10 observations: Bulls snap skid behind DeRozan, LaVine

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The Chicago Bulls snapped a season-long five-game losing streak Wednesday night in Detroit, sprinting past the Pistons with a torrid fourth quarter to win 114-108.

How badly did they need the result?

"Very bad," DeMar DeRozan said. "Definitely a desperate night for us to get a win."

Here are 10 observations:

1. The Pistons’ 18-48 record may have them 14th in the Eastern Conference, but they’re not an opponent to be taken lightly. Detroit’s 6-2 mark in the last eight games (entering play) featured victories over playoff teams in Boston and Cleveland, and play-in teams in Toronto, Charlotte and Atlanta.

2. The start to which the Bulls got off indicated they weren’t overlooking their opponent. Their defensive activity — which showed in their five steals and eight points off turnovers in the first 12 minutes — shined as they built an eight-point advantage midway through the opening quarter.

But ultimately, that level of defensive intensity was short-lived. The Pistons, who began the night with the league’s 28-rated offense, sprinted out to 56 first-half points on 56.4 percent shooting, leading by three at the break. Despite going just 4-for-13 from 3-point range, their consistently successful dribble penetration thrust the Bulls into scramble mode and resulted in a bevy of clean looks inside and out.

3. Detroit engineered a 14-2 run early in the second quarter to flip a 33-28 deficit into a 42-35 lead — and, in doing so, showcased just how badly the Bulls require reinforcements (which could be around the corner given the positive updates on Alex Caruso and Patrick Williams conveyed by head coach Billy Donovan earlier in the day).

That spurt was buoyed largely by the bench contributions of the always-slashing Saben Lee and Hamidou Diallo, and the ever-crafty Kelly Olynyk, while the Bulls sputtered in their reserve-heavy minutes. In all, the Pistons’ bench outscored the Bulls’ 43-19, led by 12 points from Olynyk, 10 apiece from Lee and Diallo, and three 3s from Rodney McGruder.

Coby White, meanwhile, struggled to a 3-for-9 shooting effort that featured a couple missed bunnies, Tristan Thompson shot 1-for-4 while offering little defensive resistance in his 19 minutes, and Troy Brown Jr. went scoreless on one field-goal attempt.

4. The Pistons extended their advantage from 56-53 to 91-84 entering the fourth quarter, and momentum was clearly in their favor, as evidenced by a string of hustle plays — mainly, a steal-to-windmill-dunk sequence and thunderous putback by Diallo — down the stretch of the third.

But the Bulls battened down the hatches at the 7:58 mark of the fourth quarter. At that point, they trailed 99-92, but scored 11 unanswered points in the next 2:38 and eventually opened a 17-2 run to lead 109-101 with 3:19 remaining. The Bulls went on to win the fourth quarter 30-17, and deserve credit for locking in defensively to hold Detroit to 30 percent shooting and five turnovers.

5. For the game, the Bulls generated 16 Pistons turnovers — 13 of which came via steals, tying a season-high — and scored 23 points off of them. Not so coincidentally, they also won the fastbreak points battle 13-4, which is usually a positive indicator for this group. That degree of defensive disruption has been missing for a while, given the long-term absences Caruso and Lonzo Ball.

6. At the offensive end, the Bulls rode their All-Star duo of DeRozan and Zach LaVine in winning time.

DeRozan scored 16 of his 36 points in the fourth — 28 in the second half, overall, including a 12-point third quarter in which he shot poorly (2-for-7), but generated eight free-throw attempts. He shot 6-for-9 in the fourth (3-for-6 from the midrange, 3-for-3 in the paint) in another to-the-rescue performance, logging 41 minutes for the game and a higher-than-normal 10:29 in the fourth.

“I asked to go back early, so that was on me,” DeRozan said of returning earlier than his normal rotation turn in the fourth quarter. “I just didn’t want the game to get away no type of way. At this point of the season, everything matters. I gotta play 48 (minutes), I'm willing to play 48. Because everything matters. There's no time to rest.”

LaVine, meanwhile, added eight points in the final period to make 24 combined for the duo — seven more than the Pistons scored as a team.

7. DeRozan and Donovan credited a series of passionate late-game timeout huddles for the team’s fourth-quarter turnaround — with Donovan citing DeRozan, LaVine and Thompson as the epicenters.

"Things that I can't repeat," DeRozan said on what was said during those stoppages. "But it got everybody going where we needed to go."

8. The aggressiveness of DeRozan and LaVine was also a boon, especially considering Donovan’s recently-increased emphasis on attacking downhill more often. Between DeRozan going 12-for-13 from the charity stripe, and LaVine’s 10-for-11 line, those two combined for 24 free-throw attempts; during the losing streak, the Bulls averaged 23.2 free-throw attempts as a team.

DeRozan also shot 6-for-6 in the restricted area, with LaVine going 3-for-3 at the rim and 6-for-6 in the paint, overall. Their persistent driving deeply pressured the Pistons defense to the point the Bulls scored 60 points in the paint, their fourth-highest single game total of the season.

DeRozan’s 36 points and LaVine’s 25 — which featured 6-for-7 shooting inside the 3-point arc to offset another off shooting night of 1-for-7 from deep — added up to an impactful 61.

9. Nikola Vučević, who returned to the lineup after a hamstring strain held him out of Monday’s loss to Philadelphia, was another bright spot at the offensive end. He burrowed his way to a handful of interior touches attacking switches against smaller defenders and made his first six field-goal attempts en route to 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting — meaning the team’s proverbial “Big Three” combined for 82.

Vučević’s impact was so outsized, it was a shame he only played 29 minutes. But Donovan said after the game that Vučević’s rotation turns were altered by the Bulls medical staff’s desire to not play him more than six-to-seven minutes at a time. He finished with 29 ticks, but closed the game with 9:47 in the fourth.

10. Pistons rookie Cade Cunningham entered play averaging 21.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists in his team’s recent 6-2 stretch, and flashed every bit of why he was the 2021 draft’s No. 1 overall pick on Wednesday. Though Ayo Dosunmu — who, as a draft-class compatriot, gets up for the matchup — defended him solidly on-the-ball, Cunningham had counters on top of counters, whether left-handed floaters, through-contact finishes, or savvy drive-and-kicks. 

Even at 20 years old, Cunningham is already adept at snaking to his spots with poise, and slows the game to his pace whenever he has the ball. He finished with 22 points and six assists (against six turnovers), and drew praise from Donovan postgame for his advanced basketball IQ.

This was an important win for the Bulls. Not only did it get them off an uncharacteristically long five-game schneid, it also holds them at fourth in the Eastern Conference for the time being. The Celtics, who beat the Hornets on Wednesday, remain a half-game back in a race that will be crucial to watch down the stretch of the regular season.

Next up for the Bulls: Home for a big matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers (who lurk just 1.5 games back in sixth) on Saturday.

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