Here’s the thing about a Billy Donovan benching: It’s purposeful, not punitive.
So when the Bulls’ coach decided to sit Coby White, Patrick Williams and Wendell Carter Jr. in favor of veterans Tomáš Satoranský, Denzel Valentine and Thad Young to start Wednesday’s second half, he did so to reward players who closed a flat first half strongly, particularly defensively.
Perhaps more importantly, he showed trust in the benched players who contributed mightily to a ridiculous, 25-point, first-half deficit by closing the Bulls’ 105-102 victory over the Pistons with them.
And what do you know? Carter finished with 18 points and helped a more aggressive and physical defensive effort in the second half. White sank a big 3-pointer with 61 seconds left for a four-point lead. And Williams scored 12 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, including a huge 3-pointer with 29 seconds left.
At first, Donovan tried to downplay in his postgame comments any message sent to the young players.
“I was just like, ‘Listen, I'm going to put the guys out there that I really feel are going to line up defensively and try to get after it as hard as we can,” he said.
But there’s always a purpose to the veteran coach’s ways.
“I’m sure those guys are probably really disappointed they didn’t get a chance to start the third quarter,” he said. “They see the way those other guys came out and the fact we kind of got back in the game, and now there’s a little more responsibility on them to do the things that they know they have control over. I give them credit for keeping their head in the game.
“I hope those guys sitting over there appreciate the minutes that they get and the opportunity to play. Other guys stepped up. But it's not like I don't have confidence in those guys. It was just a matter of we didn't compete at the level we needed to.
“I thought the right thing to do from the bench was to help Zach (LaVine) by putting some shooting around him. Obviously, Patrick made a big shot when the ball found him in the corner and so did Coby. And those were two guys that I didn't think were particularly great on either end of the floor in that first half. As professionals, you hope they go to the locker room, they regroup, they realize there's going to be some changes made: ‘When my number's called again, I've got to get myself ready and prepared.’ And I think those guys did that.”
And in a sign of perhaps how a young team is maturing as the season progresses, these young players did that without much prompting.
“It was just a learning experience,” White said. “Me personally, I needed to grow up a little bit -- letting shots affect how I play. I gotta compete on both ends of the court. Accept a challenge and continue to move on and do what I can to help my team win.”
What Donovan is trying to do with his young players is get them to understand how they can impact games even on nights when shots aren’t falling. That effort and competitiveness can’t have an on-off switch. That controlling what you can control -- running back on defense, boxing out, following the game plan -- is essential.
Because shots are going to fall on some nights and not on others. But the commitment to winning never can.
“Coach is going to challenge you; I think I said that a lot this year, I think they responded and it shows a lot of trust he has in them to play them down the stretch,” LaVine said of the benched players. “I think he just wanted to send a message and get them going a little bit. I think they responded well.”
Donovan has talked about building championship habits. He and his staff are walking the walk by doing what they did Wednesday night. There’s a standard of play that must be met to get playing time.
And there’s total buy-in and acceptance of this message, which also is being delivered by veterans like Young and Garrett Temple.
“I told Pat it was a big shot. He's young, so he probably didn't even think it was a big shot,” Young said, laughing, about Williams’ late 3-pointer. “We needed that. Told Coby the same as well.
“Them not starting in the second half, I just talked to Wendell and Coby and got them to understand the 'why.' The biggest part is we weren't getting any energy and the pace wasn't where it needed to be. So the veteran unit that Coach (Donovan) decided to start in the second half we knew we had to get off to a good start, not just offensively, but defensively.”
It worked because, after all, there’s purpose, not punitiveness, to Donovan’s decisions.