Bulls falling short of playoffs a result of missed opportunities

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Recounting missed opportunities that defined Bulls' season originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The 2020-21 Bulls season created hope and optimism for the future but left an overall impression of missed opportunities.

Beyond not cashing in on two impactful trade deadline day deals that brought an All-Star in Nikola Vučević and a physical big in Daniel Theis to Chicago, the Bulls blew too many winnable games.

Both Arturas Karnišovas and Billy Donovan alluded to these in their season-ending news conferences. Donovan even went so far as to say he planned to study each of the painful losses to try to learn from them and prevent the dynamics that led to them from occurring in the future.

These losses are felt more acutely as the typically entertaining first round of the NBA playoffs transpire. The Bulls finished two games behind the Charlotte Hornets for the final play-in spot. Win these and maybe things are different.

We rank the most painful losses so you don’t have to. And the fact it was hard to narrow these losses down to three shows just how many there were from which to choose.

Jan. 15, 2021: Thunder 127, Bulls 125 (OT)

The Bulls led by 22 points in the third quarter, by 14 with 4:09 left in regulation and by 10 points with 1:47 in regulation. According to ESPN Stats & Info, this marked just the second time in 2,932 instances over the last five seasons that a team blew a 10-point lead in the final two minutes of regulation.

Ouch.

It marked the second straight regular-season collapse in Oklahoma City and in Billy Donovan’s return to his former stomping grounds, albeit with no fans in the stands this time.

Double ouch.

How did it happen? Over the second half and overtime, the Bulls registered 18 field goals and 17 turnovers. Coby White and Lauri Markkanen committed offensive fouls in the final minutes, and White compounded matters by fouling Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the game-tying three-point play with 16.4 seconds left in regulation.

Zach LaVine, who scored 35 points, missed 3-pointers at the end of regulation and overtime. On the latter, Denzel Valentine tried to set a brush screen and inadvertently ran into LaVine in transition, briefly knocking him off balance.

Triple ouch.

For good measure, Wendell Carter Jr. fouled Mike Muscala on a 3-point attempt, continuing a season-long trend.

Jan. 30, 2021: Trail Blazers 123, Bulls 122

Four months later, this one is still hard to believe.

After Coby White sank two free throws, the Bulls led by five points with 11.5 seconds left.

Let’s repeat that: The Bulls led by five points with 11.5 seconds left.

First, Damian Lillard sank a 37-foot 3-pointer over White with 8.9 seconds left. Then, after Thad Young quickly inbounded the ball to LaVine, Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood swarmed LaVine to force a jump ball with 6.2 seconds left.

Afterward, Donovan and LaVine both questioned how quickly the jump ball call came, a call that can’t be reviewed. And so Donovan and the Bulls were left sitting on an unused timeout, one that Donovan later said he regretted not taking to advance the ball and not put LaVine in that backcourt position.

The Trail Blazers won the jump ball, officially giving LaVine six or more turnovers in three straight games for the first time by a Bull since Elton Brand in 2000. But the jump ball wasn’t won cleanly, and Donovan lamented the Bulls not pouncing on the 50-50 ball.

When the ball careened its way to Lillard, "Dame Time" seemed inevitable. His 26-foot stepback 3-pointer over Markkanen gave him 44 points and the most unlikely of endings.

March 19, 2021: Nuggets 131, Bulls 127 (OT)

Yes, the two losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers, road loss to the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves and a home loss to the bottom-feeder Orlando Magic all were ugly.

But for sheer blown opportunities, this one edges out those losses, even if it came against a superior opponent.

The Bulls led by 14 just under midway through the fourth quarter and again collapsed in an avalanche of errors.

It started with you guessed it White fouling a 3-point shooter. For good measure, officials whistled White for a flagrant foul for not giving Michael Porter Jr. room to land. He sank two of three free throws, and Jamal Murray scored on a layup on the ensuing extra possession for a four-point trip.

Veterans also delivered head-scratching plays. Tomas Satoranský advanced a pass upcourt to White despite White standing with a foot on the sideline for a crucial turnover. Thad Young played strong defense on Murray initially but then left Murray to double Nikola Jokić despite the Bulls leading by three points and Murray buried the overtime-forcing 3-pointer with 0.4 seconds left.

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