If you wanted to see a team’s identity begin to take shape, all you had to do was watch Artūras Karnišovas seemingly live and die with each Chicago Bulls possession Saturday night.
The emotion the executive vice president of basketball operations showed as he watched the Bulls knock off the NBA’s last unbeaten team in the Utah Jazz mirrored the intense offseason he and his staff experienced.
With DeMar DeRozan posting his first 30-point game as a Bull, Zach LaVine doing Zach LaVine things and Nikola Vučević overcoming a rough shooting night to score five huge points late, the Bulls had multiple go-to options. With strong, active and physical contributions from seldom-used Tony Bradley, Derrick Jones Jr. and Ayo Dosunmu, depth delivered.
This is management’s vision, taking shape.
“This was the most consistent game that we played to an identity,’’ coach Billy Donovan said. “We ran. We played with really good pace. We played downhill, at the basket. We got to the free-throw line 30 times.
“This, from an identity standpoint, is how we want to play. I thought this was one of our better games from start to finish. For the most part, the consistency was there for how we need to play.”
Indeed, the Bulls held the league’s top-ranked offensive team to 38 percent shooting and forced 20 turnovers. They turned those turnovers into 25 points.
They also only turned it over nine times. Combined with the 30 free-throw attempts, those are two areas of significant and consistent improvement over last season.
In fact, between the Bulls ranking sixth in free-throw attempts per game (22.2) and second in turnovers per game (12.2), they have completely flipped the script on those problem areas in this season’s early going. They finished the 2020-21 season last in free-throw attempts per game (17.5) and 27th in turnovers per game (15.1).
But beyond the numbers, the victory also underscored a team responding to Donovan and his staff’s messaging. The coach said he showed his team film of the last 2 minutes, 30 seconds of the loss to the Knicks, the period where the Bulls rallied from a 13-point deficit for a chance at an improbable victory.
In that stretch, the Bulls repeatedly got downhill, attacked the basket. With the number of ball-handlers and creators on the roster, that’s how Donovan wants the Bulls to play.
On Saturday, they did — and against an elite team.
“We play extremely hard for one another and definitely are hard on ourselves when things don’t go our way, especially defensively,” DeRozan said. “We come in the next day, look at our own mistakes and just try to be better every game.
“Life is based on trial and error, right? It’s all about how you respond to the mistakes that you make. When you see the things that work and try to bring that to the next game, we did that offensively.”
Bradley posted 4 rebounds and 2 blocks in his most impactful minutes to date from the young season. Everyone but Matt Thomas has now contributed positive minutes to a victory this season. That’s the sign of a deep team.
According to Bradley, that depth and commitment formed during voluntary September workouts. Players have talked about the positive vibe that management and the coaching staff created then.
“It starts with us getting connected,” Bradley said. “We spent a lot of time with each other even before training camp started.”
Players talk about the directness and honesty with which Donovan deals with them. In his media session, Donovan consistently sets a level-headed tone.
So, no, he’s not going to overreact to a victory over an elite team in the sixth game of the season. What does excite the coach is that, even if the Bulls had lost, they grew from their last game and more consistently played to his preferred identity.
“These experiences are good as far as us growing together,” he said.
The expectations for this team are now growing too. Just like management envisioned when it set out to overhaul the roster.