Bulls light up Pelicans 128-112 in home opener

In the first game in 591 days where the United Center allowed full-capacity fans, the new-look Bulls put on a show for a packed home-opening crowd.
by Sam Smith
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Now that's what we're talking about.

Or at least what the Bulls were in training camp and preseason that crystallized Friday in a rollicking 128-112 Bulls rout of the New Orleans Pelicans amidst a raucous throng at the United Center in the first full house since the pandemic closure some 19 months ago.

Bulls threes landed like butterflies with soft feet, DeMar's shot was garden fresh and as fragrant as a DeRozan, Lonzo was having a Ball against his former team and MVP hopes and demands were raining down on everyone from LaVine to Alex Caruso like Benny the Bull's scattering popcorn.

"This is the most excited I've been playing basketball," said Zach LaVine. "I'm really having a lot fun out there; we're really competitive on both ends of the court and I think it shows."

LaVine had another 30-piece, 32 points, six rebounds, five assists and six of nine threes with a personal 20-point run in the last six minutes of the second quarter to leave the Pelicans crying in their gumbo. Sidekick DeRozan took the baton from a scoreless LaVine at the start with 10 first quarter points and a 28-17 first quarter lead. And Ball was Andrew Jackson-like for New Orleans, winning every battle with a triple double, 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists without a turnover and three steals in 35 minutes.

The Bulls were back to 32 assists with 14 of 28 threes with Ball the leading rebounder in the game.

And the Bulls reserves had plenty in reserve this time and did a Javonte on the heads of the Pelicans players with a 35-26 bench margin after just 10 points in Detroit, Javonte Green's hustle, dunks, disruption and 10 points changing the game in the first quarter after the starters felt around in the dark a bit.

Highlights from Chicago's home-opening win against New Orleans on Friday night.

"The game started we had some pretty good looks; we just didn't shoot the ball very well," acknowledged Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "I don't think Zach scored in the first quarter. The second unit at the end of the first quarter into the second quarter, and the second unit at the end of the third quarter going into the fourth, they energized and did a lot of really good things. And I thought Zach when he got back in there in the second quarter was really incredible with some of the things he did offensively."

It was a celebration all over the United Center, members of the victorious championship WNBA Chicago Sky occupying a suite and gaining a standing ovation from the clamorous crowd. Who then reveled in the launch of this new Bulls era back home.

"Great atmosphere, a great environment," Donovan agreed. "If we can play well we can make it a very exciting building to play in."

Anything like Friday's performance will do.

Shaking off the edginess and uncertainty of a new roster Wednesday facing a new season in an unfriendly place, the Bulls celebrated a little Mardi Gras of their own with the New Orleans visitors. The way the Bulls dominated on both ends, it had to appear as if the Bulls were wearing masks with the likenesses of Magic, Michael and Kobe.

Ball started it off, perhaps a bit uncharacteristically if not inappropriately, with a determined drive and finish for a 2-0 lead. So what, eh? Not so much because not only did the Pelicans pretty much chase free agent Ball out of town without a contract offer in what became a sign-and-trade with the Bulls, but Ball left amidst all sorts of whispers that he wasn't a finisher, not a true point guard leader, a player to be overpaid and underperform.

"I only can control what I can control. I'm where I want to be, and I'm happy to be here," Ball said afterward. He's relentlessly deflected any critiques from his former residence as deftly as he deflected Pelicans passes. But LaVine understood.

"He had a little extra bounce in his step today," LaVine said with a knowing chuckle. "He got the first two points of the game. I think that says something."

Especially for a player who revels in the setup.

It sure seemed like he was setting up his former team for a face plant.

"He's everywhere," LaVine said about Ball. "Him and AC (Alex Caruso). He hits his open threes. He pushes in transition. He brings a real energy and physicality to the defensive end. He's an all-around player, man. We're thankful to have him."

They're not the big names or considered to have the big games. But the combination of Ball and Caruso coming off the bench has transformed the Bulls defensively. The preseason consensus was, ‘Yeah, those guys can score. But who's going to guard?'

Hey, pick me, pick me, I know, I know.

Alex Caruso finishes an alley-oop from Lonzo Ball to put an exclamation point on Chicago's home-opening win.

Alex Caruso finishes an alley-oop from Lonzo Ball to put an exclamation point on Chicago's home-opening win.

"Us being the point guards out there, we are at the point of attack most of the time," said Ball. "So for us, we've just got to play hard and set that standard from the jump when I'm out there and when A.C.'s out there as well. And then use our hands, use our quickness to our advantage. Just keep playing hard."

The Pelicans playing without injured Zion Williamson got 26 points from Brandon Ingram and 21 points from Devonte Graham, the latter Ball's replacement and primarily a three-point shooter. It was apparent in a disjointed Pelicans effort they lack direction and a point guard. The general plan from last season was to have Williamson be something of power forward/point. Which with off season surgery and reports he'd eaten a bit too well in recuperation suggests the Pelicans will get a lot more high draft picks to use.

The Bulls now are dominated primarily by veterans, and they made quick work of New Orleans to go to 2-0 in the season's first week. The Bulls host Detroit in a rematch Saturday.

It wasn't a special start for the Bulls, and once again Patrick Williams couldn't seem to find a place with the veteran starters. Williams was the lone starter with a minus rating for the game and the only player among the first nine in the rotation to record minus in his time on the floor, this time 24 minutes. Williams did make both his three-point attempts and shot well in a catch-and-shoot role.

It was 12-11 Bulls with about five minutes left in the first quarter when Green and Troy Brown, the latter recovered from an illness, entered along with Caruso soon after that. And the roof blew. Green had started in preseason when Williams was out and despite being undersized for power forward at about 6-5, Green gave the Bulls quickness and versatility like Draymond Green does with the Warriors. These Greens also do not pollute, in their cases a roster.

Javonte Green rises up for a big slam against New Orleans

Javonte Green rises up for a big slam against New Orleans

"The one thing with Javonte when he is in the game, you just feel him with the way he flies around, challenges shots, runs the floor, slashes, gets on the glass; you can just feel him out there," said Donovan. "He plays to who he is; he doesn't try to do things he can't do or he's not good at. He is good at playing with great urgency, so he gives us energy and I think it's a great lesson for a lot of players. Instead of getting wrapped up in, ‘I'm not a 35 or 45 percent three point shooter,' he gets wrapped up in what he can do and impacts the game with what he can do."

Javonte slammed a fast break, had a block on Tomas Satoransky that led to a dunk on a Caruso pass, another block, a driving layup on a Nikola Vucevic pass and a steal that led to a pair of Ball free throws.

"That's my dawg right there," LaVine added. "He brings that dawg mentality to the team. He'll do whatever for the team, guard the best player, sacrifice his body, run the floor, so all the dirty work. Great guy on and off the court. Whenever he gets in the game his energy is infectious."

And then Brown added a three on a LaVine pass. That was 16-6 to end the first quarter and 10-4 to start the second and it was Bulls by 17 three minutes into the second quarter and the latest Pelicans coach, Willie Green, undoubtedly wondering what he'd gotten himself into.

"We got out and ran," said Donovan. "I thought we moved the ball really well. I didn't think we were as stagnated as we were in Detroit (when it was more isolation after a poor shooting start). I thought we played with better flow on the offensive end of the floor and at times our defense was really good and allowed us to get out on the break."

For 24 fast break points and 39 in the two games. That's Showtime stuff.

LaVine had that save in the opener with 34 points when nothing much else was working that well. He'd felt out the start, and then seeing a brick wall being constructed led the team in scoring in each of the last three quarters. Donovan said the team needed LaVine to be aggressive offensively to start, but it wasn't happening for LaVine Friday with zero for four in the first quarter.

But a funny thing happened. Instead of the double digit deficit that a LaVine cold spell meant last season, DeRozan saw the bat signal and buckled up. DeRozan starts the game, makes an early exit and returns to lead the reserves. And when Zach couldn't DeMar did, making five of his first nine shots in that 38-21 start.

"I just missed a couple of easy shots," said LaVine. "That's when you let DeMar, Vooch and ‘Zo do their thing."

It's a nice fallback to have.

Because LaVine is always ready to boil over.

"You guys know I can get it going," LaVine added. "The second quarter I got it going and it was off to the races, hit a three and went back on the attack."

Zach LaVine dropped 32 points in the home-opening win against the Pelicans.

It was quite the run starting with the three on a DeRozan pass. Then it was a reverse drive score and another, another three, a step back, a three, a lob from Ball and a couple of free throws for dessert, a loosen the belt halftime close for a 65-47 Bulls lead.

They were dancing in the aisles.

"With it being the home opener everybody was going to come out with a little extra hype today," said Ball. "For me, it's just coming into every game wanting to win that game and doing the best I can to help my team win that night. That's all it's really about regardless of who the opponent is. They (fans) came out tonight. It was good playing in front of them and everybody out in Chicago. This is pretty much my first real game out here, and they came out and it was amazing. The energy was great from start to finish, and as you saw I think it translated into the way we played tonight. The energy here is amazing. Us being undersized, we know we're a lot faster than most teams in the NBA. So we get it and get to get out on the break."

The Pelicans tried some adjustments to begin the second half, sending their defense out higher to try to cut off LaVine and actually got the Bulls lead down to 80-70. When it was time for Green and Brown and the Pelicans to turn red with embarrassment, Green dunking a few more, one on a crashing followup slam of a LaVine miss.

"He can jump throughout the whole day," Ball said about Green. "Early morning, at night. Every time we see him, he's always dunking the ball. It's nice to see him come out here and do it in the game."

Then Brown added a three with Alize Johnson banging around for eight points and eight rebounds in 14 minutes and the Bulls taking a 92-75 lead into the fourth quarter. LaVine got to the free throw line and heard, "MVP, MVP." And so did Caruso, whose candidacy seems somewhat less likely.

Though perhaps not after Caruso shook loose a rebound that became a Johnson breaakway before Green partnered with Johnson for a layup and three-point play and 30-point Bulls lead with nine minutes remaining. It was a Fat Friday in Chicago.

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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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