As tipoff approached Saturday night, the Clippers and Chicago Bulls found themselves in positions neither wanted to be in.
After an 8:45 p.m. tipoff in Minneapolis the previous night, the Clippers arrived at their Chicago hotel just before 4 a.m. Saturday. Playing on consecutive nights is part of the NBA life. But standing inside a United Center hallway Saturday evening, coach Doc Rivers remained irked by the nearly 22-hour gap.
“Today’s game, in my opinion, should not be played or happen,” Rivers said before the Clippers absorbed a 109-106 defeat.
The Bulls, meanwhile, were coming off a loss to Charlotte on Friday in which they scored a league-low 73 points and eroded confidence in their direction, after preseason playoff hopes had devolved into a 9-18 record.
It forced Chicago’s executive vice president, John Paxson, to take the step of meeting with local reporters to express his confidence in Bulls coach Jim Boylen.
By late in the fourth quarter, the situation was no more comfortable for either.
Both teams had built but could not hold on to double-digit leads during the first three quarters. And during a back-and-forth final quarter, each had made key three-pointers, only to see their opponent answer with their own.
With 11 seconds left, and the score tied at 106, Bulls guard Zach LaVine saw the Clippers’ defense part in front of him and took two dribbles, his long strides taking him to the basket, before meeting center Montrezl Harrell at the rim. Absorbing the contact, LaVine made the layup with two seconds remaining, then converted the free throw that followed.
The lane to the basket, Rivers said, “was created by bad defense.”
Attempting to revive his heroics from the previous night when he scored 46 points, Clippers forward Paul George created enough space to attempt a three-pointer at the buzzer. When it missed, the Clippers’ six-game trip ended in defeat.
Rivers called Bulls guard Kris Dunn the most important player on the floor because of the problems his defense and rebounding caused a Clippers roster lacking scoring punch given that Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley and JaMychal Green did not play.
Yet LaVine had the defining highlight and finished with a game-high 31 points.
“I thought [LaVine] got away with a walk, but it was a good play call,” said George, who scored 27 points and had six assists, four rebounds and six turnovers in nearly 31 minutes. “They did a slip-out, which caught us off guard and gave him momentum going downhill.”
Of his own last-second shot, George “felt like it was going down,” all the way until it didn’t.
The loss ended an 11-day trip during which the Clippers (20-8) went 4-2.
“Did we probably think we’d be better? I did, personally,” Rivers said. “But we’ll take 4-2.”
Harrell scored a team-high 30 points off the bench, 17 of which came in the first half as he took advantage of Chicago’s single coverage.
One spin move to the rim by Harrell was so sudden and effective that a row of Bulls fans seated near the Clippers’ bench reacted with a loud chorus of “ooh!”
Rivers called a timeout a little more than four minutes into the third quarter after seeing his team’s two-point halftime lead become a nine-point advantage for the Bulls.
Chicago’s lead was 14 by the halfway point of the quarter, but if Los Angeles was tired, it was not lifeless. By the end of the quarter the deficit was down to five, thanks to a zone defense that was aided by Clippers reserves, who stood and barked defensive signals on each Bulls possession.
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The freshest player on the court was Clippers guard Landry Shamet, who scored 11 points in his first game since suffering an ankle injury Nov. 11. Shamet started and swished his first two three-pointers early in the opening quarter. His third extended the Clippers’ lead to five with 2:32 remaining in the game. From there, the Bulls began an 11-3 run to close the game.
The loss wasn’t the result of fatigue, George said, but far too many errors.
“This isn’t new playing on a back-to-back,” he said. “We just got outplayed.”