The question had to be asked.
Coach Billy Donovan had to answer it.
After yet another embarrassing performance Friday — a 103-97 In-Season Tournament loss to the Magic — he was asked if he thought his players were tuning him out or at least disconnecting from each other.
“I don’t sense anything like that,’’ Donovan said. “If they weren’t engaged, why fight like they [did] to get back in the game?’’
It’s a fair point, considering the Bulls (4-9) scored 64 points in the second half, but that effort doesn’t excuse yet another lethargic first half against the short-handed Magic.
“If I had the answer to that, we would try to get it corrected,’’ Donovan said. “We have to be able to sustain that kind of [second-half] energy for 48 minutes.’’
In Donovan’s estimation, the Bulls come out testing the game, then once they find themselves down big, they decide, “We gotta go.’’
“Why not start we gotta go at 0-0?’’ Donovan said.
It’s a question his players also were unable to answer.
“We just got to come out with a sense of urgency,’’ forward DeMar DeRozan said. “That’s on us; that’s an effort thing. We’ve got to be more conscious of that.’’
They need something.
The hope was that with a day of practice and another shootaround, the stink from Wednesday would have dissipated. Then with DeRozan returning to the mix after spending several days away from the team for personal matters as well as the unveiling of a new-look starting lineup, what could go wrong?
Everything, just not initially.
Still searching for a self-starting group out of the gate, Donovan went with a second change to his starting lineup since the start of the regular season.
Patrick Williams had the power-forward job, then lost it. Torrey Craig took a few swings at it and lost it. So Donovan went with Alex Caruso.
A genius move . . . for six minutes.
Right from the tip, Caruso made his presence felt, making three three-pointers and putting the Bulls up 9-4. The problem with Caruso, however, is that he has a shorter shelf life than most because of his reckless style, so Donovan had to conserve him by putting him on the bench six minutes in. Orlando took advantage of life without the only Bull with a pulse these days, going on a 19-7 run to close out the first quarter.
By the time Caruso re-entered with 7:11 left in the first half, the Magic were up 16 after an uncontested dunk down the middle of the lane by Cole Anthony.
There’s only so much Caruso can salvage.
“I didn’t like the pace [in the first half],’’ Donovan said. “We’re certainly digging ourselves out of a hole. That’s a tough way to live.’’
The effort was better in the second half, especially from Zach LaVine, after he scored only nine points on 3-for-6 shooting through the first two quarters. Playing all 12 minutes in the third, LaVine went on a 13-point heater, going 4-for-5 from the field to at least bring the Bulls within striking distance and eventually the lead.
Before they could completely bleed out, however, the Magic finally found a Band-Aid, as Gary Harris hit a corner three to put Orlando up by two. After the teams spent the next few minutes trading baskets, Caruso again came to the rescue, hitting a clutch three-pointer to put the Bulls up by one with 26 seconds left.
Orlando (7-5) didn’t flinch. Franz Wagner made a driving layup and drew the foul.
Nikola Vucevic had a chance to put the Bulls ahead with 12.1 seconds left but missed a wide-open corner three. Two free throws by Jonathan Isaac iced the game.