Bulls have been NBA's worst 'clutch' team to start season originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
Against the 76ers, the culprit was stagnant offense. Against the Raptors, it was the offensive glass. Against the Pelicans, it was Brandon Ingram.
Whatever the explanation, the Chicago Bulls cannot buy a close win early in the 2022-23 season.
They have had impressive fourth quarters, to be sure. Outlasting the Heat in Miami in the season opener, and riding a 20-point outburst from Zach LaVine to a win in Brooklyn spring to mind.
But in "clutch" time, defined by NBA.com as games within a five-point margin and five minutes or less to play, the Bulls are a glaring 0-6. Not only do those six defeats make up all but one of their seven losses through three games, it also leaves them the only team in the league without a "clutch" win this season.
"These are opportunities for us to get better from and learn from," head coach Billy Donovan said after the latest loss, in which Brandon Ingram scored 14 points in the final five minutes of a 115-111 New Orleans win at the United Center. "But I can't sit there and say it's been one thing."
Indeed, analyzing "clutch" time statistics can be tricky. Contests decided by a possession or two can oftentimes come down to luck or variance, and the sample size is small. The Bulls, as an example, have played just 22 total minutes that fit the "clutch" description so far this season, a middle-of-the-pack mark. And those minutes are spread across six games, where opponents and matchups are completely different.
Still, the drop off between the early-season returns in 2022-23 is steep compared to 2021-22, when DeMar DeRozan's consistent heroics led the Bulls to a 25-16 record in clutch games. That was the third most clutch wins, and fourth best clutch winning percentage, in the league.
Bulls in the clutch
While repeating last season's "clutch" success success should not have been expected, that gap is stark. And even DeRozan has stumbled out of the gate in late-game scenarios by his standards, shooting 38.5 percent from the floor after scoring 157 points (second to Joel Embiid) on 53.5 percent shooting in clutch time last season.
Again, there is variance to acknowledge. The Bulls' clutch profile might look significantly different if, say, Anthony Gill was rightly whistled for fouling DeRozan on a 3-point attempt in the final seconds of October's loss to the Wizards. Or if potentially game-tying 3-pointers by Alex Caruso (76ers) or Patrick Williams (Celtics) found bottom. Or if a series of sequences don't happen against the Pelicans, like Ingram bouncing a midrange jumper in off back iron in the final minute, or DeRozan flukily fumbling an inbounds pass with 18 seconds to play.
All of which is to say, there is reason to believe the Bulls will not be this poor in clutch situations all season, and at least they have been competitive in every game they have played, save a 32-point loss to Cleveland in the home opener. The latter point could not be said in the post-All-Star break stretch of the 2021-22 season.
But that doesn't mean the team does not have issues to address.
"I think a lot of it is execution," Nikola Vučević said after the Pelicans loss. "Obviously people now know the ball's gonna go to DeMar and we just have to do I think a better job in certain situations helping him a little bit, make his life a little easier.
"I think also, you know, sometimes the difference, some games we have Zach, some games we don't. So it's a little different look for us too. We're trying to get used to that as well. But that's part of it. Part of growing as a team and figuring it out. So just have to continue to look at it, get better and learn from it."
While declining to make excuses for the Bulls' late-game foibles, DeRozan also pointed to the team's breakneck schedule, which featured four back-to-back sets in the first 12 games of the season. That affected LaVine's availability, of course — he has missed four of the team's 13 games, and three of their six clutch losses — and also limited practice time. With the Bulls' next back-to-back scheduled for Dec. 10, perhaps a change in that department will help.
But as a coaching staff and roster of players, the Bulls cannot rely on positive regression to fix what ails them. Against elite opponents, and in the playoffs, such terms go out the window.
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