PHILADELPHIA — Center Joel Embiid finished with 43 points, 14 rebounds and three blocked shots for the 76ers on Monday night.
His partner in crime, shooting guard James Harden, had 16 points and had 14 assists and eight rebounds.
Not bad for the second-best duo on the pitch. At least, that’s how Bulls guard Zach LaVine saw it, even after a 121-106 loss that gave the 76ers a series sweep this season and extended the Bulls’ slippage to five games.
“We have to figure out how to win some of these games,” LaVine said afterwards. “I’ll take me and DeMar [DeRozan] against anyone around the world. I’m very attached to that, and I still am. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t win matches. We have to start going out and putting some of those Ws in place.
There’s a narrative the Bulls — now 39-26 and in fourth place in the Eastern Conference after coming out 1-5 from the All-Star break — just can’t escape: They’re a combined 0- 9 against the three teams ahead of them in the East – 0-4 against the 76ers, 0-3 against the Heat and 0-2 against the Bucks. They are also a combined 0-5 against the conference-leading Warriors, Grizzlies and Suns in the West.
The only wins they have over teams with a winning percentage of .600 or higher are one over the Mavericks on Nov. 10 and one over the Jazz on Oct. 30. They are combined 2-15 against real competing teams.
Center Tristan Thompson, who won a championship with the Cavaliers in 2016, pointed out that the Hawks have beaten this Cavaliers team all season, but the Cavaliers turned it around and “kicked their team” . [butt]in the playoffs. His point was that the Bulls don’t panic over regular season results.
Told that those Bulls don’t have LeBron James, Thompson sued.
“We have a lot of good players,” he said. “We have a ‘Big Three’ which is really [expletive] Well. And they are [expletive] All stars. i think it’s about you [reporters] to create that narrative regardless of our record. We just have to ask ourselves: ‘How can we improve?’ each day.”
It will be difficult to do with another key player down. Big man Nikola Vucevic missed Monday’s game with a strained right hamstring.
Thompson got the start against Embiid but, like many greats who face him, eventually got in trouble. More troubling than that is how consistently this group — shorthanded or otherwise — continues to let the league’s best teams beat them: too many fouls, too many untimely turnovers, too many bad shots when it counts.
In fact, a night without Vucevic couldn’t have started better. The Bulls’ starters came out with urgency, especially on defense, and knocked the 76ers off eight points and looked for a rhythm for the first eight minutes of the first quarter.
The 76ers found it, thanks to the Bulls bench. In the last four minutes of the quarter, they turned the deficit into a five-point lead. The Bulls had a few points but never came close to threat again.
And now ?
Bulls coach Billy Donovan wants everyone to look in the mirror, starting with himself, to figure out how to fix what’s broken.
LaVine said it was about finding an identity.
“It’s not the end of the world,” he said. “We have to go out there and compete, and find an identity with whoever is on the pitch.”