The Chicago Bulls began their final West Coast trip of the season on a low note, losing 112-103 to the Sacramento Kings on Monday night at the Golden 1 Center.
Coming out of the All-Star break, the Bulls faced the second-hardest schedule in the league to finish the season. There weren’t many guaranteed wins on the calendar in the final two months, but Monday’s matchup in Sacramento looked like one of them.
With Alex Caruso back from a two-month absence and Zach LaVine cleared to play after missing the last game with knee soreness, the Bulls seemed positioned for a dominant night. But they bled points even with their top players on the court, falling behind by 20 at halftime.
The final minute saw uncharacteristic miscues by some of the Bulls’ best players. Caruso gave up a back cut to the basket, DeMar DeRozan got blocked under the basket and LaVine misfired on a 3-pointer.
In 13th place in the Western Conference at 25-45, the Kings’ position in the standings is slightly deceptive. They hung close to West giants such as the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, whom they faced in three of their last nine games. De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis are beginning to fire as a pairing since the Kings acquired Sabonis at the trade deadline.
But for a Bulls team with LaVine and Caruso available and postseason goals looming on the horizon, this shouldn’t have been a troublesome matchup.
The loss cut even deeper for the Bulls (41-27) as they fumbled a chance to move into third place in the Eastern Conference. The Philadelphia 76ers lost to the Nuggets earlier in the night, opening the door for the Bulls to move up. Instead, they fell to only a half-game ahead of the fifth-place Boston Celtics in the tightly contested race for playoff seeding.
The Bulls were a step late and an inch out of place throughout the first half, skipping passes out of bounds and coughing up turnovers on shot-clock violations. They lost the battle in the paint as Fox and Sabonis pounded the ball to the rim.
Fox scorched the Bulls for 33 points and nine assists when the teams met in February, a 125-118 Bulls win at the United Center. He poked similar holes in the Bulls defense Monday, finishing with 34 points and six assists.
The Kings hounded DeRozan, throwing relentless double teams at the Bulls’ leading scorer any time the ball touched his hands. This tactic has become the status quo for opponents against DeRozan’s lethal midrange attack. And it worked.
DeRozan took only eight shots in the first three quarters, struggling to make an offensive impact under the Kings pressure, and he finished with 21 points on 7-of-17 shooting. The situation was worsened by a frosty first half of shooting for LaVine, who didn’t pull the typical attention from the King’s defense.
With DeRozan smothered and LaVine off his rhythm, Nikola Vučević shouldered the offensive responsibilities as the Bulls scraped away at the 20-point deficit. Vučević went straight into the chest of Sabonis, squaring up to overpower the younger center around the rim as the game wore on.
Vučević and Coby White were the only Bulls in double digits by the end of the first half. Vučević finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds.
LaVine made three assists at the start of the second half, seeming to snap out of the funk from his time off the court. He was sidelined for Saturday’s win over the Cleveland Cavaliers as he continues to nurse soreness in his left knee. LaVine scored more than half of his 27 points in the second half, gaining speed in his downhill play toward the rim.
As the Bulls clawed back within a point, LaVine nearly brought enough to pull them ahead. But his shooting couldn’t make up for a torrid shooting night for the Kings, who went 10-for-25 (40%) from 3-point range and 39-for-82 (47.6%) overall from the field.
The trip only gets harder for the Bulls, who will face the Jazz and Phoenix Suns — two of the top four teams in the West — in the next four days.