As head coach of a German national team with Dirk Nowitzki that competed at the 2015 European Championships, Chris Fleming has led big moments before.
Still, Sunday night proved special.
“It’s pretty humbling to have a chance to coach the Bulls,” Fleming said.
With Billy Donovan in the league’s health and safety protocols, Fleming is the Chicago Bulls’ acting head coach for the foreseeable future. His run, however long it lasts, started in victorious fashion as the Bulls moved 10 games over .500 for the first time since Jan. 7, 2016, with a 113-105 victory over the Pacers.
In typical Fleming fashion, he did his best to deflect the spotlight.
“Obviously, it’s very different. I’ve never coached an NBA game before. But I think our staff was really locked in,” Fleming said. “(Assistant) Josh (Longstaff) had the scout, did a great job handling that. (Assistant) Mo (Cheeks) has been there a ton before. I thought his guidance was really, really important for me.”
Fleming also credited Donovan, who is spending his time in quarantine working, attending every coaches’ meeting via Zoom.
“Billy is probably the most competitive guy I’ve been around. He wants to be here. He really helped our staff,” Fleming said. “He said, ‘I’m here if you need me. You guys just go ahead and coach and help these guys win.’ I think his support was really important.”
Still, once the rotational plan is set and the gameplan drawn up and the pick-and-roll coverages decided upon, the ball is tipped. And in-game decisions happen.
Fleming, the lone holdover from Jim Boylen's staff kept by Donovan and the new management team, leaned on experience. This is his seventh year as an NBA assistant. But prior to that, he earned a Coach of the Year honor while directing Brose Bamberg to four German League championships, not to mention that German national team experience.
One such decision came with Fleming’s usage of seldom-used guard Matt Thomas. In one first-half stretch, Thomas played 12 consecutive minutes spanning the first and second quarters. The Bulls’ lead increased from seven to 17 in that stretch, and Thomas finished a game-best plus-16.
“We did not plan on playing him as long in the first half. But I thought our team had a flow. We got the lead in that phase. And we just kind of let him go,” Fleming said. “On a back-to-back, it’s always an advantage if you can rest DeMar (DeRozan) or rest Zach (LaVine) a few more minutes. And he helped us do that.”
Ah, yes, a back-to-back. That’s how Fleming “celebrated” his first victory as an acting NBA head coach, even if the victory goes on Donovan’s record. With a flight to Atlanta and more prep work for the Hawks.
“I thought he did a really good job prepping us and making sure we were ready to play,” Nikola Vučević said. “He didn’t try to overdo anything or change anything. He tried to manage the game as good as he could and the rest of the other assistant coaches as well. I thought he did a really good job. It’s not easy to have to step in for the head coach.”
Fleming said Donovan’s symptoms “were never really bad” and Donovan is eager to return. Until then, he’ll keep doing what is asked of him. It’s all part of the culture that the Bulls have created under Donovan, the new management team and a collection of serious-minded, unselfish players.
“I’ve got to know Flems a lot over the last couple years. He’s a great coach. He stepped right in, almost just like the players have been doing with that ‘next man up’ mentality,” Zach LaVine said. “He did a great job commanding the locker room. And we went out and performed for him.”