Bulls suffocate Wizards defensively for second-straight victory

When you think of great defenders there’s the Union soldiers at Gettysburg, the Americans at the Battle of the Bulge and the Russians at Stalingrad, the Maccabees in the story of Chanukah and, of course, the ’85 Bears. 

And now the 2023 Bulls?

Who Sunday for the second consecutive game out of the All-Star break held their opponent to a season low points, this time in a 102-82 victory over the Washington Wizards.

Sure, the Wizards, now a half game ahead of the 28-33 Bulls for 10th place and the last play-in spot in the Eastern Conference, mostly resembled Washington of the dysfunctional, divided and desultory legislature. But the Bulls—in their defense—were Marvels as defenders to bring to mind such as Daredevil (Alex Caruso) and Hellcat (Patrick Beverley) and a band auditioning as super heroes.

“We play defense like that every game we’ll be alright,” said Zach LaVine, the offensive kindling again with 27 points, 23 of 35 the last two games and six of 10 on threes to burn the Wizards. “Effort and energy, holding people accountable. Everybody is going out there with the same type of mentality. And even if you make a mistake move onto the next play and do it better.

“What Pat (Beverley) and AC (Caruso) do on the defensive end is huge,” LaVine added. “Pat (Williams) and Ayo (Dosunmu) coming off the bench has been great, too. Whatever we have do to win and whoever has to be out there.”

Zach LaVine finished with 27 points against Washington in Chicago's win on Sunday.

It’s just two games. But two romps in which the opponents, albeit not very good ones, never made runs back into the game even in a league where we hear repetitively that everyone does. Not the Nets Friday who were behind by 50, and the not-so-wizardly Wizards who never recovered from Bradley Beal missing all three free throws on a foul to start the fourth quarter and were soon trailing by 21.

Talk about defense, the Wizards were 12 of 23 on free throws, missing 11 of their 23 and seven of 12 in the fourth quarter when the Bulls really tightened up their free throw pressure.

Ok, so the Wizards weren’t the inspiration for the film about bungling mobsters, the Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Though the Bulls did change the in game promotion to a distribution of hard hats near the basket where the Wizards were shooting.

I kid, I kid.

But, no kidding, the Bulls have played a lot better coming out of the All-Star break and that previous six-game, looks-like-the-end-of-the-season losing streak that preceded it.

The TV networks aren’t rescheduling Bulls games quite yet. But as Cicero said (not the West Side suburb), Aegroto, dum anima est, spes esse dicitur.

Roughly translated meaning, where there is life there is hope.

Like when Elliott realizes ET is alive (I always have to cry at this part).

Heck, I may have to again if the Bulls keep this up. Though not those pre-All Star tears.

“We knew coming off the break we were going to have to play with a sense of urgency,” said DeMar DeRozan, who led the Bulls with 29 points. “Pat (Beverley) definitely brings a lot of that, but for the most part it’s being consistent in communicating; that’s been the main priority defensively. Those losses definitely stuck with us over the break and guys understood coming out of that the importance of these last 21 games now. We’ve got to play with that sense of urgency. I said before our first practice (back) we’ve got to treat every game like it’s a Game 7. And as long as we keep that mentality we have a chance.”

DeMar DeRozan finished with a game-high 29 points against the Wizards.

This one wasn’t anything like the Battle of Brooklyn, both the Bulls game with the Nets last week and the way the Revolutionary War almost ended in the first battle in Brooklyn when George Washington lost much of his army and barely escaped in a daring ploy that gave the Continental Army a chance.

And so perhaps do the Bulls.

Not that they’ve planned otherwise as Bulls coach Billy Donovan emphasized pregame there never has been consideration this season of doing anything but competing for the playoffs.

"I've never had a situation from ownership, the front office that has said, 'Listen, we got an opportunity to potentially manipulate or get a higher draft pick. Let's sit these guys. Let's play the younger guys, give them an opportunity.' That's never taken place,” Donovan emphasized. “I respect that and appreciate that because I do think that when you line up and play, there's an integrity—and even to the fans—that you're out there competing and trying to win.”

It’s lately been attributed to the post-All Star contract buyout of Chicago native and defensive specialist Patrick Beverley. Beverley didn’t have much impact on offense in a scoreless game with four fouls in 26 minutes. But he helped hold Kyle Kuzma to four of 18 shooting and one of eight on three.

Caruso’s sclerotic defensive nature equally was bothersome against Wizards lead scorer Beal, who was just seven of 17 for a team high 18 points. 

“AC and Pat are so damned tough,” said LaVine, who also moved past Derrick Rose into 10th all-time in Bulls scoring. “They have a lot more heart than size.”

Second leading Washington scorer Kristaps Porzingis was out resting, which helped, if not so much the chances for the fading Wizards. Though it is nice to have your players rested for the exit interviews in April. They seem happier at that time.

Caruso repeatedly denied Beal the ball, drawing two changes and and causing an offensive foul when he fought over a screen in a crucial third quarter segment when the Bulls extended from a 47-45 halftime lead. The Bulls held that margin at 74-67 after three quarters and pulled away in the fourth quarter behind the hot shooting of Coby White with 17 points off the bench, which matched the total for the Wizards’ reserves.

“He’s like a microwave,” said DeRozan. “He gets it going it warms up; he affected the game in many ways. North Carolina guy. When he gets going it makes our job easier, spacing the floor and his ability to create his own shot and get downhill is incredible. It definitely opened up a lot for us on the floor.”

Coby White scored 17 points off the bench in the win over Washington.

Though it wasn’t a particularly elegant effort from the Bulls, either, eight for 30 on threes (one of 11 in the first half) compared with Washington’s six for 28. Some of that against the Wizards is closing out on shots better and more quickly. And with Porzingis out the Wizards played small like the Nets did. Which the Bulls have committed to with the lineup change to start Beverley and Caruso, the Bulls basically starting four guards and a center.

And you wonder why the legends keep shaking their heads.

“You’ve got to definitely help each other out (starting four guards),” LaVine said with a laugh. “We were definitely flying around out there. Being that size obviously amps up the speed of the game offensively, so defensively we have to help each other out.”

It’s working for now as Nikola Vučević added 16 points and 13 rebounds. White had that 17 points, but the other five regulars in the game, Caruso, Beverley, Williams, Dosunmu and Andre Drummond combined to add 13 points.

“I still think we can be better offensively,” said Donovan. “We didn’t shoot the ball well from the three-point line; but it was good to see we took 30. Yes, we have to find ugly ways to win games.”

At this point, the Bulls are well past style points.

This transition game for pullup threes is a lot of what the NBA has become.

Donovan long has defaulted to so-called small ball in an effort to accelerate the game to produce easier baskets in transition to offset the Bulls’ shooting weaknesses. It hasn’t much succeeded, but getting Beverley to team with Caruso, at least in these two games, seems to have energized and validated the defense in ways the Bulls did when Lonzo Ball was playing with Caruso early last season, said Donovan.

“You’ve got to look at last year the way Alex and Lonzo were able to dominate the point of the screen,” Donovan explained. “It made it a lot easier for the bigs to get back and cover the rim. When you get spread out like that you are giving up the paint, giving up dunks and layups, spread out threes. Everything for us is we’ve got to protect the paint. The guys have done a good job covering for each other and being active with hands. Our defense is going to be predicated on how well we contest threes.

“Patrick Beverley and Alex are elite defenders,” Donovan added. “Patrick (Beverley) is really good at getting under bigger people (like Kuzma) and he’s physical, hard to go down in post (against) and get that position. I thought both Alex and Patrick (Beverley) did a tremendous job defensively.”

Reinforcements aren’t coming any more. The Bulls are going to have to supply the iron fist. Maybe they’ve finally located it.

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