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Dawn of a new era? New-look Bulls fire on all cylinders in home opener

DeMar DeRozan (26 points) and Lonzo Ball (triple-double) complement Zach LaVine (32 points) at a packed United Center.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Lonzo Ball posts a triple-double against his former team with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.

CHICAGO — Zach LaVine was putting the finishing touches on a 32-point performance, the fourth quarter half over, the Chicago Bulls up by 23 and a raucous Friday night crowd delighted by what they had seen to that point in the team’s home opener.

It seemed perfectly natural as LaVine stepped to the foul line that the familiar “MVP! MVP!” chant would boom through the United Center.

Moments later, backup Bulls guard Alex Caruso cut through the lane, scored and drew contact. So sure enough, when the league’s reigning Everyman hustle guy lined up his free throw, the fans had their fun again. “MVP! MVP!”

A little later, there were folks in the house hoping unheralded rookie Ayo Dosunmu might get to the line as well. Just so they could belt it out a few more times.

It was that kind of evening for the Bulls, a team that spent most of the past four seasons wearing out its welcome and didn’t mind using the coronavirus restrictions as cover for what would have been empty seats at home regardless. A 102-199 record from 2017-18 through last season had drained not just the fun but much of the life out of the building, sending the fan base into that flat, colorless realm of indifference toward one of the great franchises in the NBA.

And now? An offseason of dramatic changes has sparked a 2-0 start to 2021-22, and the winning and the good times already have a chicken-or-egg dynamic spinning.

The Bulls went wire-to-wire on the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday night, 128-112, and had most of their toys in play. That includes newcomers Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan and Caruso, as well as LaVine and a deep bench helper in this one named Javonte Green.

Game Recap: Bulls 128, Pelicans 112

Zach LaVine shook off a slow start to score 32 points, helping Chicago improve to 2-0 for the first time since 2016.

Ball, in his first regular-season game against his old New Orleans team, spearheaded Chicago’s attack on both ends and posted a triple-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. When LaVine sputtered with his shot early — something that might have ended the Bulls’ night right there in previous seasons — DeRozan took over for 10 points in the first quarter on his way to 26.

LaVine warmed up thereafter, nailing 3-pointers off the dribble, hitting seven of his eight shots in the second quarter after his 0-for-4 start, and scoring 20 in just seven minutes of that period. Caruso was a Ball clone each time he subbed in, pushing pace, deflecting Pelicans passes. And that left Green to bring raw energy with his dunks and speed.

“I just missed a couple easy shots,” said LaVine. “That’s when you let DeMar, [center Nikola Vucevic] and Zo, y’know, they’re gonna do their thing.”

The Pelicans were the perfect guests for the home opener. Beyond the Zion Williamson gloom hanging over their team — the big guy is hurting, reportedly out of shape and maybe even facing an uncertain future because of it — they were young, skittish and mistake-prone (17 turnovers worth 27 points).

The way the Bulls defended and ran the floor — 24 fast-break points — there was no way for New Orleans to counter anything.

“Tonight we played faster,” coach Billy Donovan said, noting improvement from the Bulls’ choppy offense Wednesday in their first game at Detroit. “And when we play faster, it helps up because we have handlers and passers. The faster we play — not that we want to be out of control — but we have really, really good passing guys on our team and unselfish guys.

“You can see on the break tonight, the ball kind of pops on the break. Well you’ve got to work to get out there and do that.”

Ball is the catalyst for that. He said he wasn’t particularly motivated by facing his former team, which bodes well if it means he plans to play this way against everybody. He was everywhere in 35 minutes, chipping in three steals and a blocked shot with his parents sitting courtside.

“Hits his open threes,” LaVine said, “pushes it in transition, brings a real energy and physicality to the defensive end. All-around player. We’re happy to have him.”

Vucevic didn’t need to have a big night for Chicago. Second-year forward Patrick Williams has more slack now than he did as a force-fed rookie. Explosive scorer Coby White will be back at some point from left shoulder surgery.

Whatever buzz the Bulls generated with their 4-0 preseason is amplified now. At 2-0, this is the first time they’ve been two games over .500 since Dec. 13, 2016. Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Robin Lopez still were with Chicago. LaVine was in Minnesota.

Things, finally, appear to be changing for the better.

“Playing in front of a packed house at the UC is something we haven’t had in a long time,” LaVine said. “I think in the city, there’s just a different energy around the team right now.”

LaVine had to find his greatest satisfaction individually in recent years. Last season, for instance, he became an All-Star. Over the summer, he was part of Team USA’s Olympic gold medal quest.

Already, this is sounding better.

“This is the most excited I’ve been playing basketball,” he said after Friday’s game. “I’m having a lot of fun out there. We’re really competitive on both ends of the court, so I think it shows.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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