Tough talk turns up soft as Bulls get embarrassed on opening night

Chicago
By Chicago 4 Min Read

The talk in Nashville earlier this month was tough.

There were promises of togetherness when the season got rough and vows of playing with more physicality, all of it discussed daily in camp by Bulls players and personnel.

By the time the middle of the fourth quarter rolled around Wednesday, however, the boos throughout the sold-out United Center spoke volumes.

Suddenly all that propaganda from the organization during the summer, training camp and the preseason about a new hard attitude was erased with a simple slap in the mouth by the visiting Thunder in the regular-season opener.

It was the same product, same core, same softness.

Shooting 12-for-42 from three-point range and offering little resistance in front of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Bulls fell 124-104.

And it didn’t even feel that close.

To make matters worse, during a third-quarter meltdown, Bulls center Nikola Vucevic had heated words with coach Billy Donovan about what was taking place on the court, specifically his lack of usage in the offense.

“Just unhappy with the stuff we were doing,’’ Vucevic said. “I expressed it maybe a little more aggressive than I should have at that moment of the game. Heat of the moment, trying to help the team win. I didn’t like what was going on. We talked it out.

“It wasn’t so much my touches. More of stuff we were running that could have been better.’’

Donovan had a similar view.

“I talked to [Vucevic] about it,’’ Donovan said. “I’ve said it before, I think confrontation is good. He’s probably not wrong for feeling like that. Maybe I could have handled it better with him, and he could have handled it better with me. I don’t blame him. I think it’s healthy, and it needs to happen.

“That would have never happened last year . . . the confrontation piece. If that’s going on in Game 1, that means certain people are stepping up and saying, ‘This has to be better.’ ’’

And there was more: How about a team meeting after the game?

Donovan walked into the locker room, but players were discussing the dismal showing. He asked if they wanted him to leave so they could have more time, and they said yes.

“I mean, guys want to win,’’ guard Zach LaVine said of the postgame meeting. “You put up a game like this in Game 1, and you don’t have some conversations? Guys are frustrated. It sucks to have to happen in Game 1. It happened. We’ve got to go from there.’’

Donovan could take some solace in the Bulls even being in sprinting distance of the Thunder after the first half, a forgettable 24-minute showing.

The new-look offense generated more three-point shots, but the part of the equation that still was missing was the makes. Donovan’s chuck-and-duck tweak to the shot profile had the Bulls putting up 23 threes but only making six (26%). Meanwhile, the Thunder were much more efficient with their long-range attack, going 8-for-20 (40%).

On top of the shooting struggles, LaVine spent all but 10 minutes on the bench with three fouls and only six points.

To get into the locker room down only 61-55 felt more like an escape than a deficit.

But any hope of a comeback was squashed midway through the third quarter when Gilgeous-Alexander (31 points) made a three-pointer to put Oklahoma City up by four, sparking a run the Bulls had no answer for.

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