It was the sort of night the Bulls thought that there would be a lot more of back in October. A game where a lead was built - with both the starters and the bench playing their parts - and then extended to help the Bulls to a comfortable 34 point win.
It had to be a disappointing night for the Bulls Wednesday in the team's runaway 136-102 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.
Sure, Zach LaVine was brilliant again, this time with 35 points in 25 minutes and seven of seven on threes, LaVine's 12 first quarter points shooting the Bulls to a four-point lead after one quarter, 14 at halftime and 24 midway through the third quarter. There was Lauri Markkanen with 22 points on eight of nine shots, his fourth game of at least 20 points in the last six. There was Kris Dunn with three more steals and chasing Atlanta's Trae Young into seven of the Hawks' 23 turnovers. There was rookie Coby White with 19 points off the bench among the reserves' 52 that was pivotal, Thad Young with 15 points and Denzel Valentine with 10. The Hawks never threatened as the Bulls bulled their way to 78 inside points.
Zach With a Perfect 7-7 from Downtown
Still, it had to be somewhat dispiriting because this is what they expected back in October. Perhaps not every game and not as smoothly with 58 percent shooting and 46 percent on threes. Sure, the Hawks were on the second of a back to back after an overtime loss in Miami. Still, this was the Bulls team the players believed they were and would be.
Perhaps still could be?
"We have the same goals set, but it's going to be a little harder," acknowledged LaVine.
The Bulls in what they expected would be a turnaround season and hoped would put them in or near the playoffs now are 9-17. But even if the results haven't shown enough improvement, there's been a subtle change the players seem to sense.
The Bulls have won three of their last seven. But all four losses have been by five points or fewer. Which also coincides with when Dunn was returned to the starting lineup. With Otto Porter Jr. now out an extended time likely into February, Dunn's starting role seems secure. Dunn seems to have turned into a quieter version of Patrick Beverley with all the "dawg" Dunn likes to talk about.
"That's what we've been trying to put together," said LaVine. "Even though we've had our losses, we've been competing in every game. We've had stretches where we look really good, like we are the better team but coming out with the losses. It's one or two stretches throughout a game that decide a game sometimes. During those stretches we have to learn to turn it on. Today in the third quarter we came out and did our thing and coasted; we need to have more of these games."
That third quarter start was one of two crucial stretches for the Bulls. All the starters contributed, Dunn pressuring the ball, Tomas Satoransky with a three and a floater, Wendell Carter Jr. with a run out for a score, Markkanen with a runner and LaVine with a dunk on the run and another of those unlikely pullups with about an inch of space. LaVine continues to make some of the most unlikely shots, his 17 third quarter points giving him the rare fourth quarter off to rest in a win.
"You want to have wins like that," said LaVine. "It's good for the team and obviously for the body. I was more excited about us being able to keep the gas on and not having to come back in because we played a full game where we hold the lead going into the fourth quarter.
"It finally got all together," LaVine added. "Kris has been taking on the challenge. The last four games he has held his opponent to like, five to seven points under his average. Lauri did his thing. The bench came in did their thing. Zel [Valentine] came in and made four straight free throw line floaters. It was meant to be a good game."
That would be the other pivotal part of the game. And the Bulls emerged thanks to Valentine, who also has just emerged from the mysterious bench purgatory he'd endured the first 20 games.
The players obviously are thrilled.
"We love having him out there," LaVine said. "Continuing to put him back in that rotation has been good for us. We know going into the paint and trying to jump over somebody isn't his forte. But that's a high skill, high degree shot (floater/runner). I cannot do that. When he plays, he brings a high level IQ."
The Bulls were scoring well to start mostly thanks to LaVine, who had the basketball equivalent of one of those perfect quarterback ratings games they talk about in football. But the Hawks had scouted the Bulls well enough to easily break the pick and roll trap the Bulls employ. Young was slicing the Bulls up with passes to dunking big men, the Hawks with 31 points in the first nine minutes and an eight point lead.
That's when Valentine maneuvered around a screen in the lane four consecutive times, each time making a gentle floating shot and each time from a bit farther away. It was the highlight of a late 14-0 Bulls run that turned the eight-point deficit into a 37-33 Bulls lead after the first quarter.
Suddenly a devastating start was avoided as the reserves maintained the small lead in the second quarter until the starters returned and combined for a 10-0 close to the first half, Dunn with a three-point play, LaVine with another flash dunk and Markkanen drawing the contact and some free throws.
It was the sort of stuff the Bulls envisioned, discussed and predicted in the fall. Before they began to take those falls and stumbles so often in the early going. And players who were being counted on weren't having trouble counting their minutes. Valentine didn't play in 14 of the first 17 games and played fewer than five minutes in mop-up time in the other three. Then there was the big summer free agent, Thad Young, who began to disappear from the rotation as well. A starter his last seven years in the NBA, Young suddenly began playing fewer than 20 minutes per game in six of his last 10 games. He played more than 30 minutes Wednesday for the first time all season and had 15 points, nine rebounds, six assists and three steals.
"Thad was talking on the bench, ‘Hey, we got to bring some energy,'" related Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "When he checked in, I thought that the separation happened. Arch [Ryan Arcidiacono] came in, Coby came in, Gaf [Daniel Gafford], the game changed with their energy and their togetherness."
Valentine scored eight of the reserves' 16 points in that first quarter stretch.
For Young, that was the sort of contribution expected from a veteran leader, though it's more difficult to produce when you are not playing. Now perhaps with the injuries to Porter and Chandler Hutchison and the return of Dunn to the starting lineup, there's more certainty. Plus, the players are varying the game by shooting more from mid range as evidenced by the large number of paint points and Valentine and Markkanen leading the way with running shots, Markkanen no longer an arc statue, and LaVine a threat from everywhere.
"Our bench has always helped us out," said LaVine. "I'm going out there and doing my part. I was upset with myself (Monday against Toronto). I had 20 in the first and I ended with 20. For me, that's unacceptable. I've got to be more aggressive. I definitely wanted to do that today."
And during the last few weeks. LaVine is one of the league's hottest players the last 10 games, averaging 27.9 points on 51 percent shooting on three pointers and averaging almost five made threes per game.
The Bulls Wednesday attempted just 24 three pointers and scored their most points of the season and most in 10 years. It was the most points the team has scored in a regulation game since moving into the United Center and the first time in a decade scoring more than 100 points in three quarters. In the previous three games, the Bulls averaged 40 three-point attempts per game while failing to score 100 points in regulation in any of the games.
"We usually mess up with that (leads). We finally figured that out today," said LaVine. "We should have had a lot more wins where we let them back in multiple games. It's at the point of the season now where you don't what to start piling up (the losses). You'll get washed away. We're going to be competitive each and every night."
Crown them? Not yet. But this sure looked a lot more like who a lot of us thought they were.