Those first quarter report cards usually were a troubling time. History was difficult because they were always asking you about stuff before you were born. Like where the Declaration of Independence was signed. At the bottom, of course. Or those physics classes asking how to drop an egg on a concrete floor without cracking it. Though an egg can't crack concrete. All those Ds were difficult to explain.
Not so much for the Bulls, who closed out the first quarter of their NBA season Friday in Orlando with exceptional D that led to a 123-88 victory and at worst an A-minus for this first NBA grading period.
The Bulls, considered preseason by most accounts a possible playoff team with Las Vegas projections of 42 or 43 wins, hit the 20-game mark with a 13-7 record, second in the Eastern Conference a game behind the Brooklyn Nets. The Bulls feature the fifth and sixth leading scorers in the NBA, Zach LaVine, who had 21 points in the act that made the Magic disappear. And DeMar DeRozan, who had 23 points and three of three on three pointers. Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, both in the top 10 in the league in steals, combined for nine of the Bulls 11 steals and 22 points off turnovers.
DeMar DeRozan celebrates hitting one of his three three-pointers on Friday night.
While the Bulls actually also outrebounded the much bigger Magic by 11 with 14 fast break points and 32 well divided assists led by Ball with six.
"I thought the guys did a really good job responding," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan in reference to previous losses to Indiana and last place Houston. "I know guys were disappointed with the way we played the other night in Houston. We came out and I thought we responded and played more consistently to how we need to play. I thought Lonzo was really, really disruptive defensively. I thought he generated a lot of havoc and caused a lot of turnovers and we were able to capitalize and were very active defensively. Then offensively we hit the paint and moved the ball. It was a game where that was what we had to do and it was good to see us come out of the locker room and start the third the way we did (turning a 55-46 halftime lead into 90-69 after three)."
Nikola Vucevic in his first game playing back in Orlando since the trade to the Bulls last season had 16 points and eight rebounds. The Magic honored their nine-year veteran and two-time All-Star with a video tribute with Vucevic's family sitting courtside for the enthusiastic welcome.
"It was definitely emotional being back in this building and seeing all the people I've met over the years and the friendships I've built," said Vucevic. "It was a lot to take in, the intro starting five and the video. There were were a lot of emotions I had to manage throughout the game."
Nikola Vucevic stares down the Orlando Magic bench after finishing a layup while being fouled against the Magic.
And there was an encouraging season high 20 points off the bench from Coby White, making nine of 11 shots with some sharp defense that helped lead to a team best plus-39 ranking.
"We're just so good defensively I'm just trying to fit in on both ends of the court," said White. "For me, really locked in and focused on the defensive end and tried to give effort that way. Just got into a rhythm early. Saw a couple (of shots) go in. Being honest, just trying to win a game. Whatever I can do to help my team win whether it's score 20 or zero, it doesn't really matter as long as we win; that's my main focus. Whatever is needed I'm going to try to do that. Never get too high, never get too low, just try to stay level. Tomorrow is another day, another game."
And perhaps an ideal one for an early measurement.
The Bulls are into the second of a back to back and the Miami Heat aren't. So it's not exactly a playoff level playing field.
But Saturday's United Center matchup is one of those rare ones to take the pulse—and see who has one—against a Miami team many project as at least a strong Eastern Conference finals contender. Miami is barely behind the Bulls at 12-7 with former Bull Jimmy Butler having an All-NBA season. Miami leads the East in point differential, which is one of the prime measures of future success. The Bulls are third. The Heat is fourth in defensive efficiency and the Bulls seventh, two of the top defensive teams. Miami is fifth in scoring and the Bulls sixth.
Which not only suggests balanced competition, but that the Bulls have exceeded most expectations thus far this season.
The Bulls were perhaps the most difficult team to predict because of so many changes with the additions of DeRozan, Ball and Caruso to go along with Vucevic from last trade deadline. Plus, White was out with shoulder surgery and just recently returned, and starting power forward Patrick Williams played just five games before probably being lost for the regular season with a wrist injury.
Coby White finishes a layup over former Bull Wendell Carter Jr.
But the Bulls started fast, four consecutive wins and six of their first seven to shake up the early season NBA power rankings. There were some breaks, like facing Denver without Nikola Jokic and the Lakers without LeBron James. Though the Bulls had injuries, too, and lost Vucevic for seven games with a positive virus test.
Still, the Bulls' play was impressive with a sweep of a back to back in Los Angeles and convincing home wins over preseason East and West favorites, the Nets and Jazz. What looked like an offensive-oriented team with LaVine and DeRozan remaining the league's top scoring pair took on a defensive tenor thanks to the jazzy play of Ball and Caruso.
It enabled Donovan to eschew matchups for size with aggressive play on screens and on the ball, gambling the Bulls smaller roster could overcome its lack of size with, at least colloquially, the size of it's heart.
It's something that may be difficult to sustain. But the Bulls with a few hiccups, lately against Indiana and Houston and earlier against the Warriors, have been one of the hardest teams to play against. They're in the top 10 in steals, fast breaks and opponents points per game. And if they haven't shot often from distance, last in the NBA in attempts, they've shot well at seventh overall, first in free throws and fourth in three-point percentage. That was particularly on display Friday.
The Bulls against Orlando made 17 of 34 threes with four more from Ball. He had two early in the first quarter as the teams matched 27 point stanzas. Former Bull Wendell Carter Jr., who was traded for Vucevic, had a hot shooting start, also with a pair of threes for 12 first quarter points to match LaVine's 12. Carter finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds.
The new addition was the threes from DeRozan, who showed the necessary adjustment.
DeRozan was 14 for 35 the last two games, averaging 17.5 points after nosing toward 30 much of the first 15 games. Teams had begun to play more zone defense and crowding the lane against the Bulls to cut off DeRozan's mid range shooting. So DeRozan stepped back and made all his three point attempts Friday.
The Bulls lack of size with Javonte Green back starting at power forward has been a talking point this season. The Magic started a front court of two 6-10 players and seven footer Mo Bamba.
But after the LaVine/Carter first quarter shootout, the Bulls defensive play was too disruptive for a weak Magic second unit. The Bulls began the second quarter with a 16-0 run that basically made it a double digit lead for the Bulls the rest of the game.
Donovan tightened his rotation a bit, basically going with seven players with Derrick Jones the eighth and playing just 10 minutes with six fouls. White and Caruso were the primary reserve players.
"I'm happy to see (Coby) respond the way he did," said Donovan. "We've really told him to be aggressive and be who he is as he learns to play with all these guys and carves out a role for himself. He was aggressive, he got into the teeth of the defense. The ball found him quite a bit on the perimeter, where he can catch and shoot and catch and drive. I thought he worked incredibly hard on both ends of the floor and the more games like this the more comfortable he'll get."
Tap to watch Billy Donovan's postgame press conference after Chicago's blowout win over Orlando.
Too many games like this and the Bulls would get too comfortable. DeRozan made all his threes the first half of the third quarter, which had been a difficult session recently. And it became a 30-point Bulls lead early in the fourth quarter and a quick goodbye to Florida.
So the Bulls Saturday can, to paraphrase Tony Montana, say hello to my little friends from Miami.
Yes, the Heat play small, also. Perhaps somebody will get A lesson in their favorite subject, An Introduction to Playoff Basketball.