Bulls beat Grizzlies to finish preseason 4-0

Zach LaVine led the way with 31 points as Chicago ended their preseason campaign with a 118-105 victory in the United Center.
by Sam Smith
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Zach LaVine scored 31 points and Nikola Vucevic added 23 points on 11-of-14 shooting as the Bulls defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 118-105 on Friday night at the United Center. The Bulls finish the preseason 4-0. For the season opener, the Bulls will travel to Detroit to take on the Pistons on Wednesday night.

There were none of those cool locker room t-shirts and hats to purchase, and it doesn't appear like the NBA is agreeing to honor these Bulls as Exhibition Season Champions after Friday's 118-105 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.

The Bulls with a 4-0 record as the NBA's dress rehearsal came to a close had both the highest team scoring average and the fewest points per game allowed. Though perhaps the best part might have been they weren't satisfied.

"We're an extremely explosive offensive team, that when we lock in on the defensive end we can be extremely scary," said Zach LaVine, who led a fourth quarter surge with 13 points in six minutes, finishing with 31 points in 33 minutes with six rebounds, six assists and nine of ten free throws. "We've got a bunch of guys out here playing for each other, trying to figure each other out, that are extremely unselfish and will do anything to win, will sacrifice and try to figure it out with this process.

"We missed some easy shots," LaVine offered. "That's going to happen with us trying to know each other and still trying to figure it out. And we still scored the ball really well. So it just shows how much room we still have to grow and how much better we can be."

Which is why there's excitement for the start of this NBA season in Chicago.

Watch highlights from Chicago's 118-105 win against Memphis in their final preseason game on Friday night at the United Center.

There were flaws in what the Bulls did Friday against a tough Memphis team with Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., the latter scoring 29 points. There was some overpassing at times as they seem to want to show how often they can, some interior defense breakdowns as the Grizzlies had 36 inside points in the first half, some rebounding deficiencies as presumed backup center Tony Bradley played his first game of the preseason.

And they still won by double digits, though the Grizzlies starters played the Bulls regulars close. But there was plenty to like, including double digit steals again, plus-10 in turnover margin, barely out rebounded by a bigger team and 41 percent on threes with Nikola Vucevic making his first three of the preseason after 14 misses. No word if Springfield asked for the ball. No, the armory.

Otherwise Vucevic was almost perfect, shooting 11 of 14 for 23 points and a team high eight rebounds. DeMar DeRozan added 19 points, though he uncharacteristically shot poorly with six of 17. "DeMar has been an exceptional scorer inside the three-point line his whole career," noted Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "Tonight was a night those shots didn't fall, but I loved them. That was just kind of a night where it was probably an outlier for him."

Lonzo Ball had just five points, but seven rebounds and six assists to one turnover with a pair of steals and troublesome defense on Morant. Patrick Williams also made his preseason debut and made his first two shots, finishing with six points in 22 minutes. "I thought Patrick was fine," said Donovan. "I thought he gave us some good minutes. He still has to find his way. He's missed a lot of time. He'll have to work his way back."

Donovan shortened the rotation, so the bench was Bradley, Alex Caruso, Devonte Green and Troy Brown Jr. Among them Caruso stood out, less for his nine points than exceptional anticipation on so many plays that included breaking up two open lob dunk fast break attempts, drawing a charge, stealing a tip and just being in the middle of things. "He sees things before it happens," said Donovan. "He helps guys. He's really smart, he's tough; he does all the little things."

Alex Caruso slams home a huge dunk in the 4th quarter of Chicago's final preseason game.

Alex Caruso slams home a huge dunk in the 4th quarter of Chicago's final preseason game.

And then there's the Big Three, LaVine, Vucevic and DeRozan combining for 73 points in a formula that is going to determine the Bulls' fate this season. There's a frenetic group of reserves, and they actually produced the double digit margin as peripatetic Alize Johnson had six points and five rebounds in six minutes as the Bulls won the battle of the benches with a 21-5 close to the game. "I thought that group that came in the last six minutes off the bench played with great energy and did a really, really great job," said Donovan.

Which could make for some decisions for Donovan, who prefers a tight rotation of about nine players. But who has another perhaps half dozen primed for participation. Even with cuts to come to get the roster to 15, the Bulls signed another player Friday, 6-9 Troy Baker Jr. It suggested the team's concern with the lack of interior size. But that also needs to be measured against the lack of offense and movement with a big man like Bradley compared with the hustle and transition play of reserves like the Johnsons and Ayo Dosunmu. There's still some question in this NBA where few teams have big men who score or who are major parts of the offense whether it's worthwhile to try to match that. The Bulls despite the lack of size haven't really had rebounding issues in the preseason, though the quality of opponent hasn't been the best before Friday.

"I think we have moments where we play really, really good basketball on both ends of the floor," said Donovan. "I talked about the consistency part. I thought offensively for us tonight I just think we have way too many possessions where we are not flowing, are organized, in sync with one another. I think, as I mentioned many times, that was part of the reason we needed to play so much. DeMar and Vooch, Zach, Lonzo, those guys are very, very gifted offensive players and I think when you put a group like that together they have to learn to play with each other. I think that will take a little bit of time. But we are going to have to flow a little bit better. I think there are times we do it and it looks really, really good. But it's too sporadic. I think sometimes we don't have great offensive possessions. That bleeds into our defense a little bit, but listen, we competed, we hung in there, we battled."

Nikola Vucevic finishes an easy layup against Memphis.

Nikola Vucevic finishes an easy layup against Memphis.

It was a brilliant start, the Bulls scoring on their first five possessions and then missing on the sixth when passing a bit too much and ignoring an open mid range shot. It was a quick double digit lead when Williams made a three in his first shot. He played 22 minutes and mostly played as a spot up shooter and had three rebounds and two steals. He said his conditioning would need work.

Memphis was getting lanes to the basket a bit too easily and a bunch of threes from Jackson, finally healthy, and led 35-28 after one. The Bulls edged back in front 55-53 at halftime with Caruso joining the four starters in a unit Donovan often closed quarters with in the four games. Caruso had a second remarkable play, drawing a charge on Morant on a two-on-one lob dunk attempt after earlier having blocked a lob attempt on another two-on-one.

It still was 82-81 Bulls to begin the fourth quarter when LaVine realized it was a little too much equal opportunity. Unselfishness is nice, but teams have to get the ball in the hands of the best scorer. It's LaVine, who no longer has to play point guard as well.

"I feel good with it," LaVine said of adding the scoring partners. "Learning when to get off the ball and let other guys operate. Learning to get into those lanes and play in transition. I did it this past summer in the Olympics, playing off the ball. It's blessing to have all these different weapons, to have go-to guys, other No. 1 options on the team. You get the ball and get out of the way and I'll be there when you need me."

Like to start he fourth quarter when LaVine opened with a dunk, a three, a drive and free throws and after a DeRozan reverse layup a steal and drive and two-hand dunk and step back three in the kind of sequence that makes him special. But still not enough to shake a pesky Grizzlies group.

"This is going to be a journey with this group," said Donovan. "I think these guys this training camp did a really, really good job just to get to know each other on the court, playing together and trying to create an identity. It's been a great group and they've done a good job. But we've got a long way to go."

First stop Wednesday in Detroit.

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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.

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