The Bulls were hit with a double-shot of bad news late last week, with their first loss of the season in a game they were fairly outplayed and then learning that Patrick Williams would likely be out for the season.
They responded to that with a home win over the West’s best Utah Jazz, and then an incredible comeback-turned-domination of the Celtics in Boston. It shows that this team is not like past iterations: they can handle in-game and game-over-game adversity. And that’s because they have, well, many more good players! Veteran, confident, competent players. This was lost on the prior front office as a possible advantage for your basketball team.
In prior seasons, so many of these wins would’ve been squandered and certainly the last two games would have seen it turned out that way. These have been games where Zach LaVine hasn’t been otherworldly. In the wake of his own injury issues, LaVine has been merely “really good” (and you know what? even with a bum off-hand in last three games Zach’s only had four turnovers in 108 minutes), but the Bulls have another scorer now in DeMar DeRozan.
It's crazy that DeMar DeRozan is actually just 1997-1998 Michael Jordan— Ricky O'Donnell (@SBN_Ricky) November 2, 2021
Prior seasons, there’s nobody to keep the Bulls offense afloat when LaVine is struggling or off the floor. And DeRozan has been steadying that bench unit, as it’s known they are scoring-deficient. In prior seasons, the Bulls go down 19 in the 3rd quarter and it’s Denzel Valentine out there puking up nonsense while doing an old-man shuffle. These Bulls have a bunch of guys who, yes, where some may wind up becoming pumpkins and just in a nice stretch of performances. But they play hard and can defend.
The last two games has seen several bench players put in very positive performances after seeing Williams’s absence bump them up in the rotation:
versus Jazz: Jones +18, Bradley +19, Dosunmu, +17
versus Celtics: Caruso +21, Jones +23, Bradley +11, Dosunmu +15
These bench players, and Javonte Green’s role as 5th Bulltle (Celtics broadcast was shaking their heads how Green got an alley-oop dunk off a missed free throw), all show the power of being active and athletic. There was a stretch in the 3rd quarter that would’ve been an afterthought most years but turned out to be critical given the result: down nearly 20 points with LaVine and Vucevic subbed out, Caruso (who was certainly showing his limitations in the first half!) was noticeably pushing the ball up the court to try and catch the C’s being complacent.
This was over several similar possessions and kept the Bulls at a more manageable deficit.
Ime Udoka said the collapse started to happen in the late third when he was lecturing the team they were letting up in transition:— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) November 2, 2021
"Stopped playing as hard as we were. Started to relax and got cute, careless."
The Bulls outscored the Celtics 39-11 in the fourth quarter, and 51-18 in the game’s final 14 minutes, 19 seconds after falling behind 96-77. It was an absolutely remarkable turnaround.
To the Bulls’ credit, they refound their identity down the stretch after losing their way in the first half. In the second half, the Bulls scored 12 points off eight Celtics turnovers, visited the free-throw line 15 times and relentlessly attacked the basket in the fourth quarter. What’s more, the Celtics shot 0-for-8 from 3-point range in the fourth (they were 15-for-25 through three), while the Bulls went 3-for-6 from distance in the final frame (they entered it 10-for-25 — 3-for-16 after their torrid first quarter). The Bulls’ defensive activity and rotations were much crisper late, cooling a Celtics offense that shot over 51 percent from the field in the game’s first 36 minutes.
And this is not to undersell why such deficits are seen as manageable. It’s not just due to a potentially-flukey bench performance, it’s because the Bulls overall have better players, and more of them. You couldn’t help but feel confident seeing the Celtics truly terrible reserves not being able to stop the bleeding, and knowing that their only possible counter is lo-calorie Kobe. While both DeRozan and LaVine were excellent in the 4th, the Celtics best players had only excuses.
Zach still may not be a *good* defender, but the effort is there more consistently than it has been in the past. S/O Tony Bradley too. The effort leads to a bucket on the other end. It's funny how this game works. The strength to split Timelord and Jaylen Brown for and 1, wow. pic.twitter.com/phbrRJF7B5— Larro (@_LarroHoops) November 2, 2021
Of course, the Celtics did put the Bulls in a 19-point hole in the first place, and the Jazz missed somewhere north of 29 open three pointers when they fell to Chicago. It’s not like the Bulls are some underrated juggernaut. They will struggle being undersized (Celtics are even worse on this front), and the bench still has a paucity of scorers (Dosunmu going 6-6 was a gleeful outlier).
But this year’s Bulls are still different. They’re resilient, they’re competitive, they look freakin’ good. It was thought going into November that the schedule would expose them somewhat. But perhaps now instead of that conventional wisdom, it’s instead looking like the Bulls are the ones who are the tough matchup.