Bulls

10 observations: Bulls outlast Magic for 8th straight win

Bulls

The Chicago Bulls didn’t play their best game at the United Center Monday night.

The offense sputtered. There were nail-biting moments late in the game. And, ultimately, a scrappy 7-30 Orlando Magic team playing the second night of a road-road back-to-back (which began with an overtime loss in Boston on Sunday) hung around until the final seconds.

But the end result was a 102-98 victory. The Bulls move to 25-10 on the season with the result, and have their first eight-game win streak since March 2012.

Here are 10 observations:

1. The Bulls didn’t score a fastbreak point in Saturday’s win over the Wizards. But in his return from a five-game absence in health and safety protocols, Lonzo Ball got them running early:

Ball looked himself as a facilitator, slinging seven assists, and typically excellent at the defensive end, swiping three steals and generating countless more deflections. But he did miss seven of his eight field-goal attempts (1-for-7 from 3) and committed a potentially-costly three-shot foul on Franz Wagner inside the final minute of the fourth quarter.

2. Despite that early highlight, the Bulls got off to a sluggish start offensively. They missed their first six shots before DeMar DeRozan drew free throws on a pump fake to get them their first points. Ball’s feed to Zach LaVine marked the team’s first made field goal – and rim attempt.

 

An Ayo Dosunmu corner 3, which stymied a start of eight straight long-range misses, saved the Bulls from their lowest-scoring first quarter of the season (14 against the Pistons in the opener), but they still shot 5-for-21 and trailed 21-15 after one.

3. The second quarter saw something of a bounceback. Dosunmu’s 3 inspired makes from Derrick Jones Jr. and Troy Brown Jr., and by the eight-minute mark of the period, the Bulls had vaulted in front 27-26 after trailing by as many as 11 points in the first quarter.

The Bulls scored 30 points in the second, shooting 5-for-9 from 3 compared to 1-for-9 in the first, to carry a 45-40 lead into halftime.

4. Billy Donovan said pregame he sensed some slippage in the Bulls’ defense while watching games from health and safety protocols. And he’s right. In five games from Dec. 20 to Jan. 2 – which, not so coincidentally, coincides with Ball (protocols) and Alex Caruso (foot sprain) being sidelined – the Bulls allowed 112.1 points per 100 possessions, 18th in the NBA in that span. On Saturday, they allowed a season-high 72 points in the paint to Washington, which spoke to the team’s inability to contain dribble penetration.

On Monday, the Bulls’ defense kept them in the game while the offense looked disjointed. The Magic scored a Bulls-opponent-low 40 points in the first half, shooting 36.4 percent, and 98 for the game. The Bulls also nabbed 10 steals to Orlando’s five – their eighth game this season with double-digit steals.

“This is a game, to me, that if you don’t defend, but shoot it the way we did, we would not have had a chance to win,” Donovan said. “I think that, to me, was the encouraging part. Now, did we play great? No. By no stretch of the imagination, I’m not saying that. We had a hard shooting night. But we talked a lot about defense this morning and I think the guys tried to do as good a job as they possibly could have.”

5. The Bulls have converted better than 44 percent of their 3-point attempts in each of their last six games, a torrid stretch which Donovan alluded to postgame. They shot 11-for-31 (35.5 percent) from distance in this one, and 43 percent from the field.

Donovan was largely pleased with the looks they got. Poor shooting nights happen. That the Bulls weathered it was encouraging to their head coach.

RELATED: Donovan returns from COVID, grateful for only mild case

6. For the 22nd time this season, DeRozan (29 points) and LaVine (27) each surpassed 20 points in a game. The Bulls needed it.

In the first half, DeRozan led the way with his midrange shotmaking, scoring 15 points to lead the team (which placed no one else in double-figures). In the third quarter, he added another six, while LaVine poured in 11 (2-for-4 from 3-point range). And in the fourth, DeRozan scored eight and LaVine nine – including a five-point sequence in which DeRozan buried an 18-footer, then LaVine stroked a stepback 3-pointer to put the Bulls up eight with just over two minutes to play.

 

LaVine committed an unsightly turnover with 38.5 seconds left that allowed the Magic to slice their deficit to four, and DeRozan uncharacteristically missed three clutch-time free throws (he went 7-for-13 for the game and multiple times expressed exasperation after misses at the stripe). But ultimately, they prevailed.

7. Ball’s return to the lineup had the ripple effect of returning Coby White, who filled in well as the team’s starting point guard for five games, to the bench. But there wasn’t much residual effect on White’s production. He contributed 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting (5-for-6 inside the 3-point arc) and continued to display improved defensive engagement from his first two seasons.

An eight-point flurry from White at the beginning of the fourth quarter helped the Bulls keep their distance. And when the Magic pushed back late, the third-year guard was on the floor alongside Ball, LaVine, DeRozan and Nikola Vučević to close – even burying a pull-up midrange jumper to put the Bulls up 97-89 with 59 seconds to play.

“Coby tonight was the one guy that got into a pretty good rhythm,” Donovan said. “The thing I’m most pleased about with Coby is that he’s really battling defensively.

“It’s hard. You go through the shoulder surgery and then you get COVID and you never really find yourself. But he’s done a really good job for us.”

8. Donovan won a challenge with 1 minute, 57 seconds remaining to reverse a shooting foul called on Vučević contesting a Terrence Ross layup. The Bulls lost the ensuing tip, but the Orlando possession ended in a missed Ross jumper – meaning Donovan’s challenge potentially saved the Bulls two points. He’s on record as saying he doesn’t like to trigger for a coach's challenge until the highest-leverage moment possible, and he played his chip wisely in this one.

9. With Javonte Green (groin) expected out the next two-to-four weeks, the Bulls will be in search of a replacement for their fill-in power forward’s rare brand of energy.

On Monday, Brown Jr. and Jones Jr. combined to provide that. Brown Jr. crashed the glass for eight rebounds, notched two steals, sent back a massive block in the first quarter and flashed some offensive skill with four assists. Jones Jr. started at the four in Green’s place and finished two putback tip-ins off offensive rebounds.

Alfonzo McKinnie, who returned from health and safety protocols along with Ball, was behind Brown Jr. in the rotation, but checked in for seven fourth-quarter minutes and also grabbed an offensive rebound.

10. This was an opportunistic win by the Bulls. With the result, they gain a game on the Nets (who lost to the Grizzlies) and Bucks (who fell to the Pistons) – giving them a two-game cushion ahead of for the Eastern Conference lead.

 

Next up: Home for the Wizards on Friday.

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