In the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak that touched 10 players, and necessitated two game postponements, the Chicago Bulls returned to action for the first time since Dec. 11 on Sunday night.
Leaning on a just-returned-from-protocols DeMar DeRozan for 34 minutes, 38 points and typical fourth-quarter heroics, they pulled out a thrilling 115-110 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers at the United Center – clinching that season series, and moving their record to 18-10.
Here are 10 observations:
1. Both teams entered play dealing with their fair share of COVID-19 troubles. On the Bulls’ side, Zach LaVine, Ayo Dosunmu, Troy Brown Jr., Alize Johnson and Matt Thomas all remain in protocols (Alex Caruso started in LaVine’s place).
The Lakers, meanwhile, have six in protocols and on Friday lost Anthony Davis for at least a month to an MCL sprain. They started LeBron James, Russell Wesbtrook, Wayne Ellington, Deandre Jordan and Isaiah Thomas, who is playing out a 10-day contract.
2. This was a fun, highly-competitive and back-and-forth affair throughout. But in winning time, as he’s done for most of the season, DeRozan provided buckets that eventually put the Bulls over the top.
He nearly tripled his NBA-leading 7.7-point-per-fourth-quarter scoring average by pouring in 19 of his game-high (and season-high-tying) 38 points in the final frame. He did so on 7-for-11 shooting, despite shooting just 4-for-13 from the field through three quarters. And 12 of those points came from mid- or floater-range – often in twisting, but ever-poised, fashion.
This pull-up 20-footer — over James — proved the game’s final lead change:
On top of his shotmaking, DeRozan also visited the charity stripe a season-high 17 times, making 16 (5-for-5 in the fourth). It’s his eighth time scoring 30 points, and eighth time attempting 10 or more free throws, in a game this season. No wonder he drew “MVP” chants as he buried free throws to put the Bulls ahead 113-110 with 15.6 seconds remaining.
3. At the other end, LeBron James’ 31-point, 13-rebound, six-assist performance made, at times, for some enthralling haymaker-trading. His dominance was particularly pronounced on the interior, given his notable size advantage over the Bulls’ wing defenders – primarily, Javonte Green and Lonzo Ball.
James made nine of his 10 shots at the rim, and his passing out of double teams generated by drives and post-ups led to a litany of good looks, including an assist of a Carmelo Anthony 3-pointer that pushed the Lakers ahead 102-99 with 5:04 remaining.
4. Though Billy Donovan opined some sloppiness in a third quarter his team committed five turnovers, the Bulls’ energy was befitting of a team eager to return to action after an eight-day break.
Their formula of generating instant offense off of turnovers came to fruition – they scored 29 points off 20 Lakers cough-ups, and 15 on the fastbreak. And in the game’s final 66 seconds, Caruso, Javonte Green and Ball each generated extra possession with offensive rebounds that led to four DeRozan points in the heat of crunch time. The Bulls won the turnover battle 20-10 and offensive glass 16-9.
5. If you hadn’t heard, Ball loves facing his former teams. Submitted for evidence: October’s triple-double against the Pelicans at the United Center, and November’s 27-point, seven-3-pointer outing against the Lakers at Staples.
With a 15-point, four-assist, one-block first half in which he at times buoyed the Bulls with his shotmaking, he looked well on his way to another early on. Though his eventual 19 points, four dimes and a 3-for-9 shooting line from deep don’t leap off the screen like the above performances, he made four of his six shots from inside the arc – including two bail-out midrange fallaways – and tipped out the aforementioned offensive rebound that helped seal the game.
6. Nikola Vučević’s early-season struggles have been well-documented, so take it as an encouraging sign he looked sharp coming out of the Bulls’ week-long pause. He scored 19 points, shot 8-for-17 from the field (3-for-6 from 3-point range) and displayed his ancillary engagement on multiple occasions – most notably, with a smothering block of James and a putback dunk off a missed Caruso layup (that he had to run the floor hard to secure) in the second quarter.
7. Caruso and Green combined for 15 rebounds, two steals and two blocks. Particularly on the glass, each provided their typical hustle at key moments.
Green had a scintillating stretch in the second quarter where he blocked a Wayne Ellington alley-oop pass into the seats, then nearly caved the United Center roof in with a missed putback attempt. Caruso came alive with 11 points on 4-for-5 shooting (2-for-3 from 3) in the third quarter to help keep the team afloat after getting off to a slow-shooting start.
8. Bench scoring was again an issue for the Bulls – and made worse by playing without LaVine and Dosunmu. The Lakers reserves outscored them 31-13, and were led by 21 points and five 3s from Anthony, while the Bulls’ leading bench scorer, Coby White, mustered just five points.
White jumped into this season’s fray 14 games late after recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and on Sunday returned from five games on the shelf with COVID-19. In the first three quarters, he didn’t look much closer to finding a rhythm within the Bulls’ offense, scoring two points, missing four of five shots and committing a turnover with limited touches. He also struggled mightily on the defensive end.
But White did, at least, come alive to power home this emphatic dunk early in the fourth. Perhaps it can spark him.
9. The rest of the Bulls’ 10-man rotation consisted of 17 minutes of Alfonzo McKinnie, 11 minutes of Tony Bradley and even two fourth-quarter minutes from two-way player Tyler Cook, while each of the starters played 34-to-38 minutes. McKinnie’s 10-day contract expires on Monday; he contributed two points and a handful of hustle plays in the third.
10. Derrick Jones Jr., who also returned for his first game back from protocols, played six minutes, but left in the second quarter with a left hamstring injury and didn’t return. Donovan said postgame he hadn’t yet received an update on the severity of the injury or how Jones Jr.’s availability moving forward might be affected.
Next up: Home for the second night of a back-to-back against the Houston Rockets on Monday.