No DeMar, no problem for these Bulls Monday in a 109-97 victory over the Denver Nuggets.
Because they had Zach, ‘Zo and a pinch of Ayo.
"We had to get our footing after that first half. What Zach did and the way he did it the end of that third quarter was just spectacular," Bulls coach Billy Donovan said about LaVine's dozen points in the last four minutes that turned a Denver halftime lead into 77-71 Bulls after three. "And starting that fourth quarter that second unit (led by Dosunmu with five of his 11 points and a coupe of lob passes for dunks) really, really played well. Ayo, his activity defensively, his energy, his length, his ability to get downhill. Lonzo (Ball with 20 points and four of eight threes) did a really good job shooting the ball. We needed his scoring with DeMar being out. A lot of guys contributed and chipped in."
Indeed, it was one of the best team efforts in almost a third of a season filled with them as the Bulls at 17-8 moved into a tie with the Nets for first place in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls now lead the East in wins and are third overall in the NBA. This on a night the Bulls learned in the afternoon that lead scorer DeMar DeRozan, who was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week, went into NBA health and safety protocols. Donovan said the team would know more after tests Tuesday. Also, valuable reserve and sometime starter Alex Caruso will be out at least a week with a hamstring issue. They join Coby White and Javonte Green, who are in virus protocols, and Patrick Williams who remains out after surgery.
The Nuggets were decimated also with regulars Jamal Murray, Michael Porter and P.J. Dozier out and three players, including Austin Rivers, facing virus absences. While the Bulls were seeking their first sweep of the Nuggets since their last championship season. Mission accomplished!
So Dosunmu got his first NBA start and Derrick Jones got his first Bulls start. And both responded, the high jumping Jones with 12 points and nine rebounds as the little-train-Bulls-that-could were outrebounding the vastly taller Nuggets 55-51. The Bulls also apparently tired out the Nuggets in the low altitude of Chicago, running up a 15-0 domination in fast break points and holding the sluggish Nuggets to below 40 percent shooting.
Tap to watch highlights of Chicago's 109-97 win over Denver.
Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic had a triple double with 17 points, 15 assists and 12 rebounds, but LaVine with 32 points and eight assists was easily the best player on the court, slicing through the languid Jokic and multiple Nuggets repeatedly and then Fed Exing deliveries to teammates for easy scores. Forget the post office; Zach delivers.
Oh, and anyone seen a two-way player?
That, too, was LaVine with repeated defensive gems, solid positioning and keen awareness.
"I think Zach played an incredibly complete game," praised Donovan. "Not only scoring and taking over the way he did at the end of the third, but also generating shots for a lot of guys. He probably could have had 15 assists, but Vooch (Nikola Vucevic with 20 points on eight of 24 shooting) missed some shots. He generated good shots for him, and I give Vooch credit for hanging in there."
The veteran Vucevic also was effective in not falling for all of those dipsy doo fakes and flops from Jokic, whose triple double was one of the more meaningless you'll see. He shot six of 17 and one of five on threes. And when the Bulls stopped double teaming and trapping him after halftime, the Nuggets weren't able to get the shots that gave them their first half lead with eight of 19 threes. Denver shot 23 percent on threes in the second half as the Bulls pulled steadily away after LaVine's lightning.
"Zach was great all the way around," Donovan reiterated. "I thought he worked really, really hard defensively. There was a lot on his plate offensively, not only scoring but facilitating; he played an exceptional game."
The Bulls left Denver farther from competitiveness than their airport is from downtown in an exciting third quarter stretch (for the Bulls). After an 11-4 Bulls start to the fourth quarter that bookended a 17-10 Bulls close to the third, Vucevic made a three when Jokic couldn't manage his way out fast enough, then passed to Jones for a slam dunk and foul three-point play. LaVine finished a fast break after a turnover on a Dosunmu underhand half court lob pass. And then after a Nuggets timeout to apparently admire this Bulls team even incomplete, Dosunmu lobbed another one up, this time for a Ball slam dunk after LaVine started a break. At least from Denver they are used to being snowed under.
So can the NBA handle the truth! These Bulls aren't going away.
They did have more than a few good men.
Zach LaVine led the Bulls with a game-high 32 points.
I was reminded about the famous speech from Jack Nicholson's Colonel Jessup in the 1992 film in the scene with Tom Cruise's Lt. Kaffee. Kaffee is trying to discover what really occurred. Donovan was explaining the truth about Dosunmu, who learned about an hour before the game he was getting his first NBA start and introduction "From Chicago…" in the United Center.
Dosunmu then went out and played a team high 42 minutes with the across the board line of 11 points, eight assists and six rebounds, the second consecutive double digit scoring game for the second round rookie from the U. of Illinois.
"He's just a competitor and he loves competing and loves playing," boasted Donovan. "He's a great guy to coach, a great guy to work with, got an incredible, infectious personality and I think he's only going to get better because his skill set is going to get better. He's unfazed. That's (another) thing I love about him. The innate competitive spirit in which he plays with and I said before the moment is not too big for him.
"He's the kind of guy who will do whatever he has to do to help the team," Donovan added, "and the other side of it is he wants to truth about himself of where he has to get better. I admire that because a lot of times it's hard for people to handle the truth. He wants that; he thrives on that."
Ayo can handle the truth!
"He (Dosunmu) got that swag to him," said Ball. "He's very confident when he's out there. We put 100 percent trust into him."
And a lot of other guys with half the Bulls top eight other places.
Vucevic and Ball both had 20/10 double/doubles with Ball adding four blocks, Troy Brown in a rare appearance had six points and eight rebounds, Matt Thomas made a three and Tony Bradley had six rebounds in 12 minutes
"We still have so many good players on the floor, so if the double team comes or I can draw two guys and kick to ‘Zo or Vooch or whoever, I am going to try to make the right play," LaVine explained. "But if I get it going I'm going to try to make a statement like I did the end of the third quarter and spread that lead out.
"You're not got to replace what (DeRozan) does, especially at the level he's playing at right now," added LaVine, who said he spoke to DeRozan after the game to rejoice in another success. "But guys will step up and we can compete for each other and still be a really good team, and I thought we showed that tonight. This is a new team, man. I tried to say this at the beginning of the year: This isn't last year. We got a bunch of guys that support each other, step up, aren't scared of the moment. It's a brand new energy and confidence that we have."
That is the truth. Handle that!