Bulls’ early season inconsistency rooted in slow starts, finishes – NBC Sports Chicago

Start slow, finish sloppy.

That is not a recipe for success in any sport. But it is the overarching trend of the Chicago Bulls’ first seven games of the 2022-23 season, in which they hold a 3-4 record.

As the calendar flips to November, sample sizes across the NBA are miniscule. Still, the Bulls’ last-ranked defensive rating (131.1 points per 100 possessions) in first quarters and offensive rating (87.6 points per 100 possessions) in fourth quarters stand out.

On the former front, some scaldingly hot opponent 3-point shooting is the culprit. Bulls’ opponents are shooting 38-for-66 (57.6 percent) on 3s in the first quarters of games, with 60 of those attempts considered either “open” (28) or “wide open” (32) by NBA.com’s tracking data. 

Regardless of the quality of defense being played, those numbers are far too gaudy to sustain.

But Donovan’s eye test also revealed breakdowns in transition and help assignments as contributing to those splits.

“We’ve done a pretty good job contesting (the 3-point line) throughout the course of the game, but we’ve gotta be better starting the game,” Donovan said Saturday night, hours before his team allowed the 76ers 37 points and 6-for-10 shooting in the first quarter of a 114-109 loss.

“Sometimes when you’re in help and you’re in rotations and you’re trying to protect the paint, sometimes you’re gonna give up 3s. But we’ve gotta have better awareness and recognition on some of these situations.”

The Bulls trailed by 15 points after 12 minutes of the Philadelphia game, but clawed back into the contest by outscoring the 76ers 65-53 in quarters two and three. This lines up with the Bulls owning a top-10 net ratings in the middle two periods of games.

It also points to a dynamic Zach LaVine spoke to postgame on Saturday night.

“These first games, that’s been our MO, we’re getting down on the first unit, second unit usually comes in and saves our ass and plays better,” he said. “We just gotta do better in the beginning.”

It’s true. Through seven games, the Bulls’ two most used five-man groups are Donovan’s preferred first units with LaVine in and out of the lineup. But neither of those quintets have fared particularly well thus far:

Lineup Minutes Off. Rating Def. Rating Net Rating
Dosunmu, LaVine, DeRozan, Williams, Vučević 35 118.3 125.4 -7.0
Dosunmu, Caruso, DeRozan, Williams, Vučević 30 90.9 117.9 -27.0

Meanwhile, the Bulls’ two best five-man units by total plus-minus are LaVine staggered with all reserves. LaVine plus Goran Dragić, Alex Caruso, Derrick Jones Jr. and Andre Drummond is +21 in 17 minutes; LaVine plus those players except Javonte Green in for Jones is +12 in 11 minutes. 

Although Donovan noted that the first unit has fared better when deployed later in games, it’s clear that the necessary urgency isn’t there from the jump.

“I just think it’s intensity, physicality, energy. All things that we can control,” said starting power forward Patrick Williams when asked to diagnose the slow starts. “We just always dig ourselves a hole and then we end up fighting our way out of it, which kind of just shows the team that we are… But we can’t dig ourselves that much of a hole.”

And the difference between the start and middle of games, when the first unit has looked better?

“We got a team full of winners. Nobody likes to lose, nobody wants to lose, we all hate to lose. So I think in that third quarter it’s more, ‘OK, this is winning time,’” Williams said. “That’s when guys start to get in rhythm, see what starts to work… I think we gotta come out with that mindset, have that focus and that intensity to start.”

Then, there is the oscillating availability of LaVine and absence of Lonzo Ball cutting against the front office’s goal of continuity for this season, leading to different starting, staggered and closing lineups on a game-to-game basis; and the formula of falling behind early and spending the middle two quarters scrapping back being wholly unsustainable.

Which brings us to the fourth quarter offense.

Donovan, when asked about the team’s 30th-place ranking in that department, pointed to poor shooting and turnovers, adding he has liked the Bulls’ shot profile and ability to get to the foul line late in games.

The Bulls are 0-3 in “clutch” contests this season, defined by NBA.com as games within a five-point margin with five or fewer minutes to play, shooting 0-for-7 from 3-point range and committing four turnovers against three assists in 13 minutes. More figures ripe for positive regression.

But the 76ers game was an extreme example. In Saturday’s fourth quarter, the Bulls logged a 91.7 offensive rating and went the final 4 minutes, 14 seconds without a made field goal (scoring just two points on DeMar DeRozan free throws).

It revealed a dynamic that could permeate this Bulls season, especially against high-quality competition. The 76ers trapped DeRozan, the best closer in the NBA last season, every chance they could, often placing the decision- and shot-making burden on the shoulders of LaVine, Nikola Vučević and others.

A long season remains ahead, giving plenty of time for the Bulls to sharpen their focus to begin games, work the kinks out in closing minutes and allow small sample size abnormalities to stabilize.

But until those factors change, inconsistency will be a common theme.

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