The Chicago Bulls coasted to their second blowout preseason win of the 2021 slate, beating the Pelicans 121-85 Friday night.
New Orleans never led, while the Bulls at one point found themselves in front by as many as 46 points. Seriously.
Here are seven observations:
1. The Bulls followed a familiar formula to success.
Just as they did against the Cavaliers in the preseason opener, the Bulls played a fast and furious style — and on the back of it, spent most of the night ahead: 30-17 after the first quarter, 63-38 at halftime and 96-57 after three before the benches eventually emptied in the fourth.
By game’s end, the Bulls also built sizable advantages in turnovers (19-11) and fastbreak points (19-7).
Billy Donovan talked postgame about embracing an element of “randomness” in the offense, and empowering his primary ball-handlers to get the team organized in the flow of the game, rather than calling out plays from the bench. While this level of breakneck pace may not be feasible in regular-season action, the Bulls will certainly play faster than they did last season.
2. The Bulls’ defensive activity level was once again high.
After logging 13 steals and 11 blocks in the preseason opener, the Bulls generated 14 steals and seven blocks in this one, scoring 31 points off 19 turnovers and holding New Orleans to 33.3 percent shooting.
The Pelicans played without their two best players in Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, and looked the part thanks to the Bulls’ persistent defensive pressure. Questions on that end of the floor continue to persist, particularly due to Bulls' undersized frontcourt, but the vision of swarming guards and wings generating enough mayhem through deflections and shot contests to compensate is apparent.
An underrated but important aspect of that philosophy: Javonte Green (six), DeMar DeRozan (six), Lonzo Ball (five), Alex Caruso (five) and Zach LaVine (three) were all over the glass, supplementing Nikola Vučević's game-high-tying 10 rebounds. Gang rebounding will be key to the Bulls finishing defensive possessions and sparking transition chances, a point reiterated by Donovan, LaVine and Ball after the game.
3. Lonzo Ball’s fingerprints were all over this one — on both ends.
Ball was once again at the center of that defensive vision, racking up two steals, one block and a number of deflections in his 25 minutes. In addition to his presence on-the-ball, he was a menace jumping passing and driving lanes — a shadow looming across every Pelicans possession.
Ball’s contributions were also loud on the offensive end, where he racked up 19 points on 7-for-9 shooting. In particular, he was feeling it from long range, burying five of six 3-point tries. None were taken with an ounce of hesitation.
“We had to scout it last year,” LaVine said of Ball’s outside shooting prowess. “He was shooting above 40 (percent) until he hurt himself at the end of the year. If you’re shooting above 40 on eight attempts (per game), you're a really knockdown shooter. That's a part of his game teams are really gonna have to respect — and if not, they're gonna get their head cracked like they did tonight."
Was a revenge game dynamic at play against his old team? Even if there was, Ball wouldn’t confess to it. But it was a confident showing nonetheless.
4. Javonte Geen started again, and Donovan ran a 10-man rotation in the first three quarters.
That rotation was comprised of the starters — Ball, LaVine, DeRozan, Green and Vučević — Caruso, Troy Brown Jr., Alize Johnson, and separate stints for Stanley Johnson (in the first half) and Derrick Jones Jr. (third quarter).
Between his featured four of Ball, LaVine, DeRozan and Vučević, Donovan appeared to stagger LaVine with Vučević and Ball with DeRozan. Alize Johnson functioned as the team’s de facto backup center in a small second unit. And Caruso closed the first half alongside the starters minus Green.
Patrick Williams still has yet to appear in a game, but that offers some idea of Donovan’s trust tree as of now. The Bulls’ coach also followed through on his promise of bumping his starters’ minutes; DeRozan and LaVine played 28, Vučević played 27, Ball played 25, and Caruso played 22 — all in the game’s first three quarters. All four finished with plus-minuses between +27 and +32. The chemistry appears to be coming along fine.
5. Balance was the name of the game.
Training camp talk of the Bulls’ stars playing unselfish, complementary styles of basketball is certainly bearing out in preseason action.
Ball logged 19 points and four assists while taking just nine shots. Vučević finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds despite another off jump-shooting night (0-for-5 on mostly-clean 3-point looks). LaVine posted an effortless 21 points on 8-for-14 shooting. DeRozan committed three turnovers, but came alive in the third to finish with 12 points. Caruso produced 10 points, five assists and made both of his 3-point attempts.
LaVine, specifically, nailed a pair of catch-and-shoot 3-pointers while still finding room to operate with the ball in his hands off screen-and-roll. His prolificity on- and off-the-ball should add a dynamic element to the team’s offensive attack.
“You don't want to have to try to do everything, it's not fun,” LaVine said of getting more opportunities to play off others. “I'm getting easy shots.” (Though he did bemoan his 2-for-7 mark from deep.)
6. Vučević led the team with 18 shot attempts — and four steals.
Vučević was at the center of a ton of two-man actions with Ball, LaVine and DeRozan throughout. Though he shot 7-for-18, and missed all five of his 3-point tries, his potential as a pick-and-roll fulcrum paired with any of the Bulls’ bevy of ball-handlers was on full display.
“I think it opens up a lot of different ways for us to score,” Vučević said of his screen-and-roll acumen. “If I pop it opens up a lot of space for guys to drive. If I roll then guys help from the weakside of the rotation, we get a lot of open looks from the weakside.
“A lot of offense will be two-man game between me and different guys, and I think my ability to be able to roll or short-roll — make plays out of it — or pop, it just gives us different looks that we can use.”
And no, neither Donovan nor Vučević are concerned about the jumper not eventually falling. For now, seeing his gravity generate open attempts for himself and others is enough.
So, too, were his four steals on the defensive end, which led the team. The onus will be on Vučević to maintain a solid presence on the back line and rebounding, and he did so in this one, particularly with active hands.
7. Highlights once again abounded
Alize Johnson pulled down two offensive rebounds and converted a putback, letting out a scream in the aftermath. Caruso buried a 3-pointer at the first quarter buzzer to stretch the Bulls’ lead to 13. Lonzo Ball cashed multiple catch-and-shoot 3s on fastbreak chances. Jones punched home an alley-oop lob from Ball off an ATO set.
Those sequences, and more, got the United Center crowd rocking throughout the one-sided preseason affair. Needless to say, the vibes are good.
Next up: A road bout with the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday.