Bulls dig deep for shorthanded win over Nets

10 observations: Bulls rally for signature win vs. Nets originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Javonte Green is back in Chicago after testing positive for COVID-19 on Friday. Alex Caruso departed after eight first-quarter minutes attempting to play through a hamstring strain.

Still, the Chicago Bulls dug deep for a 111-107 road win against the Brooklyn Nets Saturday night – in the process securing their second win of the year, and clinching the season series, over the Eastern Conference’s top seed (who, it should be noted, played without Joe Harris).

The second-seeded Bulls now trail them by half a game in the standings.

Here are 10 observations:

1. Caruso, who began the game active despite being a gametime decision, drew the Kevin Durant assignment when the Bulls’ defense was set, poked a pass away from the Nets superstar for a steal and shot 2-for-4 from 3-point range in the first quarter.

However, Caruso checked out at the 4:01 mark of the period and didn’t return. He gave it a shot, but was noticeably favoring his injury in eight first-quarter minutes. Billy Donovan said postgame the Bulls’ medical staff made the call to pull him after being dissatisfied with the way he was moving.

2. As they have on so many nights this season, Zach LaVine (31 points) and DeMar DeRozan (29 points) led the way in the bucket-getting department, combining for 60 of the Bulls’ 111 points on even 50 percent shooting (22-for-44).

Early on, they took turns taking over. DeRozan scored 14 points in the first half, and anchored reserve-laden lineups featuring Derrick Jones Jr., Ayo Dosunmu, Troy Brown Jr., and Alize Johnson/Tony Bradley that held serve against Durant and James Harden-staggered Nets units between the first and second quarters, and at the beginning of the fourth. In the third quarter, when the Bulls punched back after Brooklyn pulled in front by 11 points, LaVine poured in 13 of his eventual 31.

3. But, while LaVine scored seven points in the final frame, the fourth quarter was once again DeRozan’s time. He scored 13 of his 29 points in the fourth and, as he did at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, dazzled with his midrange shotmaking on multiple occasions. DeRozan shot 5-for-8 on non-restricted area 2-pointers in the fourth quarter, and had this and-one finish at the rim to boot.

DeRozan has now scored 178 points in the fourth quarter this season — first in the league by a wide margin — on 63-119 (52.9 percent) field-goal shooting, 47-for-52 (90.4 percent) from the foul line. His presence in crunch-time has been wholly stabilizing for a group pulling out tight games with a level of consistency unseen in years.

4. The final dagger of the contest came from Lonzo Ball. One game after shooting 2-for-10 from 3-point range against the Knicks, Ball missed five of his first six long-range attempts in Brooklyn, but saved his best for last with a corner triple that made the score 110-105 with 16.9 seconds to play.

In fitting fashion, the bucket was assisted by DeRozan:

“It’s big. We trust him,” DeRozan said of Ball. “I tell every single guy: ‘I don’t care if they miss 10 in a row. Shoot the next one.’

“It shows a lot about who Zo is. I had the utmost confidence, when I seen him space up for that 3, that he was going to knock it down.”

5. On a night the Bulls’ depth was strained beyond comfort, Dosunmu stepped up at both ends, tallying 11 points (5-for-6 shooting), three rebounds and two blocks in 23 minutes off the pine. His energy on defense (with a loud block of Patty Mills) and in transition (with two fastbreak buckets) popped in a late third quarter stretch where the Bulls trimmed a nine-point deficit to three. And he notched five points at timely moments in the fourth quarter, once pulling up from midrange to put the Bulls ahead 87-86, later putting back a DeRozan miss to extend their advantage to 98-94, and finally sinking a free throw with 9.3 seconds remaining to give the Bulls a two-possession lead.

Dosunmu’s impact (game-high +16 in a four-point win) continues to belie the fact that he slipped into the Bulls lap with the 38th pick in the 2021 draft. And he gets up for big games. Dosunmu’s NBA career-high scoring night, remember, came on Nov. 8, when he poured in 15 points as the Bulls routed these same Nets at the United Center.

6. The Bulls saw multiple sporadically-used reserves play critical roles in the win, a marker of a serious-minded group that genuinely embodies the sometimes-stale stay ready adage. 

Dosunmu made all of the above contributions despite seeing his minute fizzle for a time as Donovan reintegrated Coby White into the rotation. Tony Bradley saw his first real rotation turn since Nov. 22, and scored two points with three rebounds in seven second-half minutes. And Troy Brown Jr. scored five points, pulled down six rebounds and handed out three assists, hustling all over the floor despite a wayward shooting night.

7. Jones Jr. started the second half in Caruso’s place en route to a season-high 33 minutes. He absorbed the Durant assignment, buried two 3s (scoring eight points, in all) and sent back four blocks in those ticks, providing particularly strong impact down the stretch of the third quarter, when he swatted two shots and kick-started this Dosunmu layup – needed on a night the Bulls struggled to break loose in transition early on.

8. The Bulls allowed Brooklyn some scorching hot shooting returns at the start of the first quarter, and yielded 10 offensive rebounds and 15 second-chance points in the first half. Donovan said postgame he thought the Nets beat the Bulls to too many loose balls early on.

9. In the second half, though, came adjustments. The Nets’ highly-potent offense ended the night shooting just 41.4 percent, and they secured just five offensive rebounds (which produced eight second-chance points) between quarters three and four. The Bulls also rode enhanced energy to 10 fastbreak points in the second half compared to three in the first, which helped juice their offense at key junctures.

Durant scored 28 points on 12-for-26 shooting (11-for-19 after a 1-for-7 first quarter) and LaMarcus Aldridge added 20 of his own, but the Bulls held Brooklyn down enough to hang around, then out-executed them late.

10. Perhaps as telling of this team’s mentality as Saturday’s result was the way Donovan spoke about the performance after the game.

“We’ve got to get better,” he said, stressing the need for more consistency instead of making up for the foibles of the first two quarters with their impressive second half.

“I’m not gonna take one game in the middle of December and say this is unbelievable,” he later added. “It’s only one game. We’ve got another one on Monday.”

Yes, that was Donovan after a shorthanded victory over the Eastern Conference’s top seed. This Bulls team has higher aspirations than even this brand of signature win – it’s only game 24 of the regular season, after all.

So concludes the Bulls’ two-game New York sweep. Next up: Back home for the Denver Nuggets on Monday.

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