Bulls storm past Hornets, 121-91

Poor Michael Jordan.

Perhaps I phrased that incorrectly in the wake of the Bulls rich 121-91 win Friday over Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets.

Though maybe Jordan isn’t for long with rumors the former Bulls great and current Hornets primary owner may be selling the franchise he’s controlled for the last 13 years. During which time with the Sacramento Kings finally making the playoffs this season, the team owned by the man perhaps most associated with — maybe in the world — success, competitiveness and excellence defines frustration and failure as much as any in basketball. 

Jordan Brand is one of the most admired in the world. Jordan’s NASCAR team has been winning races. His steakhouse has been a rare success. His associations with brands like Hanes had made them distinctive. His golf course is one of the most exclusive and sought after in the world to perhaps match Augusta National and St. Andrews. 

And then there is the basketball team of the man who to most in the world represents the closest to perfection in the game.

But this season will mark the eighth straight for Charlotte missing the playoffs and without a playoff series win since the franchise was rebranded in Charlotte in 2004. Since Jordan assumed control, the franchise has missed the playoffs 10 of 12 seasons with eight of 11 losses in their two playoff series. And then Friday against the Bulls with Terry Rozier, LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, Kelly Oubre and Dennis Smith Jr. out, the Hornets started three second round draft picks who mostly are G League veterans. And then their best player of late, P.J. Washington, left the game injured early in the second quarter.

Not that it mattered much with the Bulls leading 19-5 midway through the first quarter, and then trolling by double digits just about the rest of the game. Charlotte briefly got within six points late in the first half, and then once for just a few seconds in the second half wasn’t trailing by double digits.

DeMar DeRozan scored in 23 points against Charlotte.

But with Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan both scoring 23 points and Nikola Vučević 21, the Bulls led all game and then extended to 30-plus points ahead late in the fourth quarter against some 10-day and G League emergency call-ups. Will Victor Wembanyama decide to stay in Europe if he sees this?

Not that Jordan and the Hornets are the Bulls concern, though Jordan does strike gold even when it looks like pyrite to the rest of us. Jordan is expected to make a profit of more than $1 billion on the Hornets if he sells. Forget the basketball advice; ask this guy about investing. Again, he really has the last laugh on all of us. And we’re pretty sure enjoying himself about it. C’mon, it’s that what greatest ever is all about?

For the Bulls, the returns weren’t as signifiant Friday as they were welcome. The NBA standings don’t recognize strength of schedule and opponent.

So with the victory, the Bulls moved to 37-40. But more importantly with losses by Toronto and Atlanta, the Bulls moved a game behind those teams for potentially eighth place in the play-in tournament. That would be crucial because then the Bulls would have to win just one game — possibly against Miami whom they swept the season — to reach the playoffs. The Raptors have the tiebreaker against the Bulls, but the Bulls could win the tiebreaker against Atlanta when the teams play in the United Center next week.

“Definitely really important (Friday), especially coming off two losses, just for us to lock down, lock in, and try to close things out and understand that they were going to play hard until the end and make a run,” said DeRozan. “We just had to stay with it. We have got to just get that confidence, that feel, that rhythm and understanding how we need to play. We need to take these last five games and make sure we are playing great basketball.”

It wasn’t much required against the likes of a roster very few fans who watch the NBA could identify. There was a Svi, a Theo and a Bryce, and if you could guess the last names without looking you deserve a free League Pass subscription. The Hornets brought in Thor off the bench, but again the Bulls had the hammer.

I know, but I couldn’t resist. He's Jokhow Panom and known as JT. I don’t know, either, but he does seem like a good, hard-working kid.

The Hornets kept the game from getting ludicrously away with six threes from second year player James Bouknight, another of so many Hornets G League participants and draft curiosities. Though LaMelo does look like he’ll be a hit if he ever gets his ankle problems solved. So it’s been a Hornets franchise badly handicapped, though perhaps not the handicap most concerning Jordan.

Patrick Williams scored 15 points off the bench Friday night.

What most concerns the Bulls in these waning days of the season is this playin tournament, participation in which at least seems assured for now with the Bulls having five games left and 11th place Washington three games behind and 12th place Indiana three and a half with four left. Unless it’s a three-way tie, the Bulls magic number to clinch the playin is two. They’ll consider it more relief than celebration.

So the win in Charlotte Friday was important to the Bulls, particularly coming off losses to the Lakers and Clippers.

Alex Caruso was back starting with his foot problems not barking as much for now. Andre Drummond returned from a one-game personal absence with 11 rebounds in 14 minutes off the bench.

“Patrick (Williams), Ayo (Dosunmu), Coby (White) and Drum (Andre Drummond) in that second unit, the first half, I didn't think they really found their rhythm,” said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. “I give that group a lot of credit coming back in the third, and the way they played in the fourth they did a really good job opening up the lead. I think a lot of times with younger players, it's going to be ups and downs. There's going to be ebbs and flows. They're gaining more and more experience.

“Andre was a big part of that with what he's had to deal with, personally, for him to miss our last game and then be able to come back and do what he did and try to block whatever he's dealing with out and then focus on basketball,” said Donovan. “And maybe in some ways it was a relief just to get on the court for him. I think it speaks to his commitment to the team and to the guys that he wanted to be out there. And he was able to do his job at a high level.”

White continued his reliable play with 11 points and three of five threes. And Williams added 15 points with three of six threes. Williams also has quietly, like most everything with him, become one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA, just barely below 50 percent on threes since the All-Star break and 19th in the league for the season at almost 42 percent

The game was pretty much decided early in the words of Fielding Mellish as in the first quarter the Hornets had eight turnovers — some actually forced — a quarter that was a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of two mockeries of a sham.

LaVine the Magnificent then had a huge close to the second quarter when Charlotte got the buzz and made their only brief run of the game to sting the Bulls within 48-42 with four minutes left in the second quarter. Again, I could be better.

Zach LaVine finished with 23 points against the Hornets.

LaVine had nine points in the last two and a half minutes for a 62-46 Bulls halftime lead.

“I think it was important to come out and be really good defensively,” said Donovan. “Especially coming off the last two games against the Clippers and Lakers. I think we all felt like we could be better defensively. We've been a really good defensive team. So it was good to see us respond off of our last game. I give our guys credit for coming out and trying to be better.”

It was a lot of Vučević opening up the Bulls lead to 20 points early in the third quarter — the Hornets deficit under double digits for 22 seconds — and then back over 20 four minutes into the fourth quarter as Jordan probably was turning on the lights for some putting practice. For the Hornets, it was lights out, the party was over.

“We were able to hang in there and stretch out the lead in the fourth,” Donovan noted. “You want to focus on yourself and what you need to do. But you also should be playing good basketball and we should have enough games under our belt when we know when we are at our best and when we are not. When we are moving the ball and making quick decisions and all covering and helping each other defensively, that’s when we are at our best. And those things take a lot of work and effort and it was good to see those guys put that effort in there

“The great players I have been around... to me the really, really good ones are internally motivated and it doesn’t make a difference who’s playing,” said Donovan when asked about the Hornets’ depleted roster. “A lot of those guys have been in the NBA; our guys knew who those guys are. But it’s not always about your opponent. It’s a standard to which you need to play as a team. And if your standard is going to be predicated on who is wearing what jersey and what the front of the jersey, the back of the jersey says, it’s going to be really hard to reach your full potential. It has to come from within. Our guys beating the Lakers and then losing to the Clippers, losing to the Lakers, they wanted to play well. They were focused and it didn’t make a difference. Our guys respected them and went out there and kept playing to the way we needed to play to be our best version of ourselves.”

Which they will need since next week is Ja, Trae, Giannis and Luka. Time to bring on that best version. 

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