On Nov. 22, the Indiana Pacers visited the United Center and left with a dominant 109-77 victory.
But they had no such luck on Sunday, Dec. 26, when the Chicago Bulls pulled out a 113-105 win behind a dominant fourth quarter from Zach LaVine in his first game back from health and safety protocols.
With the result, the Bulls moved to 20-10 on the season – their first time 10 games over .500 since January 2016.
Here are 10 observations:
1. The Bulls got a lot of good offense from the LaVine-Nikola Vučević two-man game pairing, especially early. In the first quarter, LaVine notched seven points and three assists – with each of those dimes setting up Vučević buckets. Vučević, meanwhile, scored eight points on 3-for-4 shooting, and got one assist passing to a Troy Brown Jr. corner 3-pointer after LaVine dumped it off to him on the short-roll.
The Bulls led 33-27 after the first, shooting 60.9 percent from the floor. Nearly half of those points came from their two 2021 All-Stars.
2. The tide of this game began to turn, though, when LaVine and Vučević checked out at the 3:13 mark of the first quarter. That’s when, with the Bulls ahead 25-18, acting head coach Chris Fleming turned to a lineup of DeMar DeRozan, Ayo Dosunmu, Matt Thomas, Brown Jr. and Tyler Cook.
That group held serve to lead by six entering the second quarter, buoyed by two Dosunmu floaters, a post-up bucket by Cook and a fastbreak dunk by Brown Jr. Then, Coby White, who started in place of the COVID-positive Lonzo Ball, replaced Dosunmu for the first 4 minutes, 31 seconds of the second quarter, and they pulled ahead 43-34.
So, when LaVine and Vučević re-entered – and the Bulls immediately ripped an 8-0 run to stretch their lead to 51-34 – it had a demoralizing effect.
3. By halftime, the Bulls led 63-48 and were shooting 50 percent (6-for-12) from 3, 83.3 percent (10-for-12) at the rim and 60 percent (6-for-10) from midrange – good for 63.4 percent, overall.
In November’s blowout loss, they mustered just 77 points total, shooting 36.5 percent and 6-for-21 from 3.
4. The Pacers didn’t quit. They won the third quarter 31-24, spearheaded by 12 points (5-for-6 shooting) from rookie Chris Duarte, and some sensational individual defense by Torrey Craig on DeRozan. The reserve-heavy, DeRozan-led group that held serve in the first half allowed a 16-point lead to slip to 87-79 in the final three minutes of the third.
5. But the Bulls’ big three of DeRozan, LaVine and Vučević slammed the door.
First, it was DeRozan with six points – on two midrange jumpers, and two free throws generated by a pump-fake from that zone – in the first three minutes of the fourth to extend the Bulls’ lead to 95-81.
Then LaVine added seven points of his own in a three-minute span to maintain a 106-92 advantage by the time DeRozan re-entered. Vučević added two assists in that three-minute window – both short-roll feeds for cutting Javonte Green buckets.
And when Indiana cut again to within eight – 108-100 with three minutes to play – it was a stepback LaVine jumper, LaVine strip of Myles Turner and a LaVine driving layup that proved the game’s final significant punch.
6. LaVine (12) and DeRozan (six) combined for 18 of the team’s 24 fourth-quarter points – looking precisely the part of the two-headed crunch-time monster they have all season.
And between LaVine’s 32 points on 12-for-18 shooting, DeRozan’s 24 points on 9-for-20 and Vučević’s 16 points on 7-for-10, the Bulls’ All-Star trio combined for 72 points on 28-for-48 shooting – 8-for-13 from 3-point range.
7. Mark that down as a third consecutive strong outing for Vučević, who finished with a 16-point, 15-rebound, three-assist double-double with a 7-for-10 shooting line from the floor (2-for-3 from 3-point range). He also notched two steals and blocks apiece, and was a major factor in Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis shooting 5-for-17 at the other end.
In three games since the Bulls returned from their COVID-19 pause (which followed two of Vučević’s worst performances of the year against the Cavaliers and Heat), Vučević is averaging 17.7 points and 11.3 rebounds while shooting 51.1 percent from the field and 41.2 percent from deep.
8. And mark it down as a heck of a return from a bout with COVID-19 for LaVine, who played 33 minutes and now has nine 30-point games on the season. This was his first game action since Dec. 11 in Miami.
"I’m tired of getting COVID," LaVine said postgame. "I got some time to just relax and get your legs back. But I was feeling fine either way. It just sucked."
LaVine did add that he was grateful for the multi-day ramp-up to his return, saying: "I got to scrimmage a little bit and get a couple of practices in. And then when I got cleared I was going to the gym at night and shooting a ton. I think it’s just getting my touch back, and I felt fine (against the Pacers)."
9. The Bulls held level in bench-points, outscoring the Pacers 20-19 in that department. Tyler Cook’s energy generated the team extra opportunities (he pulled down five rebounds and drew a foul fighting for another), Matt Thomas at one point played 12 consecutive minutes in the first half and drilled a 3-pointer, Dosunmu buried three floaters and pinned a chasedown block, and Brown Jr. chipped in five points.
It wasn’t glamorous, but the positive minutes the Bulls received from that motley, shorthanded crew could prove valuable on the front end of a back-to-back.
10. The Bulls flipped the script on two determining factors in the Pacers’ blowout win in November. They held exactly even on the glass (49-49), and outshot the Pacers by a healthy margin from behind the arc, going 11-for-23 (47.8 percent) to Indiana’s 8-for-30 (26.7 percent).
Caris LeVert (27 points, 9-for-22 shooting) and Duarte had their moments, but for the most part, the Bulls’ defense held up well on the perimeter without their two stoppers in Ball (protocols) and Alex Caruso (sprained foot) – plus a key contributor in Derrick Jones Jr. (hamstring strain).
Next up: At the Atlanta Hawks on Monday.