Bulls produce a resilient performance to close out victory on the road behind 28 points from Otto Porter Jr and an explosive showing off the bench by Daniel Gafford in a short-handed line up.
Now that was fun. Maybe this is going to be an entertaining Bulls season after all.
The Bulls Thursday had a little New Year's Eve celebration of their own as they perhaps bid a farewell not only to a difficult year but to a deficient style of play. Their play was beguiling instead of begrudging. Avarice evolved to altruism. Perhaps it's too premature for finished product, but hardly as feckless anymore.
The Bulls in a 133-130 victory over the Washington Wizards again placed seven players in double figure scoring led by Otto Porter Jr. with 28 and a game high 12 rebounds and Zach LaVine with 22. They totaled 34 assists in a hot potato repeat from Tuesday's 26, again got more than 40 points from the reserves and didn't wither when the Wizards came back from an 11-point late third quarter deficit to lead 123-118 with four minutes left.
LaVine with 10 of the team's last 18 points, seven assists and a team most 10 free throw attempts, drove for a three-point play. Porter and then Thad Young, making his first appearance of the season with 15 points and six assists, countered Wizards scores as the Bulls were relentless again like they were the Pinkertons chasing Butch and Sundance. The home good guys just couldn't shake them. Then after LaVine stuck with a twirling Russell Westbrook (yet another triple double) to force a miss, Porter and LaVine closed out the win with free throws. In between Wizards star Bradley Beal with 28 points fumbled an open layup attempt that could have given Washington the lead with 14.4 seconds. But that's also what happens when you are outplayed.
"I feel like we have a different mentality coming into this year," said LaVine. "It's pretty much the same group we had last year, but with a new obviously front office and coaching staff. So different philosophies on offense and defense. But at the end of the day we have to go out there and play. I think this team is tired of being labeled losers and underachieving. Everything is not going to be perfect; we're not going to go out and win every game. But I think our demeanor has been a lot better than it has been the last couple of years.
"Some of the games last year that we lost we're coming down to the wire just like this and we didn't have the right big plays or the right stop. I feel like we came through with those today," said LaVine.
The Bulls also received a prodigious performance from Daniel Gafford as the Bulls, like all NBA teams this season, went into Covid effect mode, four players unable to play because of virus protocols. It was uncertain if Lauri Markkanen would have been available with a calf injury. But he didn't get the chance to test it as he joined Tomas Satoransky again and Chandler Hutchison and Ryan Arcidiacono being unavailable because of potential virus issues. None were able to fly with the team to Milwaukee for Friday's game and their availability remains uncertain for several days.
So Porter moved back into the starting lineup for Markkanen. But it didn't impact the reserves' performance with the return of Young and especially inspired play from Gafford, who had 15 points, a team best plus-23 rating and the kind of rim protection and inside athletic play the Bulls often lack.
"I thought as the game started Wendell got off to a little bit of a slow start and we threw Gaff in there," noted Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "I thought he was a presence defensively at the rim and I thought he was a presence offensively on finishes. We got a really, really good game from him and he played really, really well and it was great to see."
Really, really great; really.
Equally significant was the impact it had on Carter and perhaps some motivation as well. In addition to the attitude that Donovan is taking with these players, which might help that he doesn't know them and wasn't involved in the drafting or recruitment of any. Lottery pick doesn't mean anything to Donovan. Just production.
Otto Porter Jr. scored 28 points on 10-for-14 shooting in Chicago's New Year's Eve win over Washington.
So not only when Carter was uncertain early and doing little to thwart the Wizards inside after actually opening the game with a three pointer, not only did Donovan go to Gafford quickly as Washington took a 27-18 lead, but Donovan went at Carter.
"The thing to me that was a little bit disappointing, it can't take a half," said Donovan. "I made a comment to him (Carter) at the end of the first quarter that he needed to stay aggressive. He missed a lot of shots around the basket to start the game and I thought in a lot of ways it was a little bit deflating to him. That's part of the game. I thought there were some opportunities to drive the ball to the basket and finish. I spoke to him coming out of the half. I'm just like, ‘Listen, you're not getting any of those plays back. At some point you're going to have to move forward with the level of toughness mentally. You have to have that.'
"I give him a lot of credit," said Donovan. "He really really responded in that third quarter (with 11 points) and he gathered himself and gave us a really really good boost. Him responding the way he did was great, but I think he can also respond a little bit sooner, too."
Donovan is known to be a supportive players' coach, but in his subtle way he has been direct and unafraid to make demands of players. That the Bulls also have a deep bench with savvy veterans who are anxious to play and eager youngsters like Gafford gives Donovan some cover. But also to give players a chance to demonstrate who has those competitive genes.
"We can't continue to have those bad habits and things go wrong we revert back to what we're used to having happen," said LaVine. "We have to think we're going to win the game and keep our foot on the gas pedal and think positive and make plays. He challenges us. And we need that. Not to take our foot off the gas pedal. He challenges me; it's good for all of us. We're really appreciating it. We've got to go out there and do our job."
The Bulls have been doing so after that ignominious 0-2 uncompetitive start and now are 2-3. The last second Warriors three beat them, and the Wizards are 0-5. But Washington has stars in Beal and Westbrook and was a considerably motivated team after Tuesday's loss when they perhaps took the Bulls lightly more in reputation than responsibility.
Not this time as with the return of Rui Hachimura with 10 first quarter points and center Thomas Bryant on the way to 28 points, the Wizards were committed to reverse the result. Westbrook seemed distraught after Tuesday's loss and the normally amiable Beal was so discouraged he refused to meet with media. And then the Wizards were serious with 29 points in the first seven minutes on the way to a 41-point first quarter.
And like the yoyo they spun down, the Bulls seemed to be on a string. Especially in their offense with that extra pass so often discussed and rarely seen.
"I thought offensively they played really unselfishly; they played together," congratulated Donovan. "We knew, myself coaching both guys (Westbrook and Beal), those guys are really, really good players and very competitive guys. You know how they're going to come out. And their team kind of came out on fire, playing really well and we were going to have to weather a few storms and take a few punches and be able to respond. I thought we did that. We just kind of kept hanging in the game, hanging in the game and just kept fighting and coming down the stretch found a way to win."
Which has not been a habit, and not to start the season.
"There were times in those games we played and in the beginning when we lost that were times like we just gave up basically," admitted Gafford. "We mentally were checked out. We weren't doing the things that we were doing in the games that we won. Even Golden State we lost that game, but we took a big leap from the first two games that we had played. So adversity was a big thing with us. There was a lot of talk in the locker room and stuff. We just had to play as one. We had to stay together. We don't have fans in arenas either, so we had to bring energy off the bench and bring energy from our hotel room, certain things like that. Because it's going to be a long season. We're not going to have fans in these games, so we just got to be there for each other."
Unusual in so many resects that home court now is irrelevant. The Bulls lost all three at home and then won two on the road.
The Wizards led 41-35 at the end of the first quarter. But that was a victory the way the Bulls lost their first two games. They were trusting this time, 11 assists on 14 first quarter baskets and matching the hot shooting Wizards with six of 10 threes. It is the way this Bulls team probably needs to play. Their strengths are on offense, particularly with starters like Markkanen, White and LaVine and even Carter. Play to your strengths. Everyone loves defense. No one chants for offense. But final margin inevitably matters. The Bulls seem best scoring rather than preventing it. Gafford does provide a defensive presence with his athleticism and quick jumping, though he doesn't provide much offense. Donovan has actually been relying on rookie Patrick Williams as a defensive component with the young first unit. Williams had 10 points on a modest five shot attempts.
"We have to think of ourselves as a winning basketball team," said LaVine. "You might not win every game, but you have to give yourself an opportunity to."
Perhaps they finally are.