Bulls

10 observations: Bulls’ Big 3 prevails in MSG thriller

Bulls

Bulls. Knicks. Madison Square Garden.

Even for an early-December regular-season game, Thursday’s 119-115 Chicago victory at New York had an electric feel. In it, a dominant Bulls first half gave way to some enthralling haymaker tossing in quarters three and four.

But in the end, it was the big three of DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević that prevailed, pulling the Bulls in front in this season series 2-1.

Here are 10 observations:

1. Fresh off his best performance of the season against Charlotte, Vučević wasted no time getting involved against the Knicks. He took the Bulls’ first three shots of the evening, and scored their first seven points, tallying 13 points in nine first-quarter minutes. He made five of his seven field-goal attempts, swishing a 3-pointer, finishing two putback tip-ins and hammering home this slam:

Vučević rinsed and repeated by scoring the team’s first five points of the second half, then later in the third quarter buried a 3-pointer to extend the Bulls’ lead to four after New York trimmed their deficit 79-78. Down the stretch, he canned another two triples to finish with 27 points on 10-for-18 shooting, 5-for-9 from 3-point range — his second 20-point outing in a row after entering the Hornets game with just one on the season.

Don’t look now, but the Bulls are prioritizing Vučević's involvement, and he might just be finding his footing offensively; tonight’s performance raised his season-long field-goal percentage to 43.1 and his season-long 3-point percentage to 36.1. That’s a welcome sight for the Bulls and fans, alike.

 

2. It’s not often you see 37-point quarters against Tom Thibodeau-coached defenses, but the Bulls produced one in this game’s first 12 minutes. Vučević (13 points) and LaVine (11) combined to outscore the Knicks as a team, and the Bulls tallied 10 points off eight New York turnovers in the first quarter, dominating the hosts at both ends en route to a 37-19 advantage entering the second.

By halftime, the Bulls tied a season-high for points in a half with 69, matching their first-half total Monday against Charlotte and second-half total on Nov. 1 at Boston. Through two quarters, the Bulls were shooting 57.4 percent (5-for-11 from 3-point range) and had scored 16 points off turnovers.

3. The Bulls have been a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde team in third quarters this season; though they entered play on Thursday having won three third periods in a row, recent losses to the Trail Blazers and Rockets saw poor third quarters portend brutal defeats. 

The Knicks threatened them with a similar fate by dialing up their ball pressure and starting the second half on a 27-10 run — eventually winning the third quarter 32-20 and holding the Bulls to 34.8 percent shooting while going 6-for-10 from 3-point range in their own right. That turned an 18-point halftime lead into 89-83 Bulls entering the fourth.

4. Then, it was DeRozan to the rescue — as it's been on so many nights this season. He submitted his seventh 30-spot in a Bulls uniform with 34 points on 12-for-19 shooting, and 18 of those points (6-for-7 shooting) came in the fourth quarter, including the Bulls’ first 10 points of the period as he buoyed a reserve-laden lineup.

In typical fashion, DeRozan shot 80 percent (8-for-10) from midrange in the contest, 4-for-5 in the fourth, and made 10 of 11 free-throw attempts. He has now scored 165 fourth-quarter points with 52.8/45.5/90.2 percent shooting splits this season, 22 points better than Jayson Tatum for first in the NBA, and 23 points better than LaVine (142) in third.

5. LaVine’s 27 points on 9-for-18 shooting (3-for-6 from 3-point land) meant that, for the second game in a row, the Bulls’ big three of LaVine, DeRozan and Vučević all cleared 25 points. Against Charlotte, the trio combined for 83 points. Against the Knicks: 88. 

Better yet, they showed out down the stretch. Between DeRozan’s 18 fourth-quarter points, Vučević’s two 3s, and a massive stepback and four free throws from LaVine, those three combined to score all 30 of the Bulls’ fourth-quarter points.

6. The Bulls were outscored 32-30 in that fourth quarter, but this game marks another example of improved late-game execution compared to last season, when clutch situations often confounded them. After the Knicks pulled ahead 108-107 on a Randle floater with 3 minutes, 18 seconds remaining, the Bulls won the stretch run 10-6 behind multiple key stops, four charity-strip trips and a difficult stepback from LaVine, and a driving lay-in and free throws from DeRozan.

 

7. Alex Caruso dominated his minutes the only way Alex Caruso knows how: By doing it all. 

In his first stint, Caruso drew multiple offensive fouls (including one on a moving screen that led to a Taj Gibson outburst and early ejection), handed out three assists, swiped a steal and scored four points, including this thunderous alley-oop finish on the fastbreak.

He added another forced turnover and two assists early in the second before ending his first stint at nine minutes. Then, with Lonzo Ball picking up his third foul seconds later, Caruso checked right back in, continuing to make an impact en route to 17 first-half ticks.

In the fourth quarter, he came up massive on multiple occasions again, swiping three steals — two of which immediately made up for turnovers of his own, and the third a strip of Julius Randle with 56 seconds left and the game tied 111-111. LaVine and DeRozan rattled off six straight points after that takeaway to seal the contest.

Caruso’s final stat line couldn’t have been concocted more symmetrically by a screen-writer; in 31 minutes, he tallied six points, six assists, six rebounds, four steals and was a game-high plus-21 in a four-point victory.

8. Mitchell Robinson was quiet in the first half, but came alive against the Bulls undersized frontcourt in quarters three and four, making three of four field-goal attempts on the interior and blocking three shots (five for the game). His rim-protection and size, plus the 3-point shooting of Evan Fournier (3-for-7 in the second half) and Immanuel Quickley (3-for-5), were crucial factors in New York’s comeback bid.

9. For the third game in a row, Ball, who struggled with his shot en route to a 2-for-10 night from behind the arc, found himself in foul trouble by picking up his third personal early in the second and his fourth early in the third. That underscores the Achilles heel for what’s been a really sturdy Bulls defensive unit all season: Over-fouling. 

The Bulls entered play 27th in the NBA in opponent free-throw rate, and in this game’s fourth quarter, put the Knicks in the bonus with over eight minutes to play. This trend is a product of a hyper-active defensive identity, and often playing at a size disadvantage, so it’s no shock to see it pop up against a formidable Knicks frontline. Randle, in related news, again put up a gaudy stat line of 30 points, 12 rebounds and six assists (though timely double-teams also forced him into seven turnovers).

But the good news is the Bulls nearly held serve in the free-throw department on Thursday, going 20-for-21 from the charity stripe to the Knicks’ 22-for-27.

 

10. Troy Brown Jr. stepped back into the rotation with Coby White recovering from COVID-19 — and, to his credit, the fourth-year wing made an impact. In the second quarter, Brown Jr. wrestled a loose ball from Knicks guard Alec Burks, put back an offensive rebound and buried an open catch-and-shoot 3 off a feed from Vučević. All told, he finished with five points (2-for-2 shooting), two rebounds and a steal in nine minutes. It was all the Bulls could have asked for, and a nice example of staying ready for when your number is called.

With the result, the Bulls moved to 15-8 on the season and into sole possession of the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

Next up: At the top-seeded Brooklyn Nets (15-6) on Saturday.

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