Bulls beat Pistons to win season-opener for first time since 2016

Zach LaVine had 34 points as the Bulls survived a tough shooting first-half to beat the Pistons
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

Body

There is something special about the experts, about all those analysts with their spread sheets and mathematical formulas, the TV talking heads. We've got to admit it. They know the game. After all, wasn't that what they all were saying this summer: That we're not sure how the Bulls are going to score, but watch out for their dawgs and their defense.

Maybe call them the bizarro Bulls.

Because in a funhouse mirror way in which their reflection seemed everything but we expected, the Bulls shot poorly, were slow and stagnant on offense, plodding at times and isolation oriented. Which didn't matter all that much in the Bulls opening night 94-88 victory Wednesday over the Detroit Pistons because of physical confrontational play, aggressive anticipation in the passing lanes and, oh right, just enough of the amazing Zach LaVine.

"This ain't last year," reminded LaVine. "We're looking forward now. It's a whole new team, whole new mindset. Excited we grinded that one out. And a win's a win."

That's about the best there was to say about a Bulls team that trailed much of the game after a brutal 20-14 Pistons first quarter lead and had to rely on a brilliant effort from LaVine, a team high 34 points, tied for most assists with four and tied for second in rebounds with seven, 11 of 11 from the free throw line, 11 of 17 shooting overall and the team's leading scorer each of the last three quarters.

Watch highlights of Zach LaVine's 34-point night in Chicago's season-opening win over Detroit.

DeMar DeRozan had 17 points, Nikola Vucevic had 15 points and 15 rebounds and Lonzo Ball had 12 points. But the Bulls reserves were outscored 32-10. It was the Bulls first opening night win since 2016 and first time the team has been over .500 during a season since March 2017.

Zach to the rescue.

LaVine even followed the pattern of, dare we say, whisper it, Michael Jordan. Who would start slowly as LaVine did with two first quarter points, check around him to see if anyone had it going—basically no one did this night—and then carry the team over the finish line after the Bulls trailed by a basket midway through the fourth quarter against a Pistons team most believe has 15th wrapped up in the Eastern Conference.

With the Bulls trailing 57-50 in the third quarter in a game with 18 ties and lead changes, LaVine flew full court after a made Pistons basket and two-hand dunked a Ball pass. Then LaVine got ahead of the defense after one of the eight Bulls steals (four by Alex Caruso and three by DeRozan) and was fouled for a clear path and four-point play. LaVine then passed to Nikola Vucevic for a three to give the Bulls a rare lead to that point and later in the quarter finished an over the shoulder look away bank shot that gave the Bulls with 15 LaVine third quarter points a 71-69 lead after three quarters. That late run included a pair of fast break scores from rookie Ayo Dosunmu in a surprise reserve high seven points.

The Bulls then created enough space to close the game with an 8-0 run midway through the fourth quarter that included threes from Ball and DeRozan and a fast break runaway from LaVine. Ball made a pair of big fourth-quarter baskets and relentless pressure on the ball late primarily from LaVine, Ball and Caruso thwarted any late Pistons thoughts.

"I'm going to pick my spots," said LaVine. "As the leader of the team I'm going to go out there and assert myself when I have to and get the team going. DeMar and Vooch got to their spots; they missed some shots we know they can obviously make. Offense is going to come; as long as we keep competing on defense. We have a bunch of dawgs on our team now, guys who will step up for each other. So I'm really excited. A win is a win and we're going to go forward from there.

"I had it going tonight and these guys recognized that," said LaVine. "It's not going to be that every night. We've got a bunch of No. 1 options, a future Hall of Famer on our team. Sometimes it's going to be. 'Give him (DeRozan) the ball get out of the way, give Vooch the ball get out of the way.'"

Well, actually... that was sort of the problem.

Keep repeating, "81 games to go, 81 games to go."

Full game highlights from Chicago's 94-88 win over Detroit on Wednesday night.

"Brand new team," agreed DeRozan, "Going to be a lot of learning curves we've got to get through. We showed a lot of heart by just digging down and playing hard; didn't let anything affect us. We got down a few times, they made a few runs. We didn't let that frustrate us. Kept digging in the right direction. That says a lot right there to open up on the road first game of the season (and get the victory)."

Which, of course, is how they select those to continue on after the regular season.

But it was not the Bulls we saw in preseason, who said what they'd be and whom coach Billy Donovan expected.

The Pistons were better than advertised—assuming they had any advertising at all—and were effective getting the Bulls out of a lot of their offense with physical play, forcing the Bulls out of screen/roll plays and dribble handoffs. The Bulls were mostly thwarted in transition, though they took opportunities when they came and had a positive 15 fast break points. But the team reverted to considerable isolation play for the three All-Star scorers. The ball movement wasn't particularly good with a dearth of penetration to find open shooters.

The result was 30 percent on threes and perhaps a concern with still the lack of a pure catch-and-shoot three-point specialist.

Lonzo Ball picks up DeMar DeRozan during Chicago's season-opening win in Detroit.

"We didn't shoot the ball well even when we had good looks," Donovan acknowledged. "Then all of a sudden as the game went on we didn't run as hard as we needed to run and we didn't get out in transition. To me, the greatest strength of our team offensively is our ability to pass the basketball and share it; we're really unselfish. But when we don't get out and fly….its hard to get that in the game against half court defenses that are set.

"Being the first game I was really happy we gave ourselves a chance to win not playing very well on offense; that to me was the positive," said Donovan. "I think a lot of times when people sit there and say, ‘You're going to score, you're going to score.' This is the hardest part for us to figure out because they are all used to offenses running through them. Zach last year, Vooch in Orlando and even DeMar. The beauty about those three guys is they are so unselfish they're not all looking for that. But it's a little bit different. We have to coexist off each other a little bit better than we did."

The first quarter was brutal, stuck in mud that was thick with quick sand. The Bulls shot 28 percent and missed their five threes. Trailing by nine midway through the second quarter, LaVine helped the Bulls to trail just 44-40 at halftime with a run of three jump shots in four possessions around a Vucevic three on a LaVine pass.

Then LaVine helped drag the Bulls to the 71-69 lead after three quarters, Dosunmu with the surprise 11 minutes for Troy Brown. Dosunmu even added a three early in the fourth quarter to support an offense-challenged bench.

"He's played really, really well in practice and some preseason games," Donovan said of the rookie. "He's not afraid, he's got a great competitive spirit, he's a tough kid. Troy to me, I felt he just didn't seem like himself (with illness this week). ‘Let me throw (Ayo) out there. He's played very well in training camp.'"

Alex Caruso dives on the floor in the first quarter to secure a possession against the Detroit Pistons

Alex Caruso dives on the floor in the first quarter to secure a possession against the Detroit Pistons.

So has Caruso, who only had three points, but who constantly was in passing lanes deflecting balls, chasing and diving on the floor, often defending Pistons lead scorer Jerami Grant with 24 points on eight of 20 shooting.

"Give the guys a lot of credit for grinding through the game," said Donovan. "It was a very physical, tough, ugly game. Neither team played great offensively; there really was no rhythm or flow offensively. Baskets were hard to come by. I thought we settled better into the game in the second half.

"I do think we are going to have to work to create the identity, but I am really encouraged with the way we battled and competed defensively," Donovan added. "It was good to see us defend the way we did. But we've got to get out more, run more and we have to play faster. I get it. I know sometimes when you have a hard time scoring it's like normal, ‘Lets slow it down and go to Vooch, slow it down go to Zach.' That's OK at times, but that's not going to be sustainable."

So they're not perfect. Except, you know, in the standings.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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