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Defining Moments of the NBA Season: The Bulls’ Improbable Comeback Only Encourages Jim Boylen’s Inner Tryhard

Chicago’s coach learned the wrong message from its best win of the season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA is on hold for the foreseeable future. To help fill the void, we’re looking back at the defining moments of the 65-ish games of the 2019-20 season so far.

The Chicago Bulls did not enjoy a happy 2019-20 season; they were so miserable, in fact, that they recently overhauled the front office. The Bulls never had a winning record at any point and were an unimaginably terrible 2-23 against teams that were .500 or better, the worst such mark in the league. Their longest winning streak all season was two games long. Their top three frontcourt players all missed extended stretches due to injury.

Yet for one night—45 seconds, really—in front of a stunned crowd in Charlotte, the Bulls were the hottest, and surprisingly happiest, team in the league.

The mayhem began with 45 seconds left, with the Bulls trailing by eight. Coach Jim Boylen called a timeout, and the Bulls’ offensive play log unfolded as follows the rest of the way:

  • Made 3 by Zach LaVine
  • Made 3 by LaVine
  • Made layup by Coby White
  • Made 3 by Tomas Satoransky
  • Made 3 by LaVine

Charlotte went 5-for-6 from the free throw line down the stretch and turned the ball over just once—and still lost the lead in less than a minute. That turnover and that final LaVine 3 both came in a breathless stretch: The Bulls forced a steal under their own basket, but instead of rising for a short 2-pointer to tie the score, LaVine ducked his head and dribbled out past the 3-point line before rising for a fadeaway triple.

“Oh … no … YOU’RE KIDDING!” lamented the Hornets TV broadcast. And it truly seemed like a joke—not just the comeback, not just the audacity of a game-winning fadeaway 3, but the overall performance that shot capped.

LaVine finished with 49 points and shot 13-for-17 from distance. In NBA history, the list of players to make 13 3s in a game is just three names long: Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and now LaVine, who has in his NBA career displayed moments of extraordinary, if frustratingly untapped, potential, with scorching scoring performances weathered by inattentive defense and poor creation for teammates. This season, LaVine posted six 40-point games, including this outburst in Charlotte; only James Harden, Trae Young, Bradley Beal, and Damian Lillard had more.

Yet the impact of the Bulls’ comeback extended well beyond simply confirming LaVine’s abilities or giving the team an ultimately meaningless plus-one in the win column. The funnier joke was how the Charlotte win influenced Boylen the rest of the season. See, the victorious coach reasoned, if the Bulls could overcome ludicrously long odds to come back in one game, then why couldn’t they do so again in future games?

So after the Hornets game, Boylen called the following timeouts, none of them for the simple reason of inserting subs at the end of a sure defeat, and none of them coming close to sparking another comeback win:

  • Down 20 against Portland with 1:27 left
  • Down 11 against Charlotte with 1:02 left
  • Down 8 against Orlando with 36 seconds left
  • Down 13 against Dallas with 1:14 left
  • Down 10 against Indiana with 1:06 left
  • Down 25 against Toronto with 1:04 left
  • Down 8 against Philadelphia with 28 seconds left—and then down 7 with 10 seconds left in the same game
  • Down 12 against Washington with 42 seconds left
  • Down 10 against Phoenix with 30 seconds left
  • Down 9 against Indiana with 48 seconds left

Boylen said he viewed these final moments as teaching opportunities, allowing his young team to play all 48 minutes, but he also admitted the Charlotte influence on these decisions. “We were down eight with 40 seconds to go in Charlotte and won. So it does happen,” he said after the timeout against Phoenix. “But I can see where people would think it’s unnecessary.”

Was the timeout against the Suns unnecessary? Reader, you decide: After that timeout, the Bulls were fouled, made two free throws to cut the deficit to eight, and then let the Suns run the game clock all the way down to one second with a shot clock violation. They lost by eight.

Other times, Boylen’s late timeout calls sparked anger rather than mere bewilderment. He was booed in Philadelphia, and upon the timeout against Toronto, Raptors TV analyst Jack Armstrong ranted, “What are you doing? Seriously, what strategy are you talking? It’s a 25-point blowout. There’s a minute, four [seconds] left. It’s Super Bowl Sunday. I want to get out of here!”

As the timeout continued and Boylen began diagramming on a whiteboard, the inanity of the situation rendered Armstrong essentially speechless: “What strategic adjustment are you making stuck 25? Come on, man. This is just … that’s … you know, this is—look, come on, really? You really need to run a play here?”

Perhaps the one person more irritated by Boylen’s timeouts was his own best player, ironically the very person whose heroics might have inspired all those late calls: LaVine. As the timeout against Toronto was signaled, LaVine, sitting on the bench at the end of a blowout loss, shook his head and asked, “Why?”

And after the timeout against Phoenix, he appeared to mouth a question on the court: “Why would we call a timeout down fucking 10?”

When reporters asked LaVine about his frustration, he said of Boylen, “That’s what he does. I’m not the coach.” Yet little did LaVine realize that his coach had influenced him after all. In the first round of the NBA 2K Players Tournament this month, LaVine lost by a wide margin to Deandre Ayton. He didn’t call a timeout, but he still extended the game near the end, in a fashion his real-life self might not appreciate: Trailing by 15 points with five seconds remaining, LaVine called for an intentional foul.