Column: Chicago Bulls suffer back-to-back blowout losses — and Zach LaVine’s knee injury. How will they respond?

It was only a matter of time before the Chicago Bulls got some national TV exposure.

Midway into a season that has surprised all the experts, they found themselves in the spotlight this week with a pair of ESPN games at the United Center against the Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors.

But after brutal back-to-back losses and an injury to star Zach LaVine, it was clear to all the Bulls were not ready for their close-up.

After LaVine left 3½ minutes into Friday’s game with a left knee injury, the Bulls imploded in living color with a 138-96 loss to the Warriors two nights after a 26-point drubbing by the Nets.

Two big games. Two blowout losses by a combined 68 points. Two straight in which they allowed 138 points.

Not exactly a great way to start the first real stretch of “prove it” games for the Bulls, who licked their wounds and flew to Boston afterward for Saturday’s matchup against the Celtics. The Bulls had no time to feel sorry for themselves and really could say nothing to explain why a team that had climbed into the Eastern Conference lead over the last month fell flat on its face on its homecourt before a shellshocked crowd and national TV audience.

The biggest concern was the status of LaVine, who stayed in Chicago to have an MRI on his left knee. Coach Billy Donovan said LaVine “came down on it a little funny” on an offensive rebound.

LaVine was able to walk off the court, and though the extent of the injury was unknown, it didn’t look as if it would be a long-term issue.

“It was a shock to all of us,” DeMar DeRozan said. “Hopefully he’s all right. Definitely check on him once I get out of here.”

Donovan said LaVine, like many other players this time of year, has played with “different issues” in games.

“But obviously nothing significant that was holding him out of games or anything like that,” Donovan said, declining to speculate on the seriousness of the injury.

It was a night to forget for the Bulls, playing in one of the most anticipated games of the 2021-22 season and looking like the version we’ saw during the ill-fated Fred Hoiberg and Jim Boylen eras. The Warriors were missing Draymond Green, out with a calf injury, and Klay Thompson, who was held out in the second game of back-to-backs in his return to play after a 2½-year absence.

But it didn’t matter against a Bulls team that looked as clueless as it did Wednesday in its 138-112 loss to the Nets. Troy Brown Jr., starting for the injured Derrick Jones Jr., had no points in 27 minutes, while Ayo Dosunmu, who came in for LaVine, was held scoreless in 31 minutes, 48 seconds. Lonzo Ball had five of the Bulls’ 14 turnovers.

In their two-games against the Warriors this season, the Bulls lost by an average of 34 points. And it doesn’t get an easier in the next week. On Monday they’ll face a Memphis Grizzlies team that went into Friday night with an 11-game winning streak, and they’ll travel to Milwaukee on Friday to play the defending NBA champion Bucks.

DeRozan said it’s all about how they respond to adversity after the back-to-back beatings.

“We’re going to see what we’re made of,” he said.

The Bulls are 27-13 and still lead the Eastern Conference despite losing three of four. But teams are stepping up their games against them for the first time in years.

“As they should,” DeRozan said. “And we’ve got to realize that. We’ve got to understand it’s going to be a challenge every single night, no matter who we’re playing. We can’t just sit back and think because we’re on top of our conference teams are going to lay down or we’re just going to put out wins.

“It’s going to get harder and harder from here on out, no matter who we’re playing. We’re going to get every single team’s best effort. Now we’ve got to take it to the next level, and that’s the growing curve for us to really understand what the next level is like.

“It really sucks being banged up. But who cares? We’ve got to figure it out.”

Trailing 37-28 after the first quarter, the Bulls opened the second with Coby White watching Jonathan Kuminga blow past him in the lane for a resounding slam. That was the beginning of the end. Stephen Curry, held to two points in the first, hit a midrange jumper over Ball and came back with a 3-pointer on the next possession to build the lead to 18 points four minutes into the quarter. The Warriors shot 57.7% from the field in the first half to build a 78-47 lead, scoring 21 of their points off 11 Bulls turnovers.

The sellout crowd of 21,174 was pumped up at the outset but booed the team off the floor at the half after watching the hideous defensive display and ballhandling. Donovan sent in the scrubs late to finish things, with Matt Thomas, Devon Dotson and Marko Simonović getting minutes.

Donovan said there were no excuses, and the loss of LaVine to an already short-handed roster didn’t mean they couldn’t play solid defense, rebound better or communicate consistently. He said other teams are dealing with losses in this latest COVID-19 surge, and no one will feel sorry for the Bulls. Donovan also pointed a finger at himself and his assistants.

“We’ve got to coach it better and we’ve got to help them more,” he said. “I’ve got to look at film. It’s been two games in a row. I’ve got to figure out ways of ‘How can I help the group?’ Because there may be ways, to be quite honest, that I’m asking them to do things defensively, man-to-man, that it may be hard for us to do.”

Donovan and executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas have been praised for the team’s turnaround, and Bulls President Michael Reinsdorf even chimed in this week in an ESPN interview.

“Listen, this isn’t a victory lap, but it’s nice to be relevant and in the mix in games that are intense and matter,” Reinsdorf said. “We have a lot of work to do, but we’re happy where we’re at so far.”

The Bulls have a lot more work to do now. And with the Feb. 10 trade deadline, all eyes will be on Karnišovas to see whether he’ll add some muscle to a roster with only one consistent rebounder in Nikola Vučević.

Even good teams sometimes hit the wall come January, as DeRozan knows well. It’s a challenge both physically and mentally during the grind of an NBA season.

“I try not to believe in it, but at some point in the season every team is going to have the hump they’ve got to get over,” DeRozan said. “We’re at that point, and we’ve got to get over it. … I’d rather us understand our struggle now than later.

“We can learn a lot from getting our butt kicked and pull through it.”

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