Bulls Insider

10 observations: Bulls snap 5-game skid with OT victory over Bucks

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The Chicago Bulls snapped their five-game losing streak and won for just the second time in 10 games Thursday night at the United Center. They defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 120-113 in overtime.

"It’s only one win. But it’s big for us at this moment," Nikola Vucevic said. "The way the season has been going, we haven’t played really good basketball. And we have been losing by big margins the last couple games. It was great to do it, especially against a good team like Milwaukee."

Here are 10 observations:

---Vucevic scored a season-high 29 points with 10 rebounds and six assists. The huge effort came after three straight games in single digits. Perhaps not coincidentally, it came without Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, who both sat with injuries. Vucevic said he looked to be more aggressive with those two main scorers out.

"I just try to be a little more aggressive, whether it’s shooting or creating or trying to make the right plays for the team," Vucevic said. "I thought the guys did a really good job of finding me on the pops or in the pocket."

But Vucevic, and others, quickly shot down the notion that the faster pace and better ball movement that created a season-high 32 assists resulted from the loss of more isolation-based players like LaVine and DeRozan.

"That has nothing to do with it," Vucevic said. "We came together. It’s one game. Those are our two best players. If we want to achieve anything, we need them."

In fact, Alex Caruso said the Bulls can play this style with LaVine and DeRozan.

"We’ve shown it in spurts this year," Caruso said. "Sometimes you have that heightened sense of urgency when you have two of your best players out. Guys step up and you have a little more focus. The thing for us is watch the film, see what we did right and continue to try to play at that level. Those two guys are great players. When they’re locked in, we’re a good team."

The obvious question, then, is: Why hasn't it happened more consistently with them playing?

"We’re not going to be this speed merchant team on made baskets," coach Billy Donovan said. "But on missed shots, we have to generate more on transition opportunities."

Donovan praised the screen-setting of Vucevic and Andre Drummond, saying they sprinted into screens that helped guards get downhill, putting the Bucks into rotation defensively.

"We knew with Zach and DeMar out, there were going to be a handful of shots and minutes to go around. We tried to just talk to each other about not trying to do it all on our own," Caruso said. "We knew if we got them into rotations and touched the paint, we were going to have open shots. We did that. We did a good job of sharing it when we got downhill."

---The Bulls opened the fourth quarter with 10 straight points to extend a run that began in the third quarter to 14-0. The Bulls haven’t been the aggressors too often this season. But throughout this one, they played with the force and pace that Donovan has been seeking. This came from several sources, including Ayo Dosunmu, who played well in his first start with 14 points, six rebounds and six assists. The Bulls’ reserve unit also played well, with Drummond posting 10 points and 14 rebounds in 13 minutes, Jevon Carter reaching double figures and Torrey Craig doing the same while supplying stout defense. The Bucks dropped a 10-0 run in the final 1 minute, 26 seconds before Caruso beat the buzzer with a 3-pointer to force overtime.

But overall, the Bulls placed a season-high eight players in double figures, again reflective of good ball movement.

"We pushed the pace and got down the floor and were pretty aggressive, which was good," Donovan said. "It was one of those games where everybody in their own way made major contributions to the game."

---Giannis Antetokounmpo managed just four points before halftime, partly due to three fouls. He finished with 26 points and 14 rebounds, but the Bulls did a better job than in these teams’ first meeting at limiting his drives with full heads of steam. More often than not, the Bulls’ defense turned Antetokounmpo into a jump shooter.

---LaVine sat with his right foot soreness that flared up and forced him to exit Tuesday’s loss in Boston early. It’s the second game LaVine has missed with the injury. He also sat out the Oklahoma City loss.

Asked if it’s a day-to-day situation, Donovan said he didn’t know. On Tuesday, LaVine called his situation “complicated.”

“He’s dealing with the foot soreness,” Donovan said. “That’s all I have at this point.”

---DeRozan also sat with the left ankle sprain he suffered in Boston, which forced him to leave that game early. DeRozan also missed his second game, although his first was for personal reasons.

Neither LaVine nor DeRozan like missing games, but with the Bulls only having two games over the next seven days, sitting out one game could pay dividends.

---With LaVine and DeRozan out, Donovan started Coby White, Dosunmu, Alex Caruso, Patrick Williams and Vucevic. But it’s a safe bet Donovan would’ve started Williams over Caruso anyway if LaVine and DeRozan had played. That’s what Donovan did in Boston, and Williams has played well of late.

“When he has come out in some games and maybe hasn’t been as aggressive as he needs to be, it’s been good to see him respond maybe quicker than he had in the past,” Donovan said before the game.

Williams’ momentum stalled with a 1-for-6 first half, including four straight missed 3-pointers. But he threw down an alley-oop dunk from Caruso for the first basket of the second half and later attacked to score on a drive. This is progress: If his jumpshot isn’t falling, coaches want him attacking.

---Each of LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic are shooting below their career percentages and have struggled at times defensively. The Bulls also are the NBA’s lowest-scoring, first-quarter team.

But Donovan downplayed a question on whether he’d consider not starting any of the three when they’re all healthy.

“I don't have a problem doing whatever's best for the team. But I would just say if those guys aren't playing at elite level, it's probably not the best thing for our team. So helping those guys play at elite level would be more important,” Donovan said. “I know some of our starts haven’t been great. There’s been an inconsistency. But I wouldn’t place all that on those three guys. And I wouldn’t say taking one of those guys out and putting someone else in is going to necessarily solve that. We need those guys to be who they have been throughout their career. That’s why they’re here.”

---Another game, another slow start. Donovan burned his first timeout with the Bulls trailing 11-2, at which point the Bulls had missed five of six shots and committed three turnovers. Antetokounmpo also blocked two of the misses. The Bulls responded to the timeout by playing with more pace and better ball movement, leading to open 3-point makes from Vucevic and White. By the time Bucks coach Adrian Griffin called his first timeout, the Bulls had clawed back to 16-14. And they actually led after the first quarter for just the fifth time this season, assisting on eight of nine field goals. As the league’s second-best team at taking care of the ball, they uncharacteristically committed six first-quarter turnovers or it could’ve been better. Vucevic scored 10 points in 10 minutes, his first time reaching double figures before the second quarter.

---Julian Phillips drew first-quarter minutes and played 14 minutes overall. He attacked Antetokounmpo at the rim on a driving miss and also switched onto the two-time most valuable player on multiple possessions. Phillips fouled Khris Middleton on a 3-pointer, reminding all of his rookie status. And he drew his third foul in just 9 minutes at the 7:37 mark of the second quarter, prompting Torrey Craig’s return. But the second-round pick continues to show aggressiveness. While he missed all three shots, he finished with three rebounds and three assists.

---Griffin’s ties with the Bulls run deep. He played on playoff teams under Scott Skiles and served as an assistant coach on Tom Thibodeau’s staff.

“We won a lot of games. I built a lot of great relationships here. It’s always special coming into this building and into the city of Chicago,” Griffin said. “My kids grew up here a lot. So there’s always strong ties.”

The Bulls led the NBA in regular-season victories in 2010-11, which was the season that Derrick Rose became the youngest most valuable player winner in NBA history, and in 2011-12. But they never advanced past the Eastern Conference finals.

“DRose was special. His MVP year was just magical. Tom, Coach Thibodeau, was masterful. We had guys who played extremely hard,” Griffin said. “Joakim Noah was one of the smartest defenders that I played with and I also coached him. We had Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer. We fell short of our ultimate goal. But there was a lot of good and a lot of winning in those five years coaching with the Bulls.”

Thursday night marked the first time Griffin served as a head coach inside the United Center since he coached the World team in the Rising Stars Challenge as part of 2020 All-Star weekend. Griffin, who was Nick Nurse’s lead assistant with the NBA champion Toronto Raptors at the time, joked that Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Dončić failed him that night.

“I was mad because he didn’t go hard,” Griffin said. “And I wanted to win.”

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