Bulls own top-10 offense, defense since Minnesota loss originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
PARIS — There are always challenges throughout an NBA season.
Back-to-back sets of games. Injuries. Scoring droughts. Inconsistent defensive spurs. Time changes throughout travel.
The best teams navigate them by sustaining intensity and competitiveness throughout. That doesn’t mean they win every game. It means they give themselves a chance to do so more often than not.
the Chicago Bulls have won two straight following Thursday night’s take-care-of-business victory over the Detroit Pistons in the franchise’s first regular-season international game. Afterward, players and coach Billy Donovan talked about the unique, five-day trip as good for team bonding and re-focusing.
But the Bulls have shown signs of becoming the team they believe they can be before.
In fact, they are 10-6 since the Dec. 18 debacle in Minnesota, in which they allowed 150 points in a regular-season game for the first time in 40 years.
That’s the night that teammates had strong exchanges seeking accountability from each other at halftime and when veteran guard Goran Dragic summarized matters succinctly postgame.
“We’re not playing for each other,” Dragic said then. “Simple as that.”
So, sitting at 21-24 and in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, what will be different this time? How can the Bulls sustain consistent play moving forward?
“I say you compare it, you call it out and you try to expose it,” Donovan said of the inconsistent stretches. “And I appreciated Goran saying what he said because at the time, I think there was a lot of accuracy to what he was saying. And not that anybody has a bad or selfish heart; that’s not what I’m saying. But when you miss a shot and it impacts you in a negative way and it takes you two or three plays to get over that? You’re not really wrapped up in competing in the team.
“There’s a selflessness that takes place. The guy standing next to you has to be so important to you that you have such respect for him. And I’m not saying our guys disrespected each other. But it’s almost a reverse way of looking at it: ‘I’m letting the team down because I turned the ball over or missed a shot or blew a defensive assignment.’ No, you’re letting the team down when it parlays into four or five possessions after that.
“So I think when Goran talked about we’re not playing for each other, you’ve got to pick yourself up off the mat because it’s a game that is imperfect. And you’re going to be making mistakes throughout 48 minutes. It’s about how you collectively respond to overcome what’s in front of you regardless of what is going on. The more we can play and care for each other, regardless of what you’re going through individually, that’s what can create the consistency we need.”
Nine games remain until the Feb. 9 trade deadline. To this point, executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas has given no indications to rival executives that he plans to move off his oft-stated goal of continuity for the core that he and general manager Marc Eversley and their staff built, the one that led the Eastern Conference for much of last season until injuries—most significantly to Lonzo Ball—hit.
Ball hasn’t played in an NBA game for over a year and said in Paris while he’s making progress that he still feels discomfort at times. There’s no timetable for his return.
Still, the Bulls have shown signs of being a team that can achieve Karnišovas’ publicly stated goal of improving upon last season. That means winning at least one playoff round. They are 2-0 against the Milwaukee Bucks, 2-2 with two competitive road losses to the Boston Celtics and 2-0 against the Brooklyn Nets.
“These last couple of wins, we’ve been playing the right way, sharing the ball,” Zach LaVine said. “Obviously with DeMar (DeRozan) coming back, it’s great. We’re almost fully healthy again.”
At this point, expecting anything out of Ball—or even his return this season—is a longshot. So the Bulls will have to rely on their three stars in LaVine, DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic—who has 10 straight double-doubles—and consistent contributions from role players.
That means not succumbing to in-game failure. That means being physically tough on the court and mentally tough off it.
“We can’t let our offense dictate our defense. And we can’t let our offense dictate our competitiveness. If you’re really competing, you just get lost in the game,” Donovan said. “I’ve said this from Day One: We’ve got a really good group of guys. I think they’re high character guys and the chemistry and the way they get along is really good.
“But I think there are things that happen in the course of a game that—whatever word you want to use—distract us, frustrate us, get us down, disappoint us. And we go through these droughts where our competitive of intensity is not where it needs to be. I thought we took a positive step on this trip. Now we have to prove it we can do it for a sustainable period of time. And that’s the challenge.”
Indeed it is. The Bulls currently are tied for 18th with a net rating of minus-0.2. They own the 17th-ranked offense and 14th-ranked defense.
But since that ugly night in Minnesota, they own the eighth-ranked offense, ninth-ranked defense and their net rating of plus-2.9 is 10th.
These numbers can be a foundation from which to build. Or not. It’s up to the Bulls.
“Every single game is that much more important,” DeRozan said. “And that’s the challenge. We showed in the first half of the season that we can compete against the top teams in this league. Now it’s about putting it together every single night no matter who we’re playing. Because these games, we can’t get back. As long as have that mindset and understand the importance of every single game and every single practice from here on out, we have a chance to put ourselves in a good position.”