The Chicago Bulls opened this week on the heels of a dreadful four-game losing streak and facing a potentially season-defining stretch of schedule littered with elite opponents.
Well, on Monday, they took down the league best Boston Celtics. And on Wednesday, they rode active defense, DeMar DeRozan’s brilliance and clutch shotmaking by Coby White to a signature road win over the Milwaukee Bucks, their first regular season win over that division rival since December 2017.
Here are 10 observations:
1. Billy Donovan felt this one creeping toward an irredeemable start when he first whistled for a timeout 70 seconds into the game. At that juncture, Brook Lopez had buried two 3-pointers, the Bulls had committed two sloppy turnovers and Giannis Antetokounmpo had blown by DeRozan for an open dunk en route to an 8-2 Bucks lead.
Milwaukee pulled ahead by as many as nine points in the first quarter, but the Bulls righted the ship with the help of some torrid 3-point shooting (6-for-13, led by two from Javonte Green) to trail just 33-32 entering the second.
2. More adversity came early in the second when Zach LaVine — who had 10 points and two assists in the first — was whistled for this controversial offensive foul (that was later upgraded to a flagrant one) while shooting a fadeaway jump shot:
Not only did that lead to a four-point swing as the Bulls were stripped two points and the Bucks were awarded two free throws, LaVine was whistled for his third foul of the first half just over a minute later, limiting to four minutes in the second quarter.
3. Minutes after that mini-swing, the Bulls found themselves trailing 50-38 and succumbing to the Bucks’ size and physicality advantages on the interior. But again, there was fight in the group, as they pulled to within 62-61 at the half despite allowing seven offensive rebounds and 11 second-chance points.
The key, once again, was crisply run offense and heady ball movement leading to quality looks from beyond the line, as the Bulls entered the half a scalding 12-for-23 (52.2 percent) from 3-point range and with 19 assists on 22 made field goals. They finished the evening, in fact, with a season-high 18 3-point makes while shooting 42.9 percent from distance.
4. Their activity level should also be credited, because considering the circumstances, this was perhaps the Bulls’ best defensive effort of the season.
Entering the fourth, the team had already posted its season-high for blocks with 12 (DeRozan, Patrick Williams, Ayo Dosunmu, Green and Andre Drummond each had two), and by game’s end, they had notched nine steals and scored 17 points off 20 Milwaukee turnovers. It was a collective effort.
5. DeMar DeRozan was the star of a third quarter the Bulls won 29-21, scoring 18 points points on 7-for-9 shooting, including a pull-up 3-pointer to put the Bulls ahead 90-83 entering the fourth.
But the best part was: He set the tone in more ways than just making shots.
During a period in which the Bulls pulled ahead by as many as eight points, DeRozan also drew momentum-altering offensive fouls on Antetokounmpo and Bobby Portis as each sized up fastbreak opportunities that could have put the Bucks ahead by multiple possessions. DeRozan also blocked a turnaround jumper by the 7-foot-1 Lopez that led directly to a layup at the other end.
6. The Bulls pulled ahead by 10 points at the beginning of the fourth. But matters got dicey in a hurry when the Bucks ripped a 13-1 run in a span of 3 minutes, 20 seconds to flip a 94-84 deficit into a 97-95 lead.
Embedded in that stretch was the Bulls losing five points off their lead in DeRozan rest minutes to open the fourth quarter. Antetokounmpo getting rolling (he had 17 in the final frame) and LaVine going cold from the field by missing seven of his eight fourth quarter shot attempts were driving factors in that slippage.
7. But in closing time, it was Coby White and Nikola Vučević to the rescue.
Vučević entered the fourth 1-for-6 from 3-point range, but made triples at the 5:51 and 5:22 marks that each vaulted the Bulls from behind by one point to ahead by two, plus a 27-foot dagger with 20.2 seconds to play that extended the Bulls’ lead to 115-109.
White, meanwhile, got the nod to close the game over Ayo Dosunmu after Dosunmu committed a bad turnover at the 4:08 mark, passing a ball intended for LaVine directly out of bounds after rebounding a missed free throw by Lopez. Donovan’s decision there paid off as White nailed massive 3-pointers at the 1:15 mark (with the Bulls behind 109-106) and 46.4-second mark (with the game tied 109-109) that swung the game when it mattered most.
8. With Goran Dragić missing his first game of the season to a left shoulder stinger, it was evident White, playing in his third game back from an eight-game injury absence of his own, would receive increased opportunity in the guard rotation. In 25 minutes, he ran with that chance in more ways than one, nabbing three steals and flying around for loose balls with reckless abandon in addition to the 14 points he scored and clutch buckets he knocked down.
9. Williams and Alex Caruso combined to form a formidable first line of defense on Antetokounmpo, who scored 36 points but was contained as well as could be expected early in the game by point of attack physicality and timely help. Williams blocked the two-time MVP twice at the rim in the first quarter and later stonewalled a drive that led to a steal by White.
Caruso, meanwhile, got the honors of checking Antetokounmpo down the stretch with Williams off the floor, and drew a critical charge with the game tied 109-109 and 62 seconds to play. Caruso, in peak fashion, was +14 in 27 minutes without scoring a point.
10. This win was significant for multiple reasons. One, it means the Bulls followed their recent, lackluster four-game losing streak with wins over the NBA’s top two teams by record, including one on the road. Notable considering their struggles against elite competition last season, including to this Bucks team in a five-game rout in the first round of the playoffs.
And two, it marked the Bulls’ first “clutch” win of the season in eight tries. Now 1-7 in such games, they are the last team in the NBA to pick up a win in a contest which fell within a five-point scoring margin with five minutes or less to play.
Although they still sit two games under .500 at 8-10, victories like this inspire confidence ahead of a grueling West Coast road trip.
Next up for the Bulls: At the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.
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