Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic scored 22 points each as Chicago took care of business against the Toronto Raptors with a 122-113 win. LaVine also added 13 assists, one shy of his career-high. The Raptors only had eight players available but were led by Chris Boucher, who had a monster 38 point, 19 rebound outing. The Bulls (22-28) will look to extend their winning streak on Friday night on the road against the Atlanta Hawks (27-25).
For a long time, the toughest Bulls were the ones in the pregame video. No more.
Now the Bulls are the Big Bad guys, the tough, mean, angry, physical guys who are going to batter you on the boards and dominate you in the paint. They'll take you to school; old school. Fear the deer? Heck, Bulls chew up deer for appetizers. Even once frightening dinosaurs.
Thursday in a makeup game, the Bulls had leads of at least 20 points in each of the last three quarters before allowing the Toronto Raptors some late dignity, if not a victory, in a 122-113 Bulls win.
It was the third consecutive game—and third consecutive victory—the opponent's top two players were out, this time Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. Though with these brawny Bulls of Nikola Vucevic, Daniel Theis, Thad Young and Patrick Williams could it be they simply feared the Bulls and refused to show up?
Highlights from Chicago's 122-113 win over the Raptors.
"With some of the new guys we've got, we're a lot bigger out there," noted Zach LaVine, who orchestrated with 22 points and 13 assists. "Especially coming off the bench, we're a lot bigger (with Theis, Lauri Markkanen and Coby White). Playing against those teams that are always coming up against us, they were always out-physicaling us. You had one or two tough guys on the team. Now we've got a whole bunch of them."
And these new Bulls are coming for you.
Or at least the rest of the Eastern Conference. The Bulls at 22-28 remained 10th in the Eastern Conference, but three games ahead of the fading Raptors at 20-32. The 10th place team qualifies for the play-in tournament for a potential playoff spot. But the Bulls are aiming much higher than that just four games out of fourth place. And now with 22 games remaining starting with fading Atlanta on Friday (5-5 in their last 10), the Bulls have just five games left against teams with records better than three games over .500 and 10 games against teams .500 or below. The Bulls finish their Western Conference games next week with two against Memphis and one against Minnesota.
Then it's a chance to huff and puff against the straws and sticks holding up some of those Eastern Conference playoff teams.
"We've got to be extremely physical," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan, not long ago engineer of the pace, space and grace Bulls.
Now he's Bill of the In Your Face Bulls.
Billy Donovan speaks to the media following Chicago's victory over the Raptors on Thursday night.
"We've got to use our length and our size and we've got to be a great defensive rebounding team," said Donovan. "There are going to be times we have lineups out there where we maybe don't have great foot speed. But we have great length and we have to use that length. I think we've got to be a team now that really tries to jam it inside. Our identity is we've got to play at the basket. We've got to be physical at the basket."
The rebuilt Bulls from the recent trades got 22 points and seven rebounds from Vucevic, 14 points and 10 rebounds from Theis and 11 points, nine rebounds and six assists from Young.
And while it may not be their first choice and career aspirations, the Bulls suddenly are deep with talent.
Markkanen had 18 points in 18 minutes off the bench and White had 15 points. They combined for five of 11 threes and led the bench to a 47-20 margin. Markkanen led the Bulls with a plus-23 rating. LaVine, deft hitting Vucevic and Theis rolling to the rim for scores, was next at plus-20. Markkanen and White not long ago were highly ranked lottery picks, seventh in their respective drafts, and designated core pieces of the Bulls rebuild. Now the Bulls have the luxury of bringing elite level recent collegiate talents off the bench to support the veteran starting unit in which LaVine at 6-6 is the shortest player.
White and Markkanen now don't face the starters. Markkanen, showing more post play and dunks, is matched more often against smaller players. While White is playing more off the ball as a shooter with LaVine closing the game at point guard and flowing easily in pick and roll with both Vucevic and Theis.
Daniel Theis secured his first double-double as a Bull, scoring 14 points and grabbing ten rebounds.
"We all have to make sacrifices," said Markkanen. "Not just me, Coby, I think everybody's sacrificed with the new guys coming in. The way we're playing I think everybody plays a part in it and I think we've been doing a decent job. Everybody's sacrificed and all we can control is what we're doing. So that's my mindset going in. If I have a smaller guy on me, I've been posting up more now and that's partly just the emphasis being physical."
Chris Boucher had 38 points and 19 rebounds for Toronto and Pascal Siakam 27 points. They were able to outhustle the Bulls at times playing small without any center starting. But the outcome basically never was in doubt after a slow start for the Bulls and 11-4 Toronto lead. It's a bit easier to lose concentration against Toronto now playing their home games in Tampa, Florida. LaVine has primarily been trying to get his new teammates going since the trades. But when they were stuck in neutral to start, he took charge and drove the Bulls with 11 first quarter points, his biggest start since the trades. It was 33-27 Bulls after the first quarter and then then were gone, 64-51 at halftime and 97-79 after three.
"I really thought he made a lot of great decisions and got other people involved," said Donovan. "Zach has done everything he can to impact the group and impact winning besides scoring. He's working defensively, he's trying to set guys up and trying to make the right basketball play. He closed the game out really well (five straight points after the Raptors closed within seven with 2:51 left). He handled the ball against their pressure, got us into some different things offensively. He got the ball to Vooch when it needed to go there. He continues to get better and put our team in position to win."
Zach LaVine scored 22 points and dished out 13 assists in the victory.
But it also hasn't been lost on Donovan how seamlessly without any objections Markkanen and White have not only fit in but produced to enhance the team's prospects.
"I actually spoke with both of those two guys at shootaround and basically told both of them how much I appreciated them," said Donovan. "Because coming the start of the season (they were) starters and focal points and core kind of guys. I still believe they are core guys, I still believe they are extremely important pieces to our team. They're important to our team, but I give them a lot of credit that a lot of stuff has changed and a lot of guys have had to make sacrifices and they've had to make some sacrifices.
"Lauri where he's basically started all the time," noted Donovan. "So as young players all of a sudden things change, (but) you start to understand that everybody has got to do different things to try to help the team and put the team in position to win. I appreciate not only the way those guys have handled it, but the way they have worked and have tried to come to games ready to play and to contribute."
It's a testament to both. To Donovan for being bold enough to make the decision for the best interests of the team, especially with Markkanen in a free agent season, and for Markkanen and White to continue to produce. Though Markkanen's scoring is down to 11.8 per game coming off the bench, it's in just 21 minutes while Markkanen is shooting 62 percent and 53 percent on threes.
And, by the way, those 35 assists led by LaVine's most since his rookie year in Minnesota. The Bulls are averaging about 30 assists per game since the trades. Talk about rolling. Now that's what we call sacrifice. And who's going to argue with these Bullies?
Though, it wasn't the Bulls at their best quite yet. Donovan said there were too many times they didn't play inside enough or through Vucevic. Though they did have a 22-point lead with just over eight minutes remaining before they left for a little more beach time before the flight to Atlanta. At least mentally.
Because physically the Bulls are there. And it's starting to leave a mark.