Billy Donovan watched the Chicago Bulls’ last five games like most fans – on television, and at home.
His reaction to DeMar DeRozan’s back-to-back buzzer-beaters, which won the Bulls road games against the Pacers and Wizards on Friday and Saturday, likely rivaled the excitement of most fans, too.
“The first one in Indiana I didn’t even know if we were going to get a shot up,” Donovan told reporters in advance of Monday’s game against the Magic. “The second one (against the Wizards), I fell over the coffee table. I jumped up. I couldn’t believe the shot out of the corner.”
The underlying context is more serious. Donovan returned Monday for his first game since entering the NBA’s health and safety protocols on Dec. 24 – a stay which he said thankfully only featured mild congestion and cold-like symptoms.
He first got the sense something was off when he noticed himself coughing more than usual during the Bulls’ practice on Dec. 23. A positive test result for COVID-19, and a period of isolation, ensued.
“A lot of people and families have been hit hard with this, and it really was not that bad for me at all,” Donovan said. “I could have worked. I actually was getting ready to go work out when I found out.”
Donovan did work as much as he could, parachuting into coach’s meetings via Zoom as assistant Chris Fleming steered the team to a 5-0 record in his absence. He also nearly parachuted into Washington D.C. for Saturday’s 120-119 win – he was medically cleared to do so – before a snowstorm in Chicago led to his flight being canceled.
But without him the Bulls extended their current win streak to seven and season-long record to 24-10, a testament in part, he said, to the adaptability of their coaching staff, which is now down assistant Josh Longstaff to protocols as well.
“What you want to do coaching-wise, I think, is model what you're asking the players to do,” Donovan said. “We've asked the players to stay ready, stay connected in jobs, roles, responsibilities; rotations may change, and they've gotta be able to expect the unexpected. And I think the same thing with our staff. Chris did a great job. I think our whole staff did a great job.”
Donovan also made sure to single out the contributions of Mo Cheeks, a Hall-of-Fame player and three-time head coach, who has sat directly to the left of Donovan on coach’s benches for the last seven seasons in Oklahoma City and Chicago. John Bryant has also transitioned to a front-of-bench role with the staff’s availability in flux.
But now, the Bulls’ leader is back, and the message is equal parts clear and par for the course from Donovan: While his team has displayed laudable resilience in the face of adversity this season, they need to continue to improve.
“I told the guys this today: With one second to go in both games, we were down. And if those shots don’t go in, (it) may be a little bit of a different feeling coming off a back-to-back,” Donovan said. “We’ve got to keep getting better, we’ve got to keep improving as a team. It’s been a lot of games for those guys in a short period of time – I think it was five (games) in seven (days) – and for them to stay the course and do what they did says a lot. But I do think, in particular defensively, we’ve got to get better than what we’ve been.
“When you win, sometimes it masks things and you lose sight and there is slippage in areas and slippage in things we’ve got to get better at. So the shots, listen, I’m certainly as a coach and as players you want to be on the winning side of the ledger. Those shots were remarkable, incredible, I’m not taking anything away from them. They were phenomenal. But the big picture for us, we’ve got to keep getting better and hopefully we can keep doing that.”