Last season, the Chicago Bulls were the best with a slim margin and a ticking clock.
The Bulls had the fourth-best record in clutch games, going 25-16 while shooting 48.4 percent in such situations. DeMar DeRozan has become unbeatable, knocking down game-winning shots with an air of inevitability.
But this season, the outcome of a close game seems like a foregone conclusion. The Bulls entered their game against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night with the second-worst record (11-22) in clutch games — those with a margin of five or fewer points in the final five minutes.
It is enough to give a team whip. But DeRozan believes the cause is still confusion — even with less than five weeks left in the season.
“The valley just doesn’t change for us when we’re in those positions,” DeRozan told the Tribune. “Last year, we had everything going our way.”
At least on paper, the Bulls don’t look like such a bad clutch team. Their already low-volume 3-point shooting drops in accuracy in clutch situations to 25.3%, fourth-lowest in the league. But the rest of the Bulls’ clutch stats are average at worst — averaging in the top half of the league in made baskets (4) and rebounds (3.5) and in the top 10 in ball protection (0.8 turnover- uri), steals (0.7) and frees. -throw accuracy (83.5%).
There are some clear weaknesses. The Bulls allow the sixth-most field goals on record (2.7) in the clutch while grabbing the second-fewest offensive rebounds (0.7), often holding the Bulls to a slim margin.
“A lot of it came down to the final possession,” coach Billy Donovan said. “You can focus on those few moments where we can be better on both ends.”
DeRozan and Donovan feel the Bulls have been able to put themselves in positions to win. Despite opponents’ clear desire to double-team Zach LaVine and DeRozan, the Bulls have been able to put both players in shooting positions in many of their losses.
But in those close encounters, any mistake — a rebound, missed rebound or inaccurate pass — is enough to change the game.
“There were plays where we got the shot we wanted and missed,” DeRozan said, “when we don’t execute the play the way we wanted to. There are so many factors that go into it. If it was just one thing we could identify, we wouldn’t have made that mistake in the next game.”
The basics of late game strategy are simple: put the ball in the hands of your best players and let them win it. But LaVine and DeRozan couldn’t clear the Bulls.
That much was clear on Sunday loss to the Indiana Pacerswhen LaVine scored nine points in the final 5 minutes, 12 seconds only for the Bulls to fall 125-122 when Tyrese Haliburton hit a game-winning 3-pointer from a step inside the logo.
The offense has often stalled when DeRozan and LaVine try to lean too much into hero ball in the final minutes, allowing opponents to swarm both stars. But the Bulls struggle to use their entire roster in decisive situations.
“It’s easy to say we can go down, shoot the ball, have the ball in our hands, but we have to understand how to use our teammates,” DeRozan said.
Whether he missed or made a game-winning shot, DeRozan said his confidence never wavered in the final minutes of games. But that belief must extend to the rest of the team if the Bulls are going to get the wins they need to sneak into the play-in tournament.
“So many of those instances came up where a play, a foul, a jumper just didn’t go our way,” DeRozan said. “But you can’t look at it like, ‘Ah, we’re at it again.’ We can’t do that. We try to go out there and win every new game. We can’t imagine what it was like. You just fight.”