Bulls hold off rallying Knicks, improve to 15-8

Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic each scored over 27 points each as Chicago beat the Knicks 119-115 in Madison Square Garden.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later
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Madison Square Garden has been the site of some of the best entertainment. There was Elvis, Sinatra, Lennon, McCartney and Streisand. There was Marilyn Monroe's famous Happy Birthday to President Kennedy and Ali-Frazier. They enlivened the soul and the senses, just a bit like Bulls/Knicks Thursday.

The basketball world will little note nor long remember the details of the Bulls still early season 119-115 victory over the Knicks. But for those who were witnesses, there were enough unforgettable moments that the basketball world has to be doing a double take with these Bulls.

That was fun; they are entertaining. Encore.

With DeMar DeRozan scoring 34 points, including 18 in the fourth quarter, and Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic adding 27 each, the Bulls with the trio scoring more than 80 points for the second consecutive game can lay claim not only to a legitimate Big Three that often is the formula for ultimate NBA success, but to a consistency and excellence that demands a second look.

The Bulls have now won all the road games in New York and Los Angeles and Saturday face the Brooklyn Nets, whom the Bulls defeated by 23 points last month, for what could be first place in the Eastern Conference.

Tap to watch highlights from Chicago's 119-115 win over New York on Thursday night.

The Bulls are now 15-8 and trending impressively with the best point differential in the Eastern Conference, the indicator that often best projects final standings. The Bulls did it in New York after giving up a 21-point first half lead while playing in that first half some of the best basketball the franchise has seen in years, falling behind twice by a point late in the fourth quarter and each time meeting the deficit with pressure scores from DeRozan or LaVine.

"Just going out there competing with my team," said the trend averse DeRozan. "It's fun when we go out there and compete; we faced adversity at times and it feels good when we come out of that on top."

The Bulls did so with DeRozan, LaVine and the resurgent Vucevic accounting for all 30 of the Bulls fourth quarter points. They were hardly alone as Alex Caruso, especially, was dominant in the fourth quarter despite not taking a shot. His three steals, offensive fouls drawn and defense helped keep the desperate Knicks from a memorable comeback.

"He's a dawg, he's a dawg," admired DeRozan. "What he brings defensively triggers us because we try to live to up the standards that Alex is going to bring out there on the court. It's incredible the things he does defensively. You can put him out there and if Shaq were playing he'd try to figure out how to guard him."

So Caruso took some turns on Julius Randle, who led the Knicks with 30 points and 12 rebounds, but seven critical turnovers among the Knicks 18 for 21 points. Earlier in the game, former Bull Taj Gibson became so enraged about being called for consecutive offensive fouls because Caruso was fighting over screens that Gibson got ejected with technical fouls. The Knicks still had a height advantage with Mitchell Robinson, who had five blocks. But the Bulls again scrapped to a draw on the boards at 39 and in second chance points at 16.

Nikola Vucevic dunks over New York's Julius Randle in the first quarter against the Knicks.

Nikola Vucevic dunks over New York's Julius Randle in the first quarter against the Knicks.

The difference became a three-pronged offensive game that few teams can emulate. There's Vucevic back to his Vooch ways, popping outside and making five three pointers, LaVine dashing around to not only make some of the most unlikely shots, but equal Vucevic for the team rebounding lead at seven and with five assists. And then there was DeRozan, continuing to maneuver into clutch shot after clutch shot, facing down the Knicks in the stretch despite not even attempting a three-point shot the entire game. DeRozan was 10 of 11 from the free throw line while his artistry without three-point shots, dunks and crossover moves continues to astound even his teammates.

"Downhill, behind the back, spin move, fade away.,, Sheesh," tweeted teammate Troy Brown after the game.

"It's just repetition over and over, countless days and nights of paying attention to detail, of how defenders guard you," DeRozan explained. "Whether it's small, strong, long players, tall players, I always put a lot of that into consideration when I get to a spot or move. It's nothing but a feel for me. I feel like I try to master that every time in the offseason, understanding my angles, post up, off counters, going right, going left, off fadeaways. There's so much that goes into it. It took years and it didn't happen overnight. I pay attention to the details. I'm a basketball fanatic and it comes second nature when I'm out there."

Just like those relentless mid range jump shots that everyone warned him not to take, but which has him leading the NBA in fourth quarter scoring and saving multiple games already for the Bulls. It's a valuable lesson. Be who you are; not who they say you should be. And be strong about your commitment and belief. That's really the stuff of role models.

"Obviously when the game started changing to the three-point line, I forgot who it was, but it was an older player who told me to just stick to what you are great at and master that," DeRozan recalled. "That was all the confidence I needed, especially when the game started changing 2014,15. I stuck to my guns and continued to try to be the best at that."

It again proved crucial in enabling the Bulls to secure a victory that seemed destined to be one of those big fish that got away. Oh, the stories they'd tell.

This one made for satisfying reading with a Bulls timeout after the Knicks had surprisingly turned around a 69-51 Bulls halftime lead that came in as close to a perfect half as they've had or seen in years.

Vucecic crushed the Knicks traps on LaVine and DeRozan with 13 first quarter points on a run of jump shots. Caruso in addition to taking his turn frustrating Randle in that first quarter helped drive Gibson to distraction, assisted on three scores and with his unnerving and agitating play has to lead the league in forcing offensive fouls on screens. Chart that!

"He's just a winning player," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "A lot of guys that are in his situation don't understand they have to impact winning and they have to impact the players they are playing with. He has an unbelievable awareness of how to do that regardless of whether he takes a shot. He knows how to set screens, get guys free, phenomenal defensively. He's smart, gets steals, gets rebounds, and very, very rarely shoots and he's fine functioning and competing never taking a shot because he knows there are things when he gets into the game he has a huge impact on winning and I really admire that…you see the value he brings every night."

That led to a 37-19 Bulls lead after one quarter. For the game, Caruso led the Bulls with a plus-21. It's not always the most reliable measure, but next best was plus-seven. Caruso was hardly perfect with several missed plays and four turnovers, though he also has this uncanny way (trying hard seems to help) that in each of the occasions he managed to get back and either make a steal or help disrupt the play.

DeRozan then appeared leading the reserves to start the second quarter, shimmying his way to 14 points in the quarter and passing the scoring baton to LaVine to close it out making three of his four shots. Injured left thumb, flu symptoms? Fagetaboutit, as they'd say in New York. LaVine's out there.

Zach LaVine finishes a dunk against the Knicks in the first quarter.

Zach LaVine finished the game with ___ points against the Knicks.

"I just like playing," said LaVine. "If I can go out there and help the guys any way I can, I'm going to do that. I fight through stuff. These games are important, it means a lot to me and I feel a lot better."

Better than the Knicks trailing 69-51 at halftime, and in their play you were reminded of the quip about New York from Chicago comedian Jeff Garlin: "The only city in the world where you can be awakened by a smell."

The Knicks, now 11-11, were stinking it up.

And then the Bulls stunk just a little bit with the Knicks shockingly and suddenly back in the game, a 27-10 run in the first six minutes of the third quarter, and it was Bulls by one.

"Certainly being down 18 or whatever it was, they were going to come out and really ramp up the intensity," said Donovan. "Picking us up full court, being disruptive. We have to do a better job anticipating that, we have to do a better job of playing with force, using that aggressiveness to draw fouls. We have to have a better awareness in those situations. I don't want to take away from the fact that in NBA games there are a lot of runs. I was pleased that we kept our composure and we handled ourselves well in the fourth quarter when it was really tight."

This time the Bulls weren't the ones who got tight after leading 89-83 entering the fourth.

Tap to watch Billy Donovan's postgame press conference after the Bulls' victory in New York.

DeRozan scored all the Bulls points for the first five minutes of the fourth quarter before a Vucevic three off a DeRozan double team gave the Bulls a 102-98 lead with 7:21 left.

"(He) helps our team tremendously, especially if we are like frantic, he's been in these big time games and situations," LaVine noted. "I don't think a lot of things rattle him. That's when you allow him to take over the game, calm it down, get to the free throw line, get to his spots. I think it gives the whole team a sense of a deep breath like you know we are OK."

And you thought they couldn't play together, that LaVine wouldn't give up the ball or his scoring. Shame on you. OK, them.

Vucevic added another three with a LaVine pass as he was trapped, Vucevic sliding outside where he is difficult to guard with traditional centers.

But the Knicks kept nagging. And Lonzo Ball with a poor shooting game missed a pair of wide open corner threes as Randle bulled in for a pair of scores and that 106-105 Knicks lead with 4:45 left. Caruso then threw away the ball, but he then dashed downcourt so quickly to again force the Knicks into a wild miss on a fast break.

Then it was DeRozan with a 15 footer for the lead, Randle matching it. But then the new, more mature, DeRozan-imitating LaVine. Instead of trying one of those tough threes, LaVine drove and was fouled, making both free throws. And then after an Evan Fornier missed three, LaVine angled in deftly for a 20 footer for a 111-108 Bulls lead with 2:03 left.

Derrick Rose with 16 points and six assists off the bench found Randle inside for a score and foul. But Randle missed the free throw. And then made one of two to tie the game at 111 after a LaVine miss. Vucevic missed. But there came Alex again, stripping Randle on his dribble and getting the ball out to LaVine, who was fouled and made both free throws for a 113-111 Bulls lead with 53.6 seconds left.

Rose then missed a three, after which DeRozan drove, crossed across the lane and in what was hanging in the air for him delivered a banking score from the left side for a 115-111 Bulls lead with 20 seconds left. And a bit of a "we got this" double fist pump.

When the game ended seconds later, DeRozan moved to greet and hug fellow slash brother—which they truly were this fourth quarter—LaVine with a hand slap, a hug and DeRozan with a fond "that's my guy" tap to the back of LaVine's head.

"Commitment," explained DeRozan afterward. "We talked about it long before we played on the court, having each other's backs and being there for one another. That's all I needed to hear (from one of the league's top scorers). That's all he needed to hear from me. As long as we can walk, we are going to be out there and try to lead this team to be as successful as we can."

Like Lennon once sung in Madison Square Garden, "Come Together."

It seems Zach and DeMar and these Bulls are following the message.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

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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