Nikola Vucevic was an absolute train wreck for most of Saturday night’s showdown against the Jazz at the United Center in the first game after Patrick Williams’ likely season-ending injury. But with the Bulls struggling to hold off the Jazz down the stretch, the big man hit the two biggest shots of the game on back-to-back possessions, cashing a 3-pointer and then taking it right at Rudy Gobert and finishing it over him to put Utah away. The final result was a 107-99 Bulls victory to move them to 5-1 on the season, knocking off the last undefeated team in the NBA in the process.
Vucevic was 2-of-16 from the field before those two clutch makes, and he wound up finishing with 16 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 4-of-19. It was painful to watch him brick so many open looks all night, but he overcame the adversity to come up with those game-sealing makes.
Somebody who didn’t brick many shots was DeMar DeRozan, who was on one all game to finish with a game-high 32 points on 13-of-22 shooting. He really got the Bulls going in the first half by going at Eric Paschall with his mid-range game, and he also hit a clutch mid-range shot in the final two minutes after the Jazz got the deficit to five.
Zach LaVine had a stellar 26/5/5 night even though there were times it looked like he was laboring a bit. We saw him grabbing at that injured thumb, but he was able to overcome that with some aggressive drives and finishes. He only took four 3-pointers (I want to see him take more given the Bulls’ lack of 3-point shooting; they won this game shooting 5-of-21 from deep), though the one he made put the Bulls up 15 midway through the fourth quarter and had the UC going wild. It was awesome to see LaVine really fired up after that make.
And how about that Chicago defense?
While the Bulls were a bit lucky with the Jazz missing open 3-pointers early, they played their ass off on the defensive end of the floor, especially in the second half. A lot of that energy was courtesy of the new-look second unit with Williams out. Troy Brown Jr. also got yanked early after a terrible 3-point attempt, leading to big minutes for Ayo Dosunmu off the bench.
Tony Bradley, Derrick Jones Jr. and Ayo all sparked the Bulls with their effort for the reserve unit. None of them did much scoring, but Chicago crushed Utah when those guys were on the court. Bradley’s presence at the rim was stout, and he even stuffed Hassan Whiteside twice en route to a team-best plus-19 in the box score. Jones had three blocks himself and a steal and was a plus-18. Ayo’s box score stats look awful because his shooting is a major work in progress (he did hit a 3 for his lone bucket), but he made a difference with his defense and did some nice things on offense by playing with force. Ayo was a plus-17.
The Jazz shot just 38.0% from the field and 11-of-38 from 3-point range. A handful of those triples came late as they were attempting their ill-fated comeback. The Bulls forced 20 turnovers and scored 25 points off those turnovers, with Lonzo Ball racking up four steals. Donovan Mitchell scored 30 points, but he shot just 9-of-27 from the field and had only eight points in the second half after dominating the first half. Jordan Clarkson shot just 5-of-19 and was 1-of-11 in the first half. Utah definitely missed the calm hand of Mike Conley in this one.
The strong defensive effort helped Chicago win despite a so-so offensive performance. Beating a really good opponent when making only five 3-pointers is really impressive, and the Bulls just shot 42.9% as a team. However, they did take care of the ball with nine turnovers, and they also went 24-of-30 from the charity stripe. After struggling to get to the line so much last season, this Bulls team is consistently getting to the line more this season. That’s one of the reasons why they signed DeRozan, and he has helped there in a big way.
Chicago’s offense had more issues down the stretch in this game, which allowed Utah to get back in the game when the 3-point shots started to fall. But the Bulls hit enough shots when it mattered to secure this huge win. There’s clearly still plenty of room for improvement, so it’s great to see them stack wins as they work through early adversity.
This was a truly impressive win, and a road tilt against the Celtics is up next on Monday.