With their 128-124 victory over the Pelicans, the Bulls enter the All-Star break at 16-18 and on pace for a 34-38 finish, far ahead of most preseason prognostications.
“We have a losing record,” Billy Donovan said.
In the next breath, the Bulls’ coach praised his players’ progress, work ethic and mindset.
And if that’s not this season in a nutshell, then maybe the fourth quarter is.
Donovan has expertly walked the line of pushing and praising, holding a young team accountable while placing an arm around its collective shoulder. He has done this because the Bulls can do things like build a 19-point lead in the fourth quarter of an impressive road victory and then inexplicably turn it into a tight finish with head-scratching plays like fouling a 3-point shooter three times in the final period.
“As young as they are, they need to learn how to close games. They need to understand how to close games better than that,” Donovan repeated. “Now I'm not taking anything away from our guys. I thought coming off two losses to two really good teams in Denver and Phoenix -- and that's (the Pelicans) a good team -- we played really good basketball. I did not want to take away the effort our guys battled and fought and didn't fold. They didn't fold at the end.”
Since those disturbing, non-competitive, back-to-back blowout losses at home to the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers that opened the season, the Bulls haven’t folded much at all. Sure, there have been dispiriting losses like the blown, fourth-quarter lead in an overtime loss at the Oklahoma City Thunder. Or the back-breaking collapse to the Portland Trail Blazers. Or the dud at home to the Wahsington Wizards.
But time and again, the resilient Bulls have rallied.
“I think our mindset of just continuing, not being down on ourselves. We always have fight,” Zach LaVine said, when asked where he has seen the most growth in the season’s first half. “It doesn’t matter if we get down 20. I think we always have a chance of coming back.”
Think about all that has happened in the first 34 games: LaVine, who posted his 11th 35-point game, has ascended to an All-Star player who impacts winning. Coby White, whose 25 points featured big free throws late, has grown in his first season as a full-time starter. Veterans Thad Young and Garrett Temple have provided steady play and heady leadership. Patrick Williams hasn’t often played like he’s 19.
Granted, injuries to Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. -- who came up with a big rebound, one of his 15, in a rare closing stint -- have placed dampers on delirium. But there’s a lot to like from a team that is overachieving to this point.
“I think about that first game against Atlanta and how we look now,” Donovan said. “Sometimes as a coach, it’s hard to see. You are going day-by-day, But sometimes you go back and watch some of these games from earlier in the year and you are like, ‘Oh my god. This is tough.’
“They really have made really good progress. It’s not where we want to be. We’re not satisfied where we are at. We’ve got to keep striving to raise a level of play and a standard that is better than it was today. That’s the challenge.
“These guys have been phenomenal. But we have a long way to go and I'm trying to not have them be satisfied and we need to keep trying to pull more out of each other. They need to pull more out of me. I gotta pull more out of them. We just gotta pull more out of each other. And there's more to give. And there's growth and there's an opportunity to improve and get better.
That’s Donovan -- always charging forward, always demanding more with a style that's purposeful but praising.