The Bulls claimed their first win of the season over a team above .500 with an impressive showing against the Clippers in Chicago on Saturday night. Zach LaVine grabbed the headlines with a game winning shot, but the plaudits largely went to Denzel Valentine and Kris Dunn, both of whom were huge down the stretch.
Zach LaVine makes the highlight show because he was The Closer, making the winning shot Saturday with a drive for a three-point play in the Bulls 109-106 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. Denzel Valentine playing the entire fourth quarter receives supporting billing for a crucial three pointer with 48.3 seconds left to tie the game. Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. were credited with crucial rebounds in the last minute. If you read the box score and detail you would have thought Kris Dunn was out ordering the post game popcorn.
Instead of basically enabling the others to star and win the game for the desperate Bulls.
"We gave up a bunch of threes at the end of the game," acknowledged Clippers coach Doc Rivers. "If I had to single out one guy that was the most important player in this game, Dunn was the most important. I thought defensively he bothered us. He was clearly the tougher player on that one rebound. He wanted it more, so when you have that you lose the game."
It was the play that probably was the most significant despite not being recorded on anyone's chart other than in the hearts of those playing the game.
"Kris is one of the best defenders in the NBA," said LaVine, who finished with 31 points and four of seven threes. "He just needs to get more recognition of it. That's what he does. He uses his strength, he has incredible instincts and is a ball hawk. It's hard to put the ball down around him. KD was tremendous with defense on the play when he got the rebound and tipped it back out, a confusion play and he did an incredible job. That's what it comes down to; you have to make plays."
The Bulls this time, finally, were the team making the big plays down the stretch: LaVine with a three to give the Bulls a 96-95 lead with 5:25 left, LaVine with another after the Clippers went ahead 105-100 with 1:33 left and the Bulls seemed again ready to be talking about a loss and moral victory, Valentine with his big three in taking the reins instead of looking like Claude Rains, and LaVine in a tie game on an inbounds play with 5.4 seconds left getting past Paul George with a distraction move from Dunn — there was that man again with no stat — and crashing into the granite of Montrezl Harrell and scoring and getting fouled for the three-point margin. George would miss an attempt to tie at the buzzer amidst Dunn's annoyance.
There was finally a lot of great stuff there from the Bulls, though the image of the game for the Bulls was the desire illustrated by Dunn that placed the stop sign on defeat.
"I do a little bit of everything," said Dunn, who had nine points, nine rebounds, three blocks, two steals and a team high plus-22 rating. "I scratch, I claw."
And was tireless and determined when he won multiple loose balls amidst three Clippers to set up Valentine's tying three when the Clippers were probably one rebound from the win.
"We talked about at halftime that the 50/50 balls were going to be the deciding factor in the game," said Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "I thought that ball that KD kept alive, Lauri had it, and it ends up in Denzel's hands and he knocks it down to tie the game. That was a huge moment."
After a slow start and determined not to repeat the Charlotte mess from Friday, the Bulls, yes again, fell behind 51-36 in the second quarter. But they got back within 57-55 at halftime. The Clippers were without resting Kawhi Leonard and injured Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley. Daniel Gafford was out for the Bulls with a hamstring strain. Still, the Clippers had George and were coming in 20-7. The Bulls appeared to take control with an 18-0 run early in the third quarter for a 75-61 lead, a 29-point turnaround in less than a quarter. The Clippers countered with a dozen straight of their own. Valentine and LaVine threes gave the Bulls an 84-79 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Valentine would have 16 points, 10 in the fourth quarter, and four of seven threes. Markkanen had 13 points and 17 rebounds, Thaddeus Young 17 points and Carter 14 points and four blocks. George had 27 points, but on nine of 20 shooting with six turnovers. Harrell led the Clippers with 30 points.
And then the Clippers were leading 95-93 midday through the fourth quarter despite seven straight Valentine points to open the fourth for the Bulls. How many different ways could they describe losing that way again? Not this time.
The Clippers led 106-103 with about a minute left. One more defensive play and George probably could get to the free throw line the rest of the way and close the game. Bulls ball. They needed a score. Dunn dribbled up and dropped the ball off to LaVine. He's had great finishes this season, most notably the sprint back for the winning three in Charlotte. But the spotlight can scald as well as illuminate. LaVine earlier this month had missed a three that could have won against the Warriors and a drive to win against Toronto.
But he's game. And it was game time.
Carter came up for a brush screen, which two Clippers ignored and chased LaVine. LaVine continued left and stepped back from where he already had made a pair of threes. His shot bounded high off the rim and George got a hand on it. It suited away and Dunn went to grab it. Landry Shamet came came dashing in on Dunn' right and knocked the ball loose. The ball then bounded high, but Dunn kept pursuing. He spun toward the ball as Maurice Harkless seemed about to grab the ball with 50 seconds left in the game. Dunn leaped again in the middle of three Clippers players and he was the one to get to the ball, knocking it toward the free throw line, where Markkanen was standing. He caught the ball, turned and passed it to Valentine at the top of the three-point circle.
Valentine shot, his right arm extended long into the follow through as the ball went in to tie the game at 106 with 48 seconds left and a little strut from Valentine.
Denzel with a HUGE 3 to tie the game late in the fourth - thanks to Dunn's hustle on the rebound
"I saw Harkless try to grab the ball," Dunn related. "I smacked it out of his hands and tried to get it toward the three-point line and good thing Lauri was there. He got the rebound and passed it back to Denzel and he made a big play."
Markkanen got credit for the rebound, though he was mostly observing at the time.
"The last three minutes I was just waiting for the ball to come my way," Valentine admitted. "I wasn't going to force anything. Zach's our best player; it's going to be in his hands. But I love those moments. I wanted to make the shot. I love when the ball is coming to me in a big time moment."
"KD is a dawg," Valentine added. "He should be first team all-defense the way he's playing defense. I told him after I made the shot. I went to him and said, ‘That wouldn't have happened if it weren't for you.' But my celebration will be better next time."
There was no celebration yet, the game just tied at 106 and George dominating in the fourth quarter. He drove and tried a euro step move left, but Dunn reacted as quickly, staying in front and forcing George into an off balanced shot. It missed the rim. Dunn leaped high and got the rebound off the backboard. He ripped it away from Clippers defenders trying to steal it and threw to LaVine, who drove. But LaVine lost the ball out of bounds on an officials' review.
The Clippers again went to George with a four-inch height edge on Dunn.
"I know my niche on this team is to guard," said Dunn. "There are so many guys who can put up numbers on any given night. My job is to make it hard on them. I try to do that to the best of my ability, but also I take pride in my defense. I've been through a lot, but I feel at the end of the game you need defense; that's where I hang my hat. The coaches rely on me to take on any challenge."
George couldn't shake Dunn, so he settled for a difficult step back 22 footer that missed. Carter rebounded. Boylen sprinted onto the floor for a timeout and set up the play in which Dunn inbounded and provided enough of a distraction for the Clippers to mess up the switch and give LaVine the lane for the winning three-point play.
Zach wins the game with an and-one play!
"We did a little misdirection play," said LaVine. "PG was a little bit behind and I had a one-one-one with Montrezl. Just go in there and make a strong finish and try to get to the line. He's a tough dude. I knew I had to attack his body. Once I got to that I knew I could get the ball up on the rim.
"You're not going to be perfect (at the close of games)," LaVine noted. "People always are going to show more of the bad than the good. I've had a lot of good times this year in the clutch. I'm going to continue to go out there and do my job, try to make the right play for us to win and I did that tonight. You wish you could be perfect. I take the challenge and the criticism. Just because I had a couple of games when it didn't go in the hole and I didn't make the right decision doesn't mean I'm not ready to take that challenge again. You've got to step up to the plate. But we all made big shots, Zel (Valentine), Wendell had big rebounds and KD has been incredible on defense. His impact has been one of the best out there. He had an All-Star out there, a superstar in Paul George. It was a battle, but we finally made more plays at the end and got the win."
Thanks in large part to two players, Dunn and Valentine, who barely were in team plans two months ago. Seasons can change.