Zach LaVine returned to the Chicago Bulls lineup against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night at the United Center after sitting out his third game of the season, playing the second half of a back-to-back. But the All-Star guard couldn’t offset injuries across the roster in a 114-109 loss.
The Bulls followed a familiar script in their second straight defeat — falling behind by 19 points in the first half, then spending the rest of the game attempting to dig out of the hole. Despite erasing the deficit and taking a five-point lead in the second half, they couldn’t hold off Joel Embiid, who sank a game-winning 3-pointer with 18.1 seconds left, and the 76ers escaped with the win.
DeMar DeRozan led the Bulls with 24 points, LaVine scored 20 and Nikola Vučević had 23 points and 19 rebounds for the Bulls, who fell to 3-4.
Seven games into the season, they have won only two first quarters.
“For whatever reason, we can’t find our way starting some of these games,” coach Billy Donovan said after the loss. “We’ve got to figure that out because it probably took until midway through the second quarter to really start to play to the style and to an identity that is how we’re trying to play.”
LaVine is still at least several weeks away from returning to full strength as he continues to ramp up from undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in the offseason. But his availability will be key as the Bulls face the first serious test of their depth early in the season.
The Bulls faced the Sixers without starting point guard Ayo Dosunmu (thoracic contusion) and Andre Drummond (left shoulder strain). Both players could miss at least one more game, with Dosunmu’s injury posing a longer-term concern.
Dosunmu briefly entered the concussion protocol during Friday’s road loss to the San Antonio Spurs after slipping and smashing his head into the knee of Spurs forward Keldon Johnson. Although Dosunmu was cleared to return in the fourth quarter, the blow created extreme soreness and stiffness in his upper back and neck.
“It’s just a really hard time mobility-wise,” Donovan said before the Sixers game.
Drummond faced a similar status after spraining his shoulder in the third quarter Friday. The injury occurred when Spurs forward Josh Collins challenged Drummond on a drive to the basket, sending the center crashing to the court.
“Certainly the way he fell, just the noise of him hitting the floor, he’s a big guy going down like that,” Donovan said. “In the time I’ve been around him, he’s a very tough guy. He’s a guy who likes to play. … It’s not something that the medical guys seem to be concerned about.”
Although both players were able to return against the Spurs, Donovan said the Bulls are electing to be cautious with players this week, especially when their mobility is affected.
Drummond could return in “a few days,” but Dosunmu’s return could take longer as he will not be cleared until his mobility returns to normal.
“All these guys, Andre, even Zach, these guys want to play,” Donovan said. “But sometimes when you’re watching them with your eyes and you’re seeing that they’re not quite doing the things that they normally do, there’s a detriment to keeping them out there.”
Dosunmu and Drummond have been two of the most critical players for the Bulls this season. As the fill-in starting point guard — who could remain in the position until Lonzo Ball returns — Dosunmu is averaging 12.5 points on 50.8% shooting, 4.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists.
While Drummond isn’t a big-time scorer — he is averaging nine points — his 10.2 rebounds account for nearly one-quarter of the Bulls’ total per game (44.2). Drummond had season highs of 17 points and 14 rebounds Friday against the Spurs.
Against teams like the Sixers, who boast dominant a center in Embiid, the loss of Drummond radically changes the way the Bulls can approach their offense. The Bulls struggled to contain Embiid without Drummond, allowing the star a team-high 25 points.
“It always takes a little bit of time, but I’ve seen (Drummond make) a lot of progress and growth in terms of how we’re playing, what we do,” Donovan said. “He’s getting more and more comfortable to play in that way. … For him, it’s probably not as normal to be spaced out as much as he’s been, but it’s also generated a lot of good things for him on rolls and for other guys on screening actions.”
Without the two players, the Bulls already are digging deep into their bench for alternative options at point guard and center.
The loss demonstrated the importance of bench depth. The Bulls’ trio of All-Stars still dominated against the Sixers, but with their rotation disrupted, the bench scored only 22 points.
The upcoming stretch — which likely will include LaVine sitting for one game of another back-to-back this week — will test the Bulls bench again.