An 0-3 start that featured two blowout losses and a last-second heartbreaker. A coach challenging his players to be mentally tougher. Four late scratches to the league’s health and safety protocols regarding COVID-19.
You could say the Bulls won a basketball game Thursday evening to close out 2020. But, lowly opponent or not, they did more than that.
They began to display the resilience and readiness to play that Billy Donovan seeks. They showed the mental fortitude needed to lose Lauri Markkanen, Tomáš Satoranský, Chandler Hutchison and Ryan Arcidiacono hours before tipoff and still place seven players in double figures with 34 assists to boot.
“It was some growth because I thought in the Indiana game when we got kind of hit during that second half we just didn't come back and compete. And I thought we fought a lot better (Thursday) in the midst of a lot of runs and momentum changing and shifting and having to kind of regroup and refocus,” Donovan said. “We made some plays coming down the stretch which was great to see.”
One of the biggest came with 44.6 seconds left, 16.4 seconds after Coby White had given the Bulls the lead for good with two free throws. Triple-double in tow already, Russell Westbrook attacked Zach LaVine on a drive. Showing strong footwork, LaVine cut off the angle, then stayed with the former MVP as he spun and attempted a shot in the lane that LaVine blocked.
“I know he’s going to try to get to the body and to the foul line. They were attacking the paint a lot. I just stayed in front of him when he spun,” LaVine said. “I tried to go straight up, and I got a piece of the ball. Obviously, we all know how Westbrook is -- aggressive and one of the all-time greats. You have to step up to the plate. It’s just competition.”
But that’s the difference. Too often in those first two blowout losses, the Bulls weren’t competitive at all for long stretches. Daniel Gafford, huge off the bench in Markkanen’s absence, called it straight.
“There were times, like, we just gave up basically,” Gafford said. “We mentally were checked out.”
Through it all, Donovan kept the same demeanor. That’s what multiple players said.
“He’s been positive, but he challenges us,” LaVine said. “And we need that.”
Here’s an example: When Donovan fielded a question postgame about Wendell Carter Jr. responding to a lackluster first half with a strong second half, Donovan said “it can’t take a half.” And then later in the answer, he praised Carter.
That’s the line of holding players accountable while keeping them confident that the coach is walking.
Donovan spread credit to veterans. And that’s another difference. Even with Satoranský unfortunately enduring his second trip to the league’s health and safety protocol, the veterans are rounding into shape.
Garrett Temple, who missed most of training camp due to a positive COVID-19 test, reminds you nightly why he’s one of those pros any team would be happy to have. Otto Porter Jr., pushed into the starting lineup in place of Markkanen, scored in double figures for the fifth straight game and connected on five 3-pointers. Thad Young, who had battled a leg infection, made his season debut to the tune of 15 points, six assists and two steals.
“I think the guys are buying into listening to the veteran guys that’s coming off the bench in that second unit,” Young said. “And they’re watching some of the things that we do when we do get in the game. And then they’re just applying it to their games.”
“I think the veteran guys like Thad and Otto and Zach and Garrett, I think their voices are good for these younger guys. They don’t always understand, and they have to learn,” the coach said. “Mixing those guys out with some of the younger guys is helpful, but the messaging on the bench by those veteran guys is really good.
“You try to help those guys identify what the problem is, how do we fix it and what we have to do on the next possession. They’ve been pretty good about responding to those things.”
That’s why it felt like the Bulls won more than a game Thursday evening. They won progress points from their coach.