LaVine comes up clutch to hold off Denver, Bulls improve to 11-5

Zach LaVine scored 12 of his game-high 36 points in the 4th quarter to close the door on the Nuggets
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later
Bet Your Bulls | FanDuel

Body

When I was a kid, it was the Fabulous Kangaroos, who basically invented the tag team, and Dick the Bruiser and the Crusher. Later the most fearsome partners were guys like the Hart Foundation and the Road Warrior and the Legion of Doom.

And now it's Zowie Zach and DeMar the Destroyer.

As they did it again Friday, LaVine with 12 consecutive Bulls points starting with a three after the Denver Nuggets reduced a double digit Bulls fourth quarter lead to four with about five minutes left in the game. Then LaVine handed off the scoring baton to DeRozan, who mashed his way to eight consecutive free throws in the last 75 seconds to enable the Bulls to pin a 114-108 defeat on Denver.

It gave the Bulls their first win in Denver in more than a decade, a 3-2 record on this Western Conference road trip and an 11-5 start to the season that has the Bulls a bare half game out of first place in the Eastern Conference. LaVine finished with 36 points and DeRozan with 26 in remaining the premier scoring duo in the NBA.

"We just wanted to end the road trip the right way," said LaVine. "They were making big shots, we were making big shots. Obviously, when the ball is in my and DeMar's hands we're gonna make the right play, I think pretty much every time. With me and him shooting the ball or making the right pass. I made some big shots, did what I did. And then at the end played two-man game with him. He got to the line and closed the door; we ended with some stops. 
 
 "They gotta pick either me or him," LaVine pointed out. "One of us is gonna get a good look or create a play for somebody."

Tap to watch highlights of Zach LaVine's 36-point night against the Nuggets.

And so goes this Bulls renaissance that is catching on throughout the country. The "Let's go Bulls" chants got so loud and repetitive that after the game, Nuggets coach Mike Malone cracked, "I wasn't sure if we were at United Center or (Nuggets home) Ball Arena."

Talk about the Bulls and their fans having a ball once again; and not just Lonzo.

"I think the Bulls have obviously one of the best fan bases in sports," LaVine said. "When I was on the bench I heard ‘em, 'Let's go Bulls.' It was great. Especially because I haven't heard that in my tenure here. Just hearing the fans and have them travel and be supportive on the road is incredible."

And not undeserving.

The Bulls got a personnel break after the narrow defeat in Portland with Nuggets league MVP Nikola Jokic out injured along with Michael Porter. Plus, Jamal Murray remains out since last season. The Bulls still were missing their lesser Nikola, Vucevic, as well as Patrick Williams. And it looked like the Bulls would make relatively easy work of the shorthanded, armed and legged Nuggets after a close first half. The Bulls came out of halftime with an 11-2 run courtesy of Zowie and the Destroyer and friends, the Bulls going ahead 77-65 and 88-78 into the fourth quarter.

"They talked about it at halftime, ‘Listen, we've got to come out and we've got to be aggressive and we've got to kind of set the tempo and the stage of the game,'" related Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "I thought we did. We started out on defense, we got a stop, we got out in transition a little bit. The biggest thing is we got stops and we ran and we played downhill at the basket and it was good to see us respond."

Tap to watch Billy Donovan's postgame press conference where he reacts to Chicago's 114-108 win over Denver.

But so did the Nuggets after an empty Bulls start to the fourth quarter with four misses and three turnovers. And three minutes into the quarter it was a four-point separation. But first because of LaVine, and then DeRozan despite the Nuggets scoring in seven consecutive possessions late in the game, the Bulls never did let them closer than three. And every time the Nuggets got within that theoretical one possession, it was LaVine with a three or a drive, and then DeRozan into a mangle of bodies. And perfection from the free throw line, a dozen for DeRozan among the Bulls 24 for 24.

"We're a resilient team," said LaVine. "We're out here to come out here and complete the task, go out and try to win each and every game. If there's a bump in the road, we respond the right way."

The mini-Bulls with Derrick Jones and Javonte Green, titular if not actual centers, paradoxically helped the Bulls to a striking 50-38 advantage in rebounding. The Bulls had an 18-8 margin in second chance points as Green with six offensive rebounds had one fewer than the entire Nuggets roster.

"I love playing with Woo," Jones said about Green, using the nickname of Radford U's greatest player ever.

Derrick Jones Jr. finishes a dunk over the Nuggets on Friday night.

Derrick Jones Jr. finishes a dunk over the Nuggets on Friday night.

It's supposedly about the sound Green made as a child as opposed to the Nuggets admiration as Green appears to made them envious with his effort.

"If y'all see us every day, y'all will see that that's my guy," added Jones. "I got my jersey number from him. Woo was the first person I got in contact with when I got traded to Chicago. I knew of Woo before here. Just being able to be around him and having him able to breathe life into the team. I thought I had a ball of energy in me, but he's different. He's got more energy than me; I ain't going to lie to you."

Jones was perhaps even more impressive from a novice's view with 16 points and eight rebounds off the bench, which included five dunks. Plus, one in which he just about dunked from near the free throw line with a standing broad jump in a half court two-man game with LaVine that was prosaic only for Jones. 
 "I'm not even going to lie," said Jones. "That's not even top 10. I've got so many dunks. I dunked on so many people in this league. That's not even top 10 for me right now."

Now that's what you call exclusive company.

Though to the basketball cognoscenti, Green's predatory and pugnacious play presaged a poignant panorama of particular professional pageantry.

There was a did-you-see-that segment to close the third quarter when DeRozan drove into a swarm of Nuggets with seconds left, Green loitering outside above the three-point line. DeRozan's attempt was blocked hard downward, taking a big bounce that Green went high and tipped to Coby White with a second or so on the shot clock. White shot putted enough to hit the rim with Green now sprinting toward the basket. Green grabbed the rebound among three Denver players and threw to the corner for an Ayo Dosunmu three to close the quarter 88-78 Bulls.

Then Green did it again.

Tap to watch all the highlights of Chicago's big win in Denver.

Remember that LaVine three I mentioned with about five minutes left to start his 12 straight after the Nuggets got within four?

It began with a DeRozan three-point attempt that Green outmaneuvered dunk star Aaron Gordon and Monte Morris for the rebound. Green tipped the ball back to Alex Caruso, who missed a three. The ball then darted left into the corner, where Green—yes, again—chased it down as Nuggets players mostly watched (light air, you say? No problem for these Bulls). Green grabbed the ball falling out of bounds and threw it back to Ball. He got it out to DeRozan, who with about a second left on the shot clock threw the ball behind him to about 28 feet where LaVine casually made it 97-90 Bulls with 4:51 left.

LaVine and DeRozan get the attention and the credit, and they did score at the close when it's most difficult and magnified. But plays like Green made essentially created the margin of victory. It was one of the great games with five points and three shots. Check the plus/minus. Green was plus-20. Next most was LaVine at plus-9.

"The team is so locked in right now," commended LaVine. "I think we're really good with our roles. Those guys come in, Javonte comes in and brings incredible energy. He does whatever the team asks from him. He's playing the four-man half the time this year, battling guys, getting rebounds, getting extra tipouts. DJ flying around, his defensive effort and then being in the pocket (on offense), being able to create over the top and get fouls and dunks. Everybody, AC's defense. I could go on and on. But everybody's really connected on the team right now. So I think we know the mission at hand and we're going out there and executing."

Caruso hasn't shot well, and missed six of his seven against the Nuggets. But his defense was again so audacious it was perhaps constitutionally self-evident.

In a statistic I doubt they keep—not that I'd know how to find it, anyway—Caruso has to lead the league in offensive fouls drawn. Not the way you think. Caruso generally rejects the lazy man's defense of the NBA with all the switching and in working over screens inevitably causes two or three offensive fouls every game. Caruso also had a transcendent sequence on one possession in the second quarter when he twice deflected the dribble away from Monte Morris and then on Morris' third attempt blocked his shot and then handed the ball to the official as the shot clock expired. Sometimes when his man makes a shot, Caruso will grimace as if he can't believe it. In a game in which everyone pretty much accepts there'll be scores, Caruso seems to believe you can shut out the other team.

Ball didn't shoot well and had seven points while Tony Bradley starting at center had eight points, all but two in the first few minutes when he took advantage of the smaller Nuggets inside without Jokic. He didn't play much the last quarter and a half as Donovan toggled among his 6-5 nerve center.

Dosunmu has moved among that crew and had 10 points and eight rebounds. Coby White did have his first basket, but was uncertain again coming back from surgery with one for seven shooting in about 10 minutes. Donovan has said because of White's long absence he doesn't expect much for awhile. The interesting development has been Dosunmu becoming a catch-and-shoot corner player.

Coby White lays it up against Denver

Coby White lays it up for his first points of the season.

The Illinois rookie was more known for his play with the ball. But with the second unit, Dosunmu has settled into a role as a corner bailout shooter. And he's surprisingly shot well at 46 percent on threes for what was supposed to be the weakness that made him a second round draft pick. It raises the question about White's role when he fully recovers since with Ball and Caruso, White seemed destined for also a catch-and-shoot role. Though you probably can't have too many of those in this NBA.

While there are hardly any like LaVine. Even before his fourth quarter rescue, LaVine had a four-minute stretch late in the third quarter when he accounted for all the Bulls 10 points with either his driving scores or drawing a double team and passing to Jones for three of his rolling dunks, including the standing 10 footer.

"Zach carries us shooting the ball," said Donovan. "For me, it's remarkable to watch him. I am very fortunate and blessed to watch a guy who shoots the ball the way he does and the degree of difficulty. He's one of the best tough shot makers in this league. He's comfortable doing that."

Ringling Brothers has left the United Center. But this high flying basketball circus returns Sunday against the Knicks with it's own Doomsday Devices.

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.

NEXT UP:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter