Bulls

Observations: LaVine erupts as Bulls finish off 4-0 preseason

Bulls

The Chicago Bulls wrapped preseason play with a 118-105 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies at the United Center on Friday.

While still the exhibition stage, the Bulls finished the preseason a perfect 4-0, and with the league's third-rated offense and top-rated defense while playing their key players heavy minutes to establish chemistry. A bit of positive momentum heading into an important regular season, if nothing else.

Here are six observations from the finale:

1. Patrick Williams returned to the starting lineup just over a month after being sidelined with a left ankle sprain.

And in 22 minutes (which kept with Billy Donovan’s pregame goal of 18-24), the second-year forward notched six points, three rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block.

“It felt good overall. Of course, when you’re winning it helps,” Williams said of his ankle. “We were able to get out in transition and I felt good, running and cutting.” He later added his conditioning felt “shaky” in the first half, but he found his wind in the third quarter.

Williams wasn’t involved much offensively, attempting just six shots. But he did make two of three 3-point attempts, taking both without hesitation. 

For a flash in the second quarter, Donovan ran Williams at center in a lineup composed of him, Alex Caruso, Lonzo Ball, Javonte Green and DeMar DeRozan. The Bulls allowed a Grizzlies offensive board in the moment that unit was on the court, but also got a catch-and-shoot 3 from Williams in semi-transition after he battled Steven Adams for a loose rebound. 

 

The experiment ended, Donovan said, when he saw the Grizzlies had checked Adams into the game, but the Bulls coach added it’s a look the team could consider in the future.

2. Nikola Vučević heated up.

Nikola Vučević entered play shooting 34.9 percent in the preseason, and said after the Pelicans game he typically has shooting rust to shake off early in seasons.

In this one, the Bulls center caught fire on multiple occasions, and finished with 23 points on scorching 11-for-14 shooting. He got shots to fall as the Bulls ran offense through him pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop and the post. Clean looks in those actions were common throughout the preseason, but conversions weren't.

And, for good measure, a third-quarter 3-pointer marked Vučević's first long-range makes of the preseason. He finishes exhibition play 1-for-16 from distance.

3. Zach LaVine was in attack mode.

LaVine continued to get his offense in the flow, scoring his 31 points on an array of drives to the rim against bent defenses, pull-up jump-shots and transition leak-outs. He also notched six assists and six rebounds.

But the most important number of LaVine’s night was the 10 in the “free-throw attempts” column. He finished 9-for-10 from the line. LaVine has already ascended to rare heights as a scorer, but Donovan’s next challenge for his All-Star guard has always been to drive downhill early and often, and play forcefully with the ball in his hands. He did that in this one. 

A prolific preseason for LaVine ends with a 22.5 points per game average to go with 51.7 percent shooting from the field and 52.4 percent shooting from 3-point range.

4. Javonte Green… Backup power forward?

Donovan said pregame that, while nothing is set in stone as of yet, he has a feel for what his regular-season rotation will look like, and that he’ll need to pare down to “nine or ten” players.

In the first three quarters of this one, it was nine: The starters, plus Alex Caruso, Troy Brown Jr., Javonte Green and Tony Bradley off the pine. Brown and Green were the first substitutes, while Bradley replaced Alize Johnson as Vučević's primary backup in his first preseason action.

Green, who started at power forward for the team’s first three preseason games, took the first backup power forward rotation turn over Derrick Jones Jr. (who didn't play) and Stanley Johnson. He appeared to fill that station in a couple different lineup combinations.

Donovan pulled his starters midway through the fourth quarter with the Bulls ahead by one. But it stands to reason his using of nine players — and those nine specific players — could foreshadow his regular-season rotational thinking.

5. Alex Caruso’s stat lines continue to belie his impact.

Caruso posted nine points and two steals in 26 minutes, but his fingerprints were more all over this game than that line would indicate.

 

In the first half, he made two possession-altering plays on the back-end of a Grizzlies run-out. On one, he swatted a De’Anthony Melton lob pass out of bounds after the Memphis guard appeared to have a clear line to the cup. Later, he took a charge to stymie another Grizzlies fastbreak.

In the second quarter, Caruso also drew an offensive foul on Xavier Tillman doing what he does best: Battling through a screen. And he was all over the court as the Bulls’ reserves sparked a late-fourth-quarter run — throwing down hammer dunks and scraping his knees jumping passing lanes. 

But the biggest takeaway from Caruso’s preseason is that his heady play, and motor-mouth, project to be impactful for the Bulls — particularly on the defensive end, and regardless of his statistics.

“He's a great communicator. He sees things before it happens,” Donovan said of Caruso. “He's always I think talking to our group about areas we gotta get better and things we gotta improve on in particular.”

“He’s a big talker,” LaVine later added. “I like it.”

Donovan included Caruso in five-man units with the starters (minus Williams) at the end of the second quarter and beginning of the fourth, indicating he’s one of the team’s most trusted six players and could be counted on in high-leverage moments.

6. Tony Bradley made his Bulls debut.

Bradley, like Williams, hadn’t seen any preseason action until Friday. His ailment was a lower back strain.

Against Memphis, the Bulls’ presumptive backup center scored four points and pulled down two rebounds in nine minutes. He looked a bit slow closing out to Jaren Jackson Jr. (29 points, 7-for-12 from deep) on 3-point attempts and shot 2-for-5 from the floor. Time will tell if those limitations are real, or a product of preseason rust.

Interestingly, Donovan indicated pregame that he views both Bradley and Alize Johnson as centers at the moment, so it stands to reason one could be squeezed out of the rotation come regular-season time. Donovan added he’s still evaluating Johnson’s viability as a power forward in his system; that’s Johnson’s traditional position, but he didn’t get much a chance to play it during the preseason with Bradley out. Johnson notched six points and five rebounds in a flurry down the stretch.

Next up: The regular-season opener at the Detroit Pistons on Oct. 20.

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