Bulls Insider

How the Bulls flipped script after blowout loss to Celtics

Team is 21-15 despite widespread injuries since low point of season, an embarrassment in Boston

The Bulls dropped to 5-14 when they lost badly to the Celtics in Boston in November.

Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich

The Chicago Bulls’ postgame locker room on Nov. 28 in Boston felt like a funeral.

A 27-point blowout loss to the Boston Celtics that wasn’t even that close capped an 0-4 trip and marked the Bulls’ fifth straight loss and eighth in nine games. Zach LaVine scored two points on 1-for-9 shooting before leaving with a right foot injury. DeMar DeRozan also exited early with a quadriceps strain.

“I remember that vividly,” DeRozan said. “Feeling that is such a letdown for all of us.”

The night dropped the Bulls to 5-14 and marked the low point of the season. Since then, despite widespread injuries that included season-ending foot surgery for LaVine, the Bulls are 21-15.

What changed?

“I just think for us as a team we hit a really low point and we understood that we just can’t continue that way and something has to change or it’s going to get really ugly,” Nikola Vucevic said. “We changed a little bit the way we played and our approach.”

A closer look at the numbers reveals the Bulls, who got off to a collectively poor start shooting, didn’t so much change their shot profile as they did merely started making more. They did improve their rebounding and defense dramatically.

For instance, the Bulls’ offensive rating jumped from 108.9 during their 5-14 start, which ranked 26th, to 116 over their 21-15 stretch, which ranks 19th. Their true shooting percentage improved from 54.4 percent to 58 percent.

Unlike the Celtics, who lead the NBA in 3-point makes and attempts, the Bulls aren’t a high-volume team when it comes to 3-point shooting or getting to the line. They play at the slowest PACE in the league at just 96.89 possessions per game.

The way they must succeed is by taking care of the ball---they rank second with just 12.4 turnovers per game---and making a high percentage of two-point shots or crashing the offensive glass and by finishing their defense.

Their defensive rating of 116 ranked 22nd when they stood at 5-14 following the Nov. 28 in Boston. In the 36 games since, the Bulls posted a 114.5 defensive rating, which ranks 10th. Their offensive and defensive rebounding percentage rankings improved from 23rd and 25th, respectively, at 5-14 to seventh and sixth in their 21-15 stretch.

These rebounding numbers could stay elite since coach Billy Donovan will be forced to continue leaning into the double-big lineup of Vucevic and Andre Drummond in light of extended absences for Patrick Williams and Torrey Craig.

“I think we’re getting more comfortable with it,” Vucevic said. “I think offensively we’ve been pretty good at finding ways to exploit that, especially having a smaller four and trying to attack inside high-low and also offensive rebounding. Defensively, we can get better. We have a tendency to get back to the paint, doing what big men do. And when there’s two of us, one of has to be the four.”

Donovan long has fretted about the workload getting placed on Coby White, DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso. With Craig now joining Williams and LaVine on the sideline, that issue only will intensify.

“I don’t know if we walked past a black cat or broke a mirror,” DeRozan said. “It’s nothing new. It sucks. Hopefully, Torrey gets back healthy soon. We just gotta go out there and work with what we’ve got.”

After Wednesday’s practice at the Advocate Center, Donovan said one goal for him is to lessen the amount of consecutive minutes that White, DeRozan and Caruso play. In other words, shorter stints but likely still high minute loads.

Beyond the double-big man lineup, Julian Phillips and Dalen Terry also will get opportunities.

In a rare departure, DeRozan, who rarely opines about front-office business, said he would welcome an addition via the buyout market.

“Extra bodies always help,” DeRozan said. “Sometimes when we run out there in that layup line and we feel thin, it sucks. The more, the merrier.”

The Bulls have played at a 48-victory pace over their previous 36 games, achieving that largely with smoke and mirrors. They’ve played the most clutch minutes in the league and fourth-most such games, going 17-14 in games within five points or less and 5 minutes or less to play.

Of course, the Bulls also played at a 29-victory pace in those first 19 games.

“We do some amazing things in spurts. We have big games where we compete against some of the best teams and make comebacks. For us, I always said it: it’s just sustaining that consistency. All the great teams are able to do it close to 48 minutes in a game,” DeRozan said. “The good teams know how to lock in and how to close games, how to start off games and second halves.

“These 27 games mean everything. We gotta lay it out there on the line. It’s no more, ‘We get the next one.’ Every single one is going to be a helluva task for us.”

And it starts Thursday night with a Celtics team that possesses the NBA’s best record and embarrassed the Bulls in their first meeting.

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