The Bulls’ early-season success was fueled by their two All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine, plus a defense that did a great job turning stops and turnovers into points on the other end. It had been a while since we saw the Bulls put together a complete performance led by all those factors, with injuries nuking the defense and the offense hitting a bit of a rut of late.
For at least one night, in the most important game of the season against the Raptors, the Bulls found that mojo from the first half and delivered their best effort since the All-Star break. It just so happened to coincide with Patrick Williams’ return to the lineup, and the youngster made his presence felt in his nearly 19 minutes of action off the bench, even if the box score doesn’t really show it.
This game turned midway through the third quarter. Despite having a significant rest advantage on their home court, the Bulls were down 65-63 with 6:42 to play in the frame after a pair of Pascal Siakam free throws. LaVine was having another quiet scoring night (he bafflingly passed up on some great looks in the first half), and Nikola Vucevic was having major problems against this athletic Raptors team.
But then LaVine found Alex Caruso for a much-needed 3-pointer, which began a 15-0 Bulls run that was capped off by a terrific Williams steal and finish on the other end. Chicago held Toronto without a field goal for over six minutes at one point in the third quarter, turning a close game into a rout that never got all that close again.
While some of this can certainly be chalked up to the shorthanded Raptors being on the second of a back-to-back after a grinder against the Sixers on Sunday, it also turns out that having more defensive talent available helps your defense:
The Bulls defense has so badly missed these guys. pic.twitter.com/gbdamfNW8u— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) March 22, 2022
The Bulls didn’t turn over the Raptors a ton, but 14 Toronto turnovers turned into a whopping 29 points for Chicago, tying the second-highest mark of the season. The fresh Bulls were very opportunistic pushing the pace, ramming it down the Raptors’ throats and not allowing them to get set into their half-court defense. This is exactly what needed to be done to a team with tired legs, and it worked to perfection in the second half.
It also helped that LaVine woke up in the third quarter, joining DeRozan with an efficient tag-team performance. LaVine scored 16 of his 26 points in the third, and DeRozan ultimately matched him with 26 points of his own by doing his thing in the fourth quarter with nine. The All-Star duo combined for 52 points on 20-of-32 from the field. While the Bulls are the smaller team, it was Deebo making the Raptors, and specifically Fred VanVleet, look small late:
DeRozan even had three blocks and drew a charge, that’s how much things were going right for Chicago on defense. Meanwhile, LaVine has had some really volatile in-game swings as he continues to manage his knee injury, but he figured it out at the right time in this game to help complement the swarming Bulls defense. It truly felt like one of their early-season wins, albeit without Lonzo Ball, with the vibes on a much better level after a truly horrific West Coast trip had me worried about falling into the play-in tournament.
The 10-day shutdown of Ball did put a damper on the mood coming into this game, so it felt even better to see them deliver this kind of performance. Beating the Raptors to secure the tiebreaker should essentially lock in a top-six spot (it did clinch at least a play-in spot), as long as there’s no massive collapse, and it was also nice to see LeBron James destroy his former team to help out Chicago. The Bulls are 2.5 games up on the Raptors and 1.5 up on the Cavs.
As mentioned, Williams’ box score numbers are nothing to write home about. He had seven points on 3-of-8 shooting and 1-of-3 from 3-point range while grabbing only two rebounds and securing that highlight-reel steal and finish in the third quarter. The Bulls were outscored by one in his nearly 19 minutes of action.
Still, this was undoubtedly an encouraging showing after a near-five-month absence. Williams looked to be moving well and said he felt good after the game. He played solid defense and didn’t make too many mistakes, though he predictably did have some issues navigating screens and it would be nice to see him be more impactful on the glass.
Offensively, he didn’t hesitate to put up shots when given the opportunity. Williams will be left open a lot as defenses focus on the Bulls’ offensive stars, so he’s going to need to be ready to fire away when the ball comes in his direction. He did that in this game, including for his first bucket:
Outside of that steal and finish, Williams also had this impressive bucket off the dribble, attacking an aggressive Precious Achiuwa closeout and finishing:
I was admittedly concerned about Williams having record-scratch moments, and he still has to prove he can be consistently effective. Expectations should remain rather low simply because of his inexperience and all the time off, but he at least showed some nice signs in his return game and understands what he must do:
Asked Patrick Williams postgame about his mentality in 1st game back as it relates to looking for own shot (he took 8 FGA in 19 mins)— Rob Schaefer (@rob_schaef) March 22, 2022
Found his answer — which hits on film study illuminating the need for ancillary playmaking as opponents trap LaVine/DeRozan — to be insightful pic.twitter.com/UxG37LtlJb
Pat just needs to show he can actually do it. Anything the Bulls can get out of him is gravy.
Here’s a full reel of Williams’ plays from the game:
Trying something new. Here is every noteworthy play that Patrick Williams was involved in during his return last night, both good and bad. Get a fuller picture of a performance rather than just the good stuff. pic.twitter.com/txpfmIpGpT— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) March 22, 2022
The new rotation
With Williams back and rookie Ayo Dosunmu struggling of late, Billy Donovan decided to get Alex Caruso in the starting lineup for the rook. As expected, Javonte Green stayed in the starting lineup, with Williams coming off the bench. Derrick Jones Jr. was the odd man out of the rotation, not even getting any tick in garbage time, though one has to wonder if Jones will get some minutes here and there depending on matchups. Tristan Thompson got 13 minutes as the backup center and had four points, four rebounds and two blocks.
Donovan did say after the game that Caruso will remain in the starting lineup, which is the right play given Ball’s continued absence and potential to be out for the rest of the season. Ayo looked like he hit a wall on that West Coast trip, so getting the battle-hardened Caruso into the starting lineup as the playoffs approach just makes sense.
Dosunmu did look rejuvenated on Monday, though, going for 11 points on 5-of-9 shooting off the bench to go with six assists and zero turnovers (the Bulls only had six giveaways as a team) in 24 minutes. With Ayo making an impact on both ends, Coby White only played 13 minutes, but while he shot just 1-of-5 from the field, he did have four assists and no rebounds. That will be a rotation battle to watch coming down the stretch, and Donovan might just have to do it by feel depending on matchups and how these guys are looking game-to-game.
Will Bulls replicate this effort in Milwaukee?
Again, this was an outstanding win. The Raptors have won a tough games lately, so taking it to them after all the Bulls’ recent struggles was a sight for sore eyes, especially given what was at stake.
However, it’s still true that the Raptors have been through the gauntlet of late thanks to a road-heavy schedule (eight of their last nine on the road) while dealing with key injuries. OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. didn’t play in this one, and VanVleet has been hurting too. Toronto shot just 6-of-32 from the 3-point line and clearly ran out of gas.
The question is if the Bulls can now bring this kind of effort for their own second game of a back-to-back on Tuesday up in Milwaukee. The Bulls have competed well against the Bucks so far this season, only to fall short on both prior occasions. Chicago just hasn’t been able to get over the hump against the elite teams, and the 16-19 record on the road is no good either.
The Bucks won’t have Khris Middleton available because of a wrist injury, but Giannis Antetokounmpo is probable after missing the last game with knee soreness. Milwaukee will be the fresh team in this one after not playing since Saturday.
The Bulls are due for a win against one of these NBA elites, but it’s going to be tough given the rest disadvantage, and we’ll see how much Williams and LaVine (questionable) play. If they can bring it like they did on Monday, perhaps they can pull off the upset.