How the Bulls will remember Donovan Mitchell’s record-setting night

From the Chicago Bulls’ perspective, there are three ways to assess Donovan Mitchell’s record-setting scoring assault.

There was the good, the bad and the ugly.

Most outsiders likely will lock in on the last two after the Bulls’ 145-134 overtime loss Monday at Cleveland. And rightfully so. It was Chicago’s loudest fiasco in a season in which they’ve piled fast before even the halfway point.

Mitchell, a three-time All-Star in his first season with the Cavs, erupted for a career- and NBA-season-high 71 points. He set a Bulls franchise record for the most points scored by an opposing player. Mitchell also tied Elgin Baylor and David Robinson for the eighth-most points scored by an individual player in NBA history, netting the most since Kobe Bryant’s legendary 81-point performance in 2006.

Powered by Mitchell scoring 55 points in the second half and overtime, Cleveland crafted a 21-point come-from-behind victory. It too was the largest in the NBA this season, punctuating the stark difference between the Bulls before halftime and the head-shaking display they assembled afterwards.

The good

Perhaps the mere mention of anything the Bulls did well Monday is pointless to most given the outcome. But context is important.

Chicago crafted arguably its best first half this season. The Bulls’ second-half collapse then exposed their maddening and season-long inconsistency. But for the first 24 minutes, they played like the best version of themselves. The sting of a one-point home loss to the Cavs two nights earlier clearly had not subsided, and the Bulls almost used that fuel to turn Monday’s rematch into a blowout.

The Bulls built a 15-point lead early in the second quarter. With 1:50 remaining in the first half, they led 60-39.

Each of the nine Bulls who saw playing time in the first quarter scored. They dished eight assists on their first 13 shots, led by exquisite early passing from Zach LaVine, who had four in the quarter, finished with a team-high six and surpassed 2,000 for his career. Defensively, the Bulls were more impressive.

Cleveland’s 47 points β€” which came on 36 shots β€” set a Bulls opponent’s season low for the first half. Mitchell had a relatively quiet 16 points on 5-for-10 shooting, along with three assists against three turnovers at that point. The Bulls were doing a good job playing stout defense, rotating on passes, closing out to shooters and shutting down possessions with defensive rebounds. They turned defense into offense, converting eight Cavs turnovers into 13 points. The Bulls committed only two turnovers in the first half and went into the locker room with an 18-point advantage.

It was as close to a perfect half of basketball as the Bulls have come. But then the horn sounded for the second half.

The bathroom

Cleveland’s onslaught didn’t begin immediately. For the first four minutes of the third quarter, the Bulls maintained their 18-point halftime lead.

But that’s when the officials started blowing their whistles.

The Cavs orchestrated their comeback the old-fashioned way: by getting to the free-throw line. Cleveland outshot Chicago 18-6 on free-throw attempts in the third quarter. Mitchell alone doubled the Bulls’ attempts, going 12-for-12 on foul shots in the quarter. He finished 20-for-25.

The NBA’s Last Two-Minute Report will not reveal the accuracy of any third-quarter calls. A two-minute window inside the quarter’s final five minutes, however, showed a difference in the official’s judgment at each end. With 4:44 remaining, DeMar DeRozan crashed to the court after a no-call but clear contact on a reverse layup. Two minutes later, Mitchell strode to the stripe again after Derrick Jones Jr. was whistled for a foul with minimal lower body contact while sliding his feet in an attempt to shut off Mitchell’s drive.

Behind a parade of free throws, Cleveland slowly cut into the Bulls’ lead while destroying all of Chicago’s rhythm and momentum. It completely changed the complexion of the game. The Cavs got within two in the final minute of the third before entering the fourth quarter trailing by only five.

Cleveland outscored the Bulls 44-31 in the quarter. The Bulls committed 12 fouls in the period, matching the number they had in the first half.

The ugly

Anyone can point to the lopsided foul calls in the third as a leading reason this one got away β€” and many will.

But one also must acknowledge all the careless and costly things the Bulls did in the aftermath that bit them as much or more.

Stay with the team’s fouling for a moment. In the opening minute of the fourth quarter, Jones clearly fouled Mitchell on a 3-pointer. The fundamental principle of not fouling jump shooters gets ignored almost nightly by the Bulls. Alex Caruso made matters worse by committing back-to-back lane violations on Mitchell’s attempts, giving him four chances to make three. Mitchell made two, sinking one after Caruso’s miscue.

The Bulls allowed eight offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter and overtime, leading to 13 Cavs second-chance points. The defensive effort seen in the first half disappeared. In another nip-and-tuck affair for the Bulls, they let Cleveland score 22 paint points in the fourth quarter, watching them convert 11 of 14 attempts.

By the time a missed free-throw-line box-out led to the play of the game, the Bulls had no one to blame but themselves. For their own lack of attention to detail. For their inability to weather a storm. For the continued display of in-game immaturity.

Mitchell made magic happen with three seconds remaining in regulation to save the Cavs and send it to overtime. Down three, he intentionally missed the second of two free throws after making the first. Miraculously, he caught the ricochet of the miss and flipped a score-tying shot up and in while falling.

The league’s Last Two-Minute Report on Tuesday might say Mitchell should have been called for a lane violation. Videos show him clearly stepping into the lane before the ball hits the rim.

But the Bulls should have never been in that position.

(Photo of Donovan Mitchell, Ayo Dosunmu and Nikola Vucevic: Jason Miller / Getty Images)


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