DENVER — Zach LaVine’s focus entering Friday’s road matchup with the Denver Nuggets, which capped a five-game West Coast swing for the Chicago Bulls, was simple.
“We just wanted to end the road trip the right way,” LaVine said.
Mission accomplished. Behind some raucous fan involvement, and a fourth-quarter closeout speared by their stars, the Bulls bested the Nuggets 114-108, moving their record to 11-5 on the young season (3-2 on the trip).
Here are 10 observations:
1. When Nikola Jokić was ruled out just before tipoff with a wrist injury, it didn’t appear the Bulls would play at as much of a size disadvantage as they do on most nights; Denver started Monte Morris, Austin Rivers, Will Barton, Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green.
But Gordon bullied the Bulls in the first quarter nonetheless, tallying 10 points, four rebounds, two assists and a block in 10 minutes (en route to 28 points, nine rebounds and four assists on the night). The Nuggets went to him multiple times in the post for buckets over Javonte Green and LaVine — and when the Bulls brought two defenders to him on another possession, he hit a cutting Green for a layup.
2. Denver jumped out to a 22-12 lead midway through the first on the strength of Gordon’s aggressiveness and some really tough shotmaking, shooting 9-for-13 in the game’s first seven-and-a-half minutes. But, despite the hosts shooting 61 percent, the Bulls drew level 30-30 by the end of the frame, led by 10 points from LaVine.
3. At the end of a wonky first half the Bulls won 53-52, Derrick Jones Jr. was the team’s second-leading scorer behind LaVine. Looking comfortable again as the stopgap backup center, he tallied 10 points and seven rebounds (three offensive), burying a couple putbacks and flying out on the fastbreak for a loud dunk. Plus, after picking up five fouls apiece against the Lakers and Trail Blazers, he committed zero in his first 15 minutes. Crucial.
Jones Jr. added three dunks in the third quarter, but committed four fouls between the third and early fourth, finishing with 16 points and eight boards. Billy Donovan said both before and after the game that Jones Jr.’s defensive activity at the center spot has been a positive revelation in the stretch since Nikola Vučević tested positive for COVID-19. His dynamism as a roll threat is noteworthy too.
“If Vooch is on this trip, Derrick probably never gets that opportunity,” Donovan said of Jones Jr.’s offensive involvement as a roller. “And now that’s something he has some familiarity with.”
4. Nearly the entire Bulls supporting cast brought it in this one. Tony Bradley notched eight points, five rebounds and two assists two nights after looking lost in Portland. Ayo Dosunmu contributed 10 points, a whopping eight rebounds and two 3-pointers off the pine. Green and Alex Caruso’s box score lines don’t fully reflect it, but their disruptiveness, particularly at the defensive end, swung momentum at multiple points.
“The team is so locked in right now. I think we're really good with our roles,” LaVine said. “Everybody's really connected on the team right now, so I think we know the mission at hand and we're going out there and executing.”
5. The Bulls sprinted out to an 8-0 run to start the third quarter, and maintained a six-to-12 point advantage throughout the period, leading 88-78 entering the fourth. DeMar DeRozan came alive to score 10 in the frame after shooting 3-for-10 in the first half, while LaVine (12 points) and Jones Jr. (six) combined for 18 points and five thrilling jams.
6. Ball Arena came alive as well in that quarter, erupting into multiple ear-shattering “Let’s go Bulls!” chants. The first was catalyzed by a lockdown defensive possession by Caruso on Will Barton (he had another stunning sequence guarding Monte Morris earlier in the game), with more coming during Gordon free throws and a routine timeout stoppage.
It was downright jarring for a road arena, but a reminder of this team’s reach when firing on all cylinders.
“I haven't heard that before, so that was really cool for me,” LaVine said postgame. “I think the Bulls have obviously one of the best fanbases in sports, so when we come back around and we get the support from them I think it's incredible, especially on the road like that in a place like this.”
Added Jones Jr.: “Very fun. It’s different when the away crowd is chanting “Let’s go Bulls.’ I just never had that in my career. I’ve never gone to a city and that city’s chanting for my team.”
And Nuggets coach Michael Malone put the cherry on top: “I wasn’t sure if we were at the United Center or Ball Arena.”
7. This Denver team doesn’t quit, though. Aided by a flurry of Bulls turnovers, the hosts opened the fourth quarter on a 6-0 run, and at the 6:15 mark, trailed 94-90.
That’s when Green and LaVine took over. On one possession, Green corralled two offensive rebounds, resulting in a LaVine 3-pointer. Two possessions later, after LaVine followed a Facundo Campazzo 3 with another jumper to make it 99-93, Green jumped a passing lane for a steal, leading to a LaVine floater on the other end to make it 101-93 with 3:47 remaining. Green closed the last seven minutes of the game as the team’s de facto center.
“I love playing with Woo,” Jones Jr. said of Green, using his nickname. “I thought I had a ball of energy in me, but he different.”
8. Still, the Nuggets continued to punch back, trading buckets with the Bulls until the bitter end — even cutting their deficit to 110-108 with less than 20 seconds to play.
But LaVine brought counters to every haymaker they levied. The Bulls’ All-Star guard scored 12 of his 36 points in the fourth, shooting 5-for-7 from the floor and 2-for-2 from 3-point range. He made every array of jumper imaginable in a supreme display of shotmaking, from the firmly-set catch-and-shoot to contested, off-balance leaner.
“It’s remarkable to watch him,” Donovan said of LaVine. “He’s I think one of the best tough shotmakers in the league, and he’s comfortable doing it.”
9. DeRozan, too, was crucial down the stretch, scoring eight points on eight free-throw makes in the fourth — two on the possession following the Will Barton 3 that made it a two-point game late. The Bulls shot 24-for-24 from the foul line for the night, essential to winning as hard-fought a matchup as this.
And their prolific perimeter scoring duo combined for 20 of the team’s 26 points in the final frame. In the process, they became the fastest pair of teammates to each accrue 10 25-plus-point games since Jerry West and Elgin Baylor in 1962-63, per ESPN Stats and Information.
10. Coby White, evidently, is still finding his rhythm after recently returning from the torn labrum he sustained during the offseason. This is the most involved the third-year guard has been in his three games back — he got up seven shot attempts and three 3-pointers in 11 minutes — but his impact was negative; White missed six of his seven shot attempts (including two open layups) and all of his 3s, committing two turnovers in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter on a charge and wild pass operating in pick-and-roll.
Donovan tempered expectations on White coming back after five months away — and with limited live-action ramp-up — for a reason. He’s shot 1-for-11 from the floor since returning, and remains behind Dosunmu in the rotation for the time being.
And so the Bulls are both 11-5 and off the schneid after a tough loss in Portland.
“We're a resilient team. We're out here to come out here and complete the task, go out here and try to win each and every game,” LaVine said. “And if there's a bump in the road we respond the right way.”
Next up: Back home for the Knicks on Sunday.