A leviathan nearly fell Sunday evening in Cleveland, Ohio.
But never fear. The 2021 Chicago Bulls, who entered play with a league-best plus-32.5 net rating through two preseason games, narrowly escaped Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse with a 102-101 win, pushing their record in exhibition play to 3-0.
Here are seven observations:
1. Billy Donovan continued to ramp up his key players’ minutes.
The Bulls clearly value their starters playing together as much as is prudent during the preseason.
After ratcheting up his key players’ minutes from the low 20s in the opener to 24-28 in the second game, Lonzo Ball (34), Zach LaVine (30), DeMar DeRozan (31) and Nikola Vučević (30) all played between 30 and 34 minutes in this one. Donovan pulled the plug on his starters at the 8:37 mark of the fourth quarter with his team ahead 86-82.
As promised pregame, Donovan also experimented with LaVine staggered alongside the team’s reserves instead of DeRozan.
2. Derrick Jones Jr. impressed with an increased rotational role.
Derrick Jones Jr.’s first rotation turn came midway through the first quarter — earlier than against the Pelicans, when, in his preseason debut, he checked in midway through the third.
In turn, he flushed home a majestic transition dunk, tipped back an and-one layup (on which he missed the free throw) and finished the first half with six points and two rebounds in eight minutes.
Jones returned with the starters (minus Javonte Green and DeRozan, plus Alex Caruso) in the third quarter, athletically finished another lob and made a noticeable impact on the team’s pace and activity level after they fell behind midway through the period.
His night also included fourth quarter minutes, and ended with a final stat line of 10 points, four rebounds and one assist. He made four of his seven field-goal attempts, missing both 3-point tries.
Stanley Johnson, who checked in as the team’s second-string power forward against New Orleans, didn’t see run until mop-up time.
3. Even stars have preseason rust.
After shooting 7-for-18 from the field and 0-for-5 from 3-point range against the Pelicans, Nikola Vučević noted that, early in seasons, he often needs to shake off outside-shooting rust.
That persisted in a 3-for-12 outing against Cleveland, which featured some missed bunnies and another 0-fer from distance, this time 0-for-3.
No one — not Donovan, not Vučević, not anyone — is concerned about Vučević’s range, nor the rare four personal fouls he picked up in the first half. The Bulls continued to feature him in screen-and-roll and look for him in the post. This is what the preseason is for.
4. DeMar DeRozan got to work in the second half.
DeRozan appeared to be shaking some rust off early as well, committing three turnovers and getting blown past for a dunk by Markkanen in the first half.
But he began the third quarter by carbon-copying spinning midrange jumpers over Markkanen and Okoro, then rode that momentum to 11 third-quarter points. He added another five in the fourth on a driving dunk and catch-and-shoot 3-pointer to finish with a game-high 23.
Embedded in that total was a 2-for-2 mark from behind the arc. A rarity for DeRozan.
5. The Bulls might have found something in Alize Johnson.
Alize Johnson has assumed the role of (undersized) backup center as Tony Bradley nurses a lower back strain that’s kept him out of the first three preseason games.
That's not likely to be an evergreen role for Johnson, who stands 6-foot-7. But he continues to flash rare energy and a penchant for hustle plays in his minutes.
In the first half, Johnson notched seven points and three rebounds on perfect 3-for-3 shooting. Even at a size deficit, he possesses soft touch on floaters and the ability to burrow into defenders and finish through contact at the basket.
In the second half, he added another seven points and five boards to finish with 14 points, 11 rebounds (three offensive) and a steal. On one play, he sprinted from the baseline into the backcourt to secure a loose ball. On another, he inhaled an offensive rebound over 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall and 6-foot-9 Dean Wade, then drew two free throws. And by night’s end, he had committed five personal fouls, including one jockeying for position with the Fall on the block well after each coach emptied their benches.
Needless to say, as a reserve, he has a mentality that could stick.
6. The Bulls’ intensity waned.
For the third preseason game in a row, the Bulls swiped double-digit steals, notching 10 against the Cavaliers. Lonzo Ball continued to lead the way in that category, nabbing three to match Vučević for a team high.
But for the most part, the team’s defense wasn’t as sharp as it was in the last two games. Cleveland shot 47.7 percent and got plenty of easy offense in transition, on back-cuts and off failed steal attempts.
Overall, this was a sluggish, back-and-forth affair against a team the Bulls waxed by 36 points just five days ago. Donovan pointed to a lack of physicality on both ends as the crux of the issue, citing a lack of force fighting through screens on the defensive end, and a lack of urgency driving downhill and drawing fouls offensively. LaVine later agreed.
“I thought we were back on our heels,” Donovan said. “I thought everything that required any level of aggressiveness, they (the Cavaliers) won that battle.”
Even playing without their starting backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, the Cavaliers played with pride. Donovan said postgame he hopes the Bulls struggles serve as a lesson.
7. Ayo Dosunmu had ice in his veins.
Unlike their first two preseason contests, the Bulls’ top players didn’t leave with a gaudy advantage, leaving their reserves to grind out the eventual win.
Down the stretch, it was the team’s 2021 second-round pick Ayo Dosunmu leading the way, as he did so often during his three-year tenure at the University of Illinois. Dosunmu scored nine points on 4-for-7 shooting in seven fourth-quarter minutes, and drilled back-to-back buckets in the game’s final 41 seconds to seal it.
“He doesn’t have any fear at all, offensively or defensively,” LaVine said of Dosunmu. “Dude is stone cold. Doesn't care about the situation. Going in there, he's going to play his heart out. He showed that. He pretty much won us the game."
Up next: The Bulls will look to go 4-0 in the preseason at home on Friday against the Memphis Grizzlies.