NEW YORK — Following the Chicago Bulls’ impressive shorthanded victory over the Nets, which both clinched the season series and pulled them within a half-game of the Eastern Conference lead, Billy Donovan fielded a question about its significance.
Donovan talked for nearly 3 minutes. Like any coach, he saw more areas for improvement than opportunities to relax.
And while he lauded the Bulls’ competitive spirit, particularly since they won without Patrick Williams, Coby White, Javonte Green and with Alex Caruso playing just eight minutes with a balky hamstring, he concluded with this thought.
“I’m not going to sit there and take one game in the middle of December and act like this is unbelievable. It’s one game,” Donovan said. “We’ve got to be better than we were tonight. And we’re capable of being better.”
Consider yourself warned, Eastern Conference.
This mindset, this ability to focus on the work, is a big reason why this tough-minded, serious group sits where it does. It’s a big reason why they are defying preseason prognostications and aren’t going away.
The Bulls are for real.
“I’m not taking anything away from our guys because the one thing I think you have to have to be a really good team is what these guys have. They’ll fight and compete and they’ll really try and bounce back,” Donovan said, perhaps realizing he needed to soften what certainly sounded like a postgame critique following such an improbable victory. “I love that competitive spirit about these guys.”
That competitive spirit is why DeMar DeRozan padded to his league-leading, fourth-quarter scoring total with 13 of his 29 points. That competitive spirit is how Lonzo Ball shook off recent 3-point shooting blues to sink a huge one — off a DeRozan assist — for a five-point lead with 16.9 seconds left.
That competitive spirit fueled Ayo Dosunmu’s mindset as he accepted the larger role that came with the new absence of Green and the inability of Caruso to finish. Dosunmu scored 11 points, offered a highlight-reel block and sank a critical free throw with 9.3 seconds left for a four-point lead.
“It’s about staying mentally prepared, always staying mentally locked in,” Dosunmu said. “There were some games the previous two games where I didn’t play as much as I did tonight. But it’s about staying ready. In those moments, I think how you treat yourself and how you are mentally locked in, that carries over to when it’s your opportunity.”
Reminder: Those words came from a rookie.
But Dosunmu’s mental toughness and approach fits this team’s collective personality. It even extends to non-rotation players. Time and again this season, a player who has been completely out of the rotation comes on and contributes, even if it’s for limited minutes.
Against the Nets, Tony Bradley and Troy Brown Jr. offered contributions with the rotation in flux. Bradley helped flip the rebounding script in his 6 minutes, 30 seconds. Brown posted five points, six rebounds and three assists in 13 minutes, taking on the challenge of trying to slow Kevin Durant.
“That’s the one thing that I think has been great about Alize (Johnson) and Matt (Thomas) and Troy and Tony. When they were out of the rotation and not playing, they put the work in. They play 5-on-5. They lift,” Donovan said. “After the game was over the other night against New York, Matt Thomas is in the back in the Garden working out. Troy Brown is working out. It would be very easy to get dressed, shower up and go out to dinner. They put the work in, and I give them a lot of credit for staying ready.”
And then, if there’s a chance late, DeRozan and Zach LaVine typically work their magic.
Like Donovan, DeRozan largely downplayed the significance of winning the first two meetings against the Nets, who are widely considered an Eastern Conference frontrunner.
He more focused on the team’s personality.
“Says a lot about our team. How resilient. How we approach challenges. We don’t shy away from them. We accept them,” DeRozan said. “You want to be the best, you gotta beat the best.
“We’re just going to keep coming. We’ve learning not to get down on ourselves. We’re learning a very critical part of the game of understanding to stay level-headed and balanced. There’s a lot of time in the game for things to turn over. Stay the course. Do what we work on. Trust our offense. Trust our defense. Trust each other. That’s what we do.”