting any and all applications for an offensive spark.

Denzel Valentine provided it Monday, scoring 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting in 19 minutes. It was the first time since Dec. 16 that Valentine scored in double figures, as he has been out of Boylen’s rotation almost all season.

“I thought Denzel was terrific,” Boylen said. “He has kept himself ready and came in and helped us win a game.”

Valentine is one of the Bulls’ most talented nine or 10 players and the Bulls have struggled offensively all season, which is why – despite his defensive deficiencies – it’s been perplexing that he has been in Boylen’s doghouse for so long. While he remains a trade candidate ahead of the Feb. 6 deadline, Valentine could also potentially be a key component for the offensively challenged and injury-depleted Bulls.

4. Boylen deserves credit for maneuver in a key sequence late. With the game tied at 103, Boylen called for the Bulls to intentionally foul Poeltl, who’s shooting 55.1% on free-throw attempts this season.

Poeltl missed both with 3:13 left, and Tomas Satoransky followed with a floater to give the Bulls the lead. Boylen again called for an intentional foul on the next possession, and Poeltl split a pair. Young followed with a 3-pointer to help the Bulls open a four-point lead.

“When you watch DeRozan two defended great twos and he looked like he was in rhythm and it was nothing against what we were doing – we were trying, we’re not going to pull off an double him in his isolations because now we’re giving up a three to guys that can stroke it,” Boylen said.

“So if you look at the points per possession on 50% free-throw shooter or DeRozan, you’re going to take the 50% free-throw shooter. So that was really a math decision, to be honest with you.

“Those are the decisions you make in game. My assistants were on it. Sometimes it works out for you.”

5. There was another game management decision by Boylen late that I found notable. Boylen burned his final timeout with 2.1 seconds left after San Antonio had used a timeout to advance the ball into the frontcourt while trailing 110-108.

Boylen did so to get a read on the Spurs’ initial out-of-bounds setup and then presumably communicate/reiterate a message to the Bulls about how to defend the final play. The downside was that it eliminated the possibility of using the coach’s challenge on a questionable foul call, because it takes a timeout in your pocket to do so.

A questionable call indeed followed, as Dunn was whistled for a foul as DeRozan took a fadeaway jumper for the tie.

“It was tough,” Dunn said of the call. “I talked to the ref after. I felt like I was trying to swipe and get on his side and just try to do a light contest. If he makes it, he makes it. (The official) said I kept walking under him, and I hit the side of his thigh a little bit. I just got to respect the ref’s call.”

Any light brush of contact by Dunn would’ve led to the call being upheld on a potential coach’s challenge. So in hindsight, the lack of a timeout didn’t hurt Boylen and the Bulls – especially considering the final result.

But it nonetheless remains a situation to keep in mind. A coach’s challenge could come in handy late in a game at some point for the Bulls, who at 19-30 are now just two games out of the eighth seed in the East.

Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.