10 observations: Bulls roll Blazers, match '21 win total

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It took all 72 games of the shortened 2020-21 season for the Chicago Bulls to reach 31 wins.

But with Sunday’s 130-116 rout of the Portland Trail Blazers, the 2021-22 Bulls moved to 31-18 at the 49-game mark. Even shorthanded and defensively challenged at the moment, a commentary on how much can change in a year.

Here are 10 observations:

1. Billy Donovan cited help rotations and closing out to the 3-point line as two areas the Bulls’ ailing defense must improve before the game. But then it was Donovan calling two frustrated timeouts in the first seven minutes of the first quarter as Portland jumped out to a 26-21 lead, making six of their first seven triples. At the end of the opening period, the visitors led 35-29 and were shooting 66.7 percent, 7-for-11 from behind the arc.

After the game, Donovan bemoaned short closeouts to start, but also noted that the Bulls improved over the course of the contest. While Portland finishing 18-for-39 from 3-point range, and with 116 points, doesn't assuage many defensive concerns, they did shoot just 6-for-17 from deep in the second half.

2. Even playing without Damian Lillard, the Trail Blazers’ hot shooting – and high volume – shouldn’t come as a surprise. They entered play seventh in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game and 3-point percentage, and with three players in CJ McCollum, Anfernee Simons and Norman Powell shooting better than 39 percent from distance.

That Jusuf Nurkić freed up a number of those looks with brick-wall screens shouldn’t surprise either. He entered play seventh in the league in screen assists per game (4.9) and fourth in screen-assist points generated per game (11.6), according to NBA.com tracking data.

3. Portland had an unsatisfactory 65 points at the half, but a 44-point second quarter thrust the Bulls ahead by eight by the end of the second quarter.

Yes, Chicago shot a scorching 59.2 percent, and 8-for-18 from 3, in that first half, but also slung 21 assists against just two turnovers. The passing was crisp – and endured. By game’s end, they had 36 assists against just seven turnovers, the Bulls’ 13th game with 30-plus assists this season, and the first game they’ve finished with 35-plus assists and less than 10 turnovers since 2014. And 130 points marks their third-highest scoring output of the season.

4. DeMar DeRozan embodied the latter point more than anyone. At halftime, he had 13 points, but more assists (eight) than field-goal attempts (five, all makes) as he diffused double-teams by finding open teammates.

DeRozan took on a bit more of a scoring onus in the second half – finishing the game 9-for-13 from the field – but still finished with his fourth double-double of the season with 23 points and 10 assists (which tied a season-high).

5. Nikola Vučević’s outside shooting has been inconsistent all season, but it’s been refreshing to see him get it going around the basket of late. Vučević entered play shooting 87.5 percent in the restricted area in his last four games (i.e., since the 13-point, 4-for-19-shooting performance against the Magic that marked one of the nadirs of his season), and scored 10 points from that zone against Portland on 5-for-6 shooting – 14 points in the paint, overall.

That buoyed an 11-for-15 shooting performance that also featured his 26th double-double of the season with 24 points and 13 rebounds.

6. Zach LaVine’s 20 points meant the “Big Three” of Vučević, DeRozan and LaVine combined for 67 points. LaVine had a hot spurt at the beginning of the third quarter, but his 3-for-9 shooting from 3-point range continued a mild slump from long range since coming back from a five-game, knee-soreness-induced absence. He’s now 9-for-34 (26.5 percent) from deep since returning from the injured list.

7. Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White have settled into their respective roles for the Bulls’ upcoming stretch without Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso: Dosunmu is LaVine’s runningmate in the starting backcourt, tasked with focusing on defense and facilitating. White is coming off the bench, and every time he checks in has his eye on getting buckets.

With those dynamics in mind, you couldn’t script a better day for the duo.

Dosunmu took just three shots, but handed out a career-high 11 assists and swiped two steals. White, meanwhile, notched 18 points and six assists off the bench, providing a three 3-point flurry to open the second quarter that helped the Bulls flip the scoreboard in their favor, and continuing to display improvements on his drives as a passer and finisher.

8. Javonte Green’s defense and energy were sharply missed during his 12-game absence with a groin strain, but his offense has been quietly impactful since returning. With a Bulls-tenure-high 16 points in this one, he’s now averaging 10.3 points (65.4 percent shooting) in four games back. He even hit two of five 3-point attempts on Sunday.

The rub: Green checked out early in the fourth quarter – and didn’t return – after showing signs of discomfort on a few possessions in a row. But Donovan said that was a result of taking a hit to the stomach, and that Green probably could have returned if needed.

If Green makes it through Tuesday’s game against Orlando without incident, Donovan said pregame the bouncy forward could have his minutes restriction, which has him averaging 23.7 minutes since returning, lifted.

9. The backup center spot has been a bit of a revolving door for the Bulls this season, but Tony Bradley got the nod today, and provided a productive 16 minutes, tallying 10 points and six rebounds. Inserted for his size and rim protection, he was a magnet for dump-off passes and a pest on the glass.

10. The seldom-used, but now needed, Matt Thomas also saw 17 minutes of run and scored nine points. Seven of those came in an impactful stretch of shotmaking early in the fourth quarter, when the Bulls put Portland away for good.

Next up for the Bulls: A home matchup with the Magic on Tuesday.

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