If the Chicago Bulls were hoping to set a tone to open the 2023-24 season, they picked a bleak one.
For nearly three quarters Wednesday at the United Center, they hung tight with a young Oklahoma City Thunder squad. With a little more than three minutes left in the third quarter, the Bulls trailed by one.
But in a matter of minutes, calamity struck. Nikola Vučević sacrificed two points via technical free throws earned by talking back to the referees. A handful of jumpers later and the Thunder suddenly led by nine.
The quarter ended, giving the Bulls time to compose themselves. Instead they allowed the Thunder to sink three consecutive 3-pointers to open the final quarter, sinking into the sludge of a 16-point deficit they couldn’t overcome.
Fans exited early from the season opener as the Bulls lost 124-104.
Here are six takeaways from the game.
1. Zach LaVine suffered a slow start.
LaVine was eager to start fresh after entering last season hindered by a slow recovery from knee surgery. But his first outing was similarly sluggish as he struggled to find his shot.
LaVine went 0-for-4 from the field in the first half, scoring all six of his points on free throws. He sat the last 10 minutes of the half after picking up three fouls and turning the ball over four times.
After opening the second half with a 3-pointer, LaVine’s off shooting night continued. He finished 4-for-16 from the field and 2-for-9 behind the arc. And despite working to the rim consistently in the first half, he wasn’t able to earn another free throw in the second half, finishing with 16 points.
2. The Bulls showed solid 3-point shooting quantity but lacked quality.
The Bulls entered the season with one main offensive goal: take more 3-pointers.
That improvement was quickly made. The Bulls took 42 3-pointers Wednesday. The problem was none of those shots fell with regularity. The Bulls went 6-for-23 in the first half from behind the arc; they finished 12-for-42. With the Thunder shooting 19-for-39, it was nearly impossible for the Bulls to keep pace on the offensive end.
“There wasn’t really a rhythm,” LaVine said. “It might not have been the right shot at the right time. So I think we’ve gotta work at that because once you get down, you start forcing things to get back into the game, see what works, what doesn’t. At that point, the game was a struggle.”
DeMar DeRozan took three attempts from behind the arc (finishing 1-for-3) to maintain an uptick in his long-range shooting volume from the preseason. He was one of only three players to finish above 30% from behind the arc. Torrey Craig went 3-for-4 and Ayo Dosunmu went 2-for-4, with both of his makes coming in garbage time.
LaVine went 2-for-9 from behind the arc, Coby White 2-for-7 and Patrick Williams finished 0-for-4.
3. A poor finish elicited a team meeting.
Frustration was high after the loss, leading players to ask coach Billy Donovan to give them space for conversation immediately following the game.
Vučević described the conversation as “constructive” and necessary, with players voicing their opinions without yelling or losing control.
“I think it’s good that we had those,” Vučević said. “It was needed. It was just regular discussions of what needed to be done. It wasn’t nothing crazy, no fighting, none of that. Just really constructive. It’s maybe one of the first times since I’ve been here that it was like this and it was really needed.”
But the immediate necessity for intense conversation reflected the poor footing the Bulls are on to start the season.
4. The offense succeeded in two key areas.
The Bulls are judging their offense by two other key statistics this season: offensive rebounds and free throws. Both help to capture the intensity with which the Bulls are attacking the paint and the rim, which is key to balancing the floor and creating more 3-point opportunities.
Both statistics were positive for the Bulls in the opener. They matched the Thunder with 18 free throw attempts (Oklahoma City went 15-for-18, Chicago went 14-for-18). And the Bulls out-rebounded the Thunder 13-5 on the offensive boards to tally 19 second-chance points.
5. A tepid start for Patrick Williams.
No player will fall under a more focused microscope this season than Patrick Williams, whose first outing was relatively lukewarm.
Williams was the only starter to not tally double-digit scoring, finishing with eight points. But he also recorded a -3 +/- rating — second only to LaVine among starters — in part due to his consistent defending, which included two steals.
Williams still lacked some of the physicality the Bulls hope to draw out of him. He didn’t record a rebound until midway through the third quarter and did not draw a foul. But several of his athletic moves to the basket showcased a baseline for how he can make an impact as a starter.
6. Andre Drummond welcomed Chet Holmgren to the NBA.
Every NBA player has a “welcome to the league” story — that moment when they went toe-to-toe with a professional for the first time and ended up worse for the wear.
For Thunder star Chet Holmgren, that moment came Wednesday at the hands of Bulls center Andre Drummond.
This is technically a rookie season for Holmgren, who missed last season with a foot injury after he was selected No. 2 overall in the 2022 NBA draft. Holmgren recorded a strong rookie debut with 11 points — but he also hit the deck attempting to guard Drummond in the second quarter.
Drummond poked the ball out of Holmgren’s hands at the top of the key, then took the ball full-court, crossing up Holmgren and sending the 7-footer tumbling to the hardwood on his way to the rim for a layup.
The play was a highlight in a solid night from Drummond, who finished with six points and five rebounds off the bench.