Zach LaVine led the way with 33 points as seven Bulls scored in double-figures as Chicago notched their second-straight win, despite rookie Patrick Williams missing his first career game due to a hip contusion.
There's the Showtime Lakers and the Fast Break ‘60s Celtics. They were some of the highest scoring, most entertaining teams in NBA history. Like Wilt's 76ers, Oscar's Royals and Rick Barry's and later Steph's Warriors. And, oh yeah, Zach's Bulls. Also Coby's, Lauri's, Garrett's, Thad's, and well, you get the picture.
It wasn't a masterpiece Monday against the Houston Rockets. But the Bulls 125-120 victory also was about tone, balance, movement, rhythm, focus, pattern, space and texture, the elements that comprise both a work of great art and a work of great offense.
It's not about defense for this Bulls team, which moved to 6-8 and some faint praise for the team's best start in four years even with some of the crushing losses. That flaw will annoy those anxious to demand greatness and hold up those D-fence signs. But this Bulls team, if not considered among the NBA's elite yet, has become at least elite performance art. The Bulls have become one of the highest scoring teams in the NBA at 117.4 per game, which is on pace for more points per game than any team in franchise history. Only the champion Bulls teams of the ‘90s had higher offensive ratings.
So at least for now sit back and enjoy the show.
"I think we're definitely a better team," said Thad Young, one of seven Bulls players again to score in double figures led by LaVine's 33 with seven assists. "Obviously we have some of the similar pieces, same people as last year. But I think the mentality's just changed. We're seizing the moment."
No one's exactly shivering in fear yet about the Bulls in the wake of some of the disastrous losses, like the missing 22-point lead in Oklahoma City last week. But instead of allowing defeat to crush them like before, this group of players buttressed by veterans like Young and Garrett Temple with LaVine's maturing all around play is producing a turnaround. No more should you look away. Because you are going to miss a lot.
And not only LaVine's occasional two-hand tomahawk dunk, like the one on a fast break just before the Bulls 64-52 halftime lead. Because there were 20 Bulls three pointers in 45 attempts as the Bulls even shot more than the notorious Rockets, who are without James Harden. Houston also was missing John Wall, and his point guard predecessors Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul. So the Rockets didn't have quite enough even with newcomer Victor Oladipo's 32 points while the Bulls back in the United Center didn't have their Covid players, Chandler Hutchison and Tomas Satoransky. Patrick Williams was out with a hip problem and Otto Porter Jr. with a recurrence of back issues.
All 20 3-pointers against the Rockets
Though suddenly there's also considerably more in reserve as Denzel Valentine got back into the rotation for 13 points, Ryan Arcidiacono made three of four threes and Lauri Markkanen added 18 points and four threes. Five Bulls players made at least three of the three pointers as the Bulls went both modern with their shooting and old school with offense. Yes, that's the way they used to play in the ‘60s in the high intensity offensive games featuring the greatest stars of the game.
These Bulls are joining that club with a sixth game this season scoring at least 120 points and averaging more than 122 the last six games. It's a different, offensive-oriented NBA these days, of course, but it has been for several years and not one that seemed to include the Bulls, who were 27th in scoring last season with essentially the same roster.
And while the Bulls have yet to tame their tendency toward turnovers with 19 for 25 points Monday, the offensive reboot with more communication, more selflessness, more strategy and not that much more of LaVine has enabled the Bulls to take the breath away from even some of the best once they were past that opening gut punch. The Bulls have won three of their last seven games; the four losses were by a combined total of 11 points, all on last possessions and in overtime.
"I envisioned trying to play like that," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "I've always felt if you can get five to seven guys every night in double figures I think it keeps everybody engaged. I think the ball finds the open man, I think guys shoot the ball more comfortably. You know clearly for us Zach is just an elite, elite scorer; you have to go to him. But I think if the weight of that is just on him every single time down the floor, I think it takes players out of rhythm. I think it's hard to play and make shots when the ball does find you. I kind of envisioned the group as being a team that's going to have to move and cut and generate shots collectively. I think if we can do that, then we can be a good offensive team."
The Bulls have been doing that better than any time in recent memory even without a classic distributing player. Coby White has been making the effort, but it's been difficult for him. He was four of 12 for 10 points after being scoreless against Dallas. White is anxious to please, and Donovan has been urging White to be more of a facilitator. Though White often seems caught between what he wants to do for the team and what he is, the latter being a potentially great scorer. White faced that predicament last season until breaking out in a scoring role after All-Star break. He walks unsteadily on that offensive balance beam hoping to get his bearings while LaVine, at least for now with Satoransky still out, assumes more of the late game playmaking.
And LaVine did it beautifully Monday in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day game.
The Bulls took control early over a shaky Rockets team with Oladipo in his first game since the Harden trade, Wall out, DeMarcus Cousins barely able to move coming off the bench—talk about not being able to boogie—and energy P.J. Tucker seeming to have lost all of it amidst the Rockets' crash.
The Bulls led 28-16 after one quarter, and it could have been more as even with all its offense, the team still has a tendency to forget the hot man. The cerebral Young is back playing to his strength inside instead of the curious decision last season to make him Steph Curry. The Rockets play small. Young entered with the energy reserves midway through the first quarter and lifted the team along with Daniel Gafford's basket protection. The starters aren't the most emotional players and have had a tendency to start slowly. Sometimes you wonder about seeing Gafford with that group to balance the scoring with more defense. Young scored easily on a pair of postups. And then didn't see the ball the rest of the quarter. Still, the Bulls led by a dozen after one and at halftime.
To Donovan's chagrin, the Bulls still are in bakery mode producing turnovers by the dozen. "We've averaging a little over 18 turnovers a game," Donovan noted. "We have to be a team that's between 12 and 14; that's really the goal. Whether or not we can get there, I don't know."
Just like it's difficult to make an apple turnover without apples, it's almost impossible to avoid mistakes without a natural at point guard. For now the Bulls are having some success outrunning their miscues.
Of course, what that also leads to is the thrill ride part of a Bulls game when the other team produces frighting screams. For Bulls fans. So the Bulls' 17-point first half lead was down to 71-68 in the third quarter when LaVine went to work. He got Markkanen a three and then took over, dashing down the lane for a two-hand dunk, pulling up for a three, making back to back threes, scoring or assisting on seven of the 10 third quarter field goals as the Bulls eased back ahead 93-86 going into the fourth quarter.
Zach LaVine (33 points) leads Bulls to win over Houston
"We've got a lot of firepower," said LaVine. "I think we're all starting to learn to move the ball a little bit. I think I've done a good job this year picking my spots, understanding when to shoot and when to pass. I think other guys have started to do that as well. So it's been fun. I think we adapted to Billy's offense really well. Guys are stepping up and hitting shots. I think we have the right personnel for it this year as well. I have to learn I can't beat them by myself. I have to learn how to use the pass. I went into offseason trying to figure out by watching film how I could make those plays and let the game come to me. "They cut the lead down, so I just wanted to try to assert myself to give us a little jumpstart," LaVine said. "I think I did that. The game was still close, but I think I asserted myself a little better. I think I'm just trying to read the game. Obviously in Dallas, I took eight shots. I feel like I read the game still pretty well. I might've made only one of them, but I feel I helped out with my passing and my defense."
It's the same LaVine, one of the best scorers in the game. But also a different LaVine, who is also doing the things that lead to winning with a little help from his friends. Sure gonna try with a little help from his friends. Donovan has been relying on LaVine, with five turnovers but just one with five assists in the second half, to close games making plays and defend some of the opponent's best scorers.
"I thought Zach the last couple of games has been really good," said Donovan. "He's really trying to play the right way, trying to make the right decisions. I think the thing for him is how does he really stay aggressive and also really read the defense? There were times where I think he's really trying to figure out the right play to make and then there are some other times where our team needs a basket and he goes and gets us one, gets 10 points last game, comes back with 30 something tonight. I think he's having a terrific year."
Billy Donovan and Zach LaVine.
And so the Rockets had another run in them. Forget stops; just go. The Rockets cut a 12-point fourth quarter deficit to 114-111 on an Oladipo three with 1:50 left in regulation. LaVine came right back with a driving finger role layup and then blocked Oladipo's driving layup attempt. Then with just under a minute left after two Christian Wood free throws, LaVine took a deep paint pass from White, drew the defense and passed to Markkanen for the clinching three.
It's another element you hear from many coaches that has escaped the Bulls in recent times: How many times is your offense hitting the paint? Donovan has had his staff charting that, and it's giving the Bulls more openings.
"We've got to be a team that we always say, ‘From paint to great,'" said Donovan. "You get it to the paint, let's get something great out of it. And they're getting better and better at that."
"Just read the play," added LaVine. "Little things I hear and read I use as motivation. I see myself as a top guy in the league and I want to show that. I feel I've taken a step in the right direction and tried to be more unselfish, be more open talking with teammates, watching film. I think it's going well and it's going to continue to get better the better I get at it." These Bulls have long told us they were talented. But the results have generally belied that declaration. So they hear it from Donovan, they study it as LaVine has done in the offseason and they hear it from veterans like Young.
"I used to tell him all the time, ‘Zach, let us help you out. And then in the fourth, hey, it's your show. We don't want to tire you out before we get to the fourth, that's when we really gonna need you.' He's been doing that," said Young. "He's been doing a really good job of just executing and making sure that he makes the right plays and the hard reads. He knows he can beat anybody one-on-one."
It takes a village, and the Bulls may just be building something.