June 22, 2024

CHICAGO — When Chicago Bulls coach Billy Donovan walked into the locker room following his team’s 124-104 season-opening loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Bulls players were already in the middle of a discussion and asked their coach if they could have the room to talk among themselves.

“Guys want to win,” Bulls guard Zach LaVine said after Wednesday’s game. “You put up a game like this in game 1, you’re going to have some conversations. Guys are frustrated and you should be. … It’s a good thing, but sucks that it happened game 1. It happened, and we got to go from there.”

A players-only meeting after the first game is not how Chicago envisioned the start of their season after bringing back the core of its roster. The Bulls brought back their top seven players by minutes played from last season, adding a pair of reserves in Jevon Carter and Torrey Craig, but otherwise doubling down on the continuity of its roster.

However, the Bulls were overmatched by the Thunder on Wednesday night. Chicago led 35-33 after the first quarter but scored just 69 points over the final three periods. The Bulls had no answer for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who finished with 31 points, 10 assists and five rebounds. DeMar DeRozan led the Bulls with 20 points.

“We just didn’t respond once they did that run in the second half,” said LaVine, who finished with 16 points on 4-of-16 shooting. “Wasn’t a great showing from us. Didn’t shoot the ball well. Don’t feel like we played with enough heart. And that’s on us. Terrible way to come out and start the season, but it gives us opportunity to bounce back the next game.”

The locker room wasn’t the only place where Bulls players aired out their feelings on Wednesday night.

On the team bench during the third quarter, Donovan and center Nikola Vucevic got into a heated exchange. Vucevic acknowledged afterward that he expressed his feelings “maybe a little more aggressive than I should have.”

“Those happen in the heat of the moment,” Vucevic said. “You’re trying to win, you’re trying to do what you can to help your team win. I didn’t like what was going on.”

Donovan added: “I got all the respect in the world for Vooch. He felt a certain way and I said what I felt. And he’s probably not wrong for feeling the way he did, but how do you channel that in a way that galvanizes the group and lifts them up. In the moment, maybe I could’ve handled it better with him and maybe he could have handled it better with me. It wasn’t anything disrespectful or anything else. I think he was just kind of frustrated with the way we were playing, and I didn’t blame him.”

Despite the two exchanges, Donovan said he was happy with the way the Bulls were discussing their issues on Wednesday night, especially compared to what he called a quiet group last season. The Bulls missed the playoffs last season after losing in the play-in tournament and are trying to produce better results with a roster that is nearly identical.

So while Donovan stopped short of calling the postgame locker-room session a team meeting, he did say he was happy the Bulls were starting to have difficult conversations early in the season.

“I’m not going to sit there and say that it was bad, like people were tearing up the locker room,” Donovan said. “It was nothing like that. They were in there talking. I walked in and they said, ‘Hey, Coach, can we talk?’ I said sure and I left.’

“There’s nothing personal about any of this stuff. These guys do care, and they want to be better, but they know there’s habits they’ve got to change, and they’ve got to break. And they’re talking about trying to do that collective as a group.”

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