Bulls beat Pistons, stay alive in race for play-in

Zach LaVine scored 30 and Nikola Vucevic had a 29 point, 16 rebound double-double as the Bulls cruised by a depleted Detroit Pistons team 108-96. It's the third straight win for the Bulls as they stay alive in the East for the final spot for the play-in tournament. The Bulls (29-39) will look for the fourth straight win when they host the Brooklyn Nets (44-24) on Tuesday night.

I know who's going to win the Eastern Conference play-in tournament.

The Bulls.

Though, I agree, it will be much more difficult if they don't qualify.

The Bulls, Sunday, took another small step toward that goal with an easy 108-96 victory over the Detroit Pistons that satisfied both teams.

The Bulls inched within two and a half games of now 10th place Indiana at 29-39 for the final play-in spot. Washington remains three ahead of the Bulls and Charlotte four games ahead with four games left for the Bulls. The Pistons collecting lottery balls were missing eight regulars and thus proudly retained the poorest record in the conference.

But these suddenly reawakened Bulls with Zach LaVine back from Covid and Nikola Vucevic locking gears with his teammates look like the best of the rest, that being the projected Nos. 7 through 10 play-in teams.

That's because the Bulls have winning records and thus hold the tiebreakers against all four of those teams. And the Bulls haven't lost to any of those teams since the All-Star break two months ago. The Bulls are 5-0 combined against Boston, Charlotte, Washington and Indiana since then and 9-3 for the season.

Though the Pistons don't seem particularly serious about competing for now, the Bulls held a third consecutive team below 100 points. And two of those surely were serious about competing, the Celtics and Hornets.

Nikola Vucevic scored 29 points with 16 rebounds in Detroit on Sunday.

"We're playing the right way," said LaVine, who led the Bulls with 30 points and added six assists and just one turnover. "We're playing with energy. We're coming into each game knowing what our assignments are and what our challenges are. Obviously, we need to keep playing this way if we want to keep our season alive. I feel pretty much back in form now."

And so seem Vucevic and Coby White as this nascent Bulls Big Three combined for 65 points with Vucevic getting 29 points and 16 rebounds and White contributing 21 points with five threes. White now has scored at least 20 points in four of the last six games, averaging 19.3 per game in that stretch.

Which sure is starting to sound like one of those Big Three offensive forces that observers generally require for excellence. Or, at least, a high level of competitive credibility.

Bulls vs. Celtics: 2-1
Jan. 25: 103-119
Apr. 19: 102-96
May 7: 121-99

Bulls vs. Hornets: 3-0
Jan. 22: 123-110
Apr. 22: 108-91
May 6: 120-99

Bulls vs. Pacers: 2-1
Dec. 26: 106-125
Feb. 15: 120-112 (OT)
Apr. 6: 113-97

Bulls vs. Wizards: 2-1
Dec. 29: 115-107
Dec. 31: 133-130
Feb. 8: 101-105

"They're just going to have to pick their poison," said LaVine. "I got it going early; then they started doubling. My next instinct is to use me as a decoy, let them double me, hit Vooch in the pocket, let him go to work. And eventually they start spraying out the threes for Coby. Coby is being aggressive with his catch-and-shoot threes. We're scoring at all three levels. And once we've got that going, it's pretty much pick your poison and the offense is clicking."

Zach LaVine dropped 30 points on 10-of-16 shooting in Mother's Day win.

That Bulls trio with White up to 15.2 per game is averaging more than 65 points per game for the season.

That offense left tire marks on the Pistons with Detroit hanging on trailing 20-16 with just over three minutes left in the first quarter. The Bulls came out of that timeout with an 8-2 run and then began the second quarter with a 9-1 run, and suddenly the Bulls led 37-19 two minutes into the second quarter. The Pistons never got the score below double digits the rest of the game.

Thad Young was the only other Bull to score in double figures. And while Bulls coach Billy Donovan said he appreciated the skills and output of those three scoring stars, he still does prefer more offensive balance.

"I just really appreciate their unselfishness and how they are playing off of each other," said Donovan. "Coby, I think, post feeds and relocates and the ball comes out to him and he gets a shot and he drives it. Zach, we throw into Vooch, Vooch and Zach play pick and roll and Zach comes off and scores. I think they complement each other really well. I'd like to be a little bit more balanced just because when you're playing just with three guys, what happens is other guys don't get in a rhythm, they don't touch the ball, they're not in the flow, and then, inevitably, teams will send two or three people at those guys and try to leave some of those players open, make them shoot. I think they'll shoot the ball a lot better when they've been a little bit more involved in the offense."

Billy Donovan talks to the media following Chicago's 108-96 win over Detroit.

Donovan, of course, is correct in theory. And though sometimes Draymond Green will make a shot, and sometimes for the early 2010s Mario Chalmers made a shot, those teams seemed to do best when it was Curry, Thompson or Durant, and LeBron, Wade and Bosh. I know Larry Bird was never that thrilled when Danny Ainge was shooting.

"We have three really good individuals that can play some basketball," said Young. "I love playing with those guys and I think they're going to continue to be great going forward. Obviously, Zach and Vooch are our prime guys. But Coby is coming along and Pat (Williams) is getting better each and every game. We just have to continue to build on what we're doing."

There were contributions throughout, and an important one was from Lauri Markkanen, who attempted just two shots. But Markkanen was on the floor late in the first into the second quarter when the Bulls made that compelling run and was in the middle of several plays. He finished second highest rebounder to Vucevic with seven and led with three steals. Tomas Satoransky led the team with seven assists.

Nikola Vucevic finished with 29 points with 16 rebounds in the win over Detroit.

"The biggest thing is they're (Vucevic, LaVine and White) all trying to play both sides of the basketball, which is what we need in order to win games," said Young. "Defensively, they're all getting better throughout the course of the season and they're all continuing to compete. That's what we need. When everybody sees our Big Three competing, then it just brings everybody else along."

And so comes the crucible. The Bulls Tuesday in the United Center play the first of two decisive games this week with the Brooklyn Nets of the elite Big Three. It remains uncertain if James Harden will return to rejoin Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. The Nets are second in the East a half game ahead of the Bucks, against whom the Bulls close the regular season Sunday at home. They seem more prepared to continue than any immediate opponents. If only they have the chance.

"We get up for games like that," said Young. "We know they're (Nets) a tough team. But they're also a beatable team. We feel like if we're clicking on all cylinders, we can win."