It wasn’t what you’d call an epic tale Wednesday in the United Center when the Bulls defeated the lottery bound—and Victor Wembanyama hopeful—Indiana Pacers 124-109.
But the win did feature the lessons for success in both life and sports, not surrendering to the onslaught of the young sharks, enduring and never giving up to show who you are and what you can accomplish.
I’m calling this one The Old Man and the See.
That would be old man Goran Dragić, the senior Bull player at 36, and veteran center Andre Drummond, who has seen so much in his excursions through six teams in the last two years. The two grizzled veterans have valiantly fought off a sea of hardships and the waves of youth pounding against their mortality to Wednesday once again with a rickety old skiff of reserve talent carry the Bulls back to the shores of success and a second consecutive win.
C’mon, that was an Ernest effort.
Zach LaVine was the Bulls leading scorer with 28 points, but it was the Dragić/Drummond connection and once again a marlin-sized contribution from the Bulls reserves with 43 points that was the difference in the Bulls moving to 3-2 this season.
“I’m just reading the game,” said a phlegmatic Dragić. “Sometimes you just have to see the floor, read the situation and make the right play. I’m really happy how we’ve played the last two games. Our main emphasis was sharing the ball, keep moving and not waste possessions, and so far so good. I feel we can eliminate some turnovers and be even better.”
Dragić had 13 points making each of his trio of three-point shot attempts. Drummond had eight points and 13 rebounds in barely under 17 minutes. And the duo had the support of Alex Caruso with eight points, three steals and two blocks, eight points and the assortment of specular dunks from Javonte Green, and the plus/minus game leaders all coming from the backups in short minutes.
Although it was the starters’ best opening of the season with a 28-13 beating in the first seven minutes with a surprising five of six threes for the Bulls, it was the reservists who stood sentry in the emergency. That was when the baby Pacers and future Laker Buddy Hield shot their way back to a 95-91 deficit with about three minutes left in the third quarter.
“We got a little bit comfortable in the third quarter and lost our way and allowed them back in the game,” noticed Bulls coach Billy Donovan. “We could have handled that quarter better than we did. It was their (Indiana) motor, their energy; they play with really good speed. Give them credit. They came flying back and cut it to four; the game wasn’t going great for us and we had to do some things to find a way to win the game. It’s encouraging you were able to win. If you can find ways to win and can get resilient and tough, you maybe can find games to win you might not otherwise win.”
Even having your own Santiago to show you.
It’s been an unusual quintet sent out by Donovan, LaVine to structure his playing time to match his recovery, and then back in the game with the primary reserves. It’s been a winning formula for that group with hustle and shooting turning around the huge deficit in the win over Boston Monday. And then with the Pacers circling and the Bulls early season perhaps taking on water already, Dragic and Drummond connected repeatedly on what has been the most hypnotic play of the early season, their screen/roll, lob and slam dunk series. They did it three times late in the third and early into the fourth quarters, a Joe DiMaggio streak of success that was an 8-2 close to the third and 103-93 lead. And then 9-2 start to the fourth.
Anatomy of a play, courtesy of Donovan:
“It’s Goran’s ability to hold the other big. It’s his manipulation of holding onto the ball, stringing out the big where the guard is not quite back in front of Goran and he (defender) knows if he runs back to the big, Goran’s going to be able to go down the lane and take a layup. He (Dragić) just waits for Andre to kind of get to his spot and once he realizes that big is in between, that’s when he makes the decision. He’s a tremendous manipulator of pick and roll, as good as I’ve been around. He (Dragić) can take coverages and use the coverages against them.
“He’s really, really smart,” Donovan said about the 15-year veteran guard. “I liken it to being with Chris Paul in Oklahoma City, the talking, the communicating with what he’s seeing; I love that. He’s got such a high IQ. He can find guys and make things happen; he’s a very unique guy with his experience.”
And suddenly it was 112-95 Bulls with under nine minutes left and the roiling waters of concern were calming for the ride home.
Did I mention in that 9-2, there were a pair of Dragić threes, the 17-4 spurt over six minutes from late third to early fourth saving the Bulls when there could have been blood in the water.
“I think it’s been good (the reserve group and expanded rotation),” said Donovan. “I think we can continue to build it out. This is a little bit new for Zach. I appreciate his willingness to do whatever he can do to help the team. I just thought with the knee, coming out of a few days not playing. Maybe help him getting his footing, play him six minutes and get him off. Stay with that or not? I don’t know. For our team, he’s been willing and accepting to do whatever he can to help and he’s done a really good job with that group.
“We’ve got depth and we’ve got a lot of really interchangeable parts,” said Donovan. "I think Patrick (Williams), AC (Caruso), DJ (Derrick Jones Jr.), Javonte, those guys give us a lot of different looks. Tonight it was a little easier because they (Indiana) were playing relatively small. They were putting four guards out there, so we were able to match that way.”
Which has been another trend early this season for the Bulls, who lost to the two teams playing big across the front, Cleveland and Washington, and won against the smaller, switching teams. Center Myles Turner did make his return from injury for Indiana, but he was mostly ineffective. In addition, he’s not a traditional big man since he often drifts outside.
Indiana got 25 points from Hield, most in that third quarter run when the Pacers made seven of 11 threes. Have I mentioned lately how the three is killing the NBA? Yeah, probably. Anyway, the Pacers fired off 40 of them, but the Bulls were much better overall at basketball with 34 assists, 10 steals, a 14-year best of 76 points at halftime with back to back 38-point quarters and 53 percent on their threes with LaVine making six of eight and 10 of 12 free throws.
Those were the best numbers yet for LaVine coming off that two-game knee maintenance absence to start the season. But he still seemed to lack that abrupt elevation we’ve become spoiled seeing, blocked several times around the rim.
“Didn’t play a lot in the offseason; still getting my feet wet,” LaVine explained. “Getting used to the offense. It was a good win. The thing that’s crappy was we got off to a big lead and they came back. Legs feel good; obviously, I’m missing a couple of shots at the rim. I’m still trying to get that a little back; that will come. The pullups (jumpers) are still working. I'm just getting my touch around the rim and everything. I think it's coming back, being able to play through contact. I’m getting there.”
It’s unclear for now if that will include Friday in San Antonio since the Bulls have said back to back games for LaVine early in the season may not happen. The Bulls are home Saturday for the 76ers, and if he sits out it makes sense against the Spurs. They have started the season well, but like the Pacers are—wink, wink— playing for the top draft pick.
LaVine and Donovan said LaVine’s availability will be discussed.
It figures to be a nice return to Texas for DeMar DeRozan, now seven points short of the milestone of 20,000 for his career.
“Save it for Pop,” DeRozan laughed after a mostly unneeded 17 points. “It’s cool to have such a milestone record in front of me going back to a place I spent so much time (three seasons before the Bulls) and learned so much from, a place that embraced me and it was definitely a learning time for me in my career, a time Pop (coach Gregg Popovich) really helped me a out a lot.”
To begin the voyage Wednesday, it was Nikola Vučević who helped out a lot with 11 of his 14 points, a runner, a three, a rolling finish, the Bulls making their first six field goal attempts. They led by 15 points seven minutes in, 38-27 after one and then an 11-0 run to start the second quarter by outworking and out hustling the young Pacers as the Bulls did to the veteran Celtics previously. It was a high water 58-34 midway through the second quarter.
Patrick Williams had 10 points in his first double figure scoring game of the season, though in about 15 minutes with the other starters all playing more than 30. Williams’ play has been the other big topic of the season along with LaVine’s health, and Donovan seemed to indicate how it will play out.
“I thought he (Patrick) played well,” said Donovan. “The one thing I think that at that (power forward) spot, Alex has played there, Javonte has played there, DJ has played there, and then Patrick, four guys who have kind of rotated out of that position. I think it’s a strength of our team. All those guys were effective and they’re good players and kind of how the game is going or how a guy is playing (is who’ll play). I thought Patrick in his first stint played really, really well. Just wanted to get him back out there, and in that second stint before the half I thought he was good, too. I thought he played a good game tonight.”
It’s going to be a position to watch for whether the speed and aggressiveness can offset the size deficiency. Hey, it works for Golden State. But it also requires ball movement and activity, which the Bulls have demonstrated the last few games.
The good fight; it’s the best a man can do amidst the obstacles in the quest for their own playoff redemption.
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