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Bulls cite connectedness as most important element to improved play

6-3 stretch has featured high-profile victories over elite teams, better ball movement and defense

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Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich

PHILADELPHIA --- The postgame locker room on November 28 in Boston felt like a funeral.

DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine both left the Chicago Bulls’ fifth straight loss and eighth in nine games with injuries. The Boston Celtics had toyed with the Bulls in a 124-97 blowout, gunning for point differential for the In-Season Tournament.

At 5-14, answers proved elusive. The pin-drop quiet room revealed a fragmented team.

Fast forward to Monday night at Wells Fargo Center. The Bulls knocked off the Philadelphia 76ers, who led the NBA in net rating, despite playing without LaVine and Torrey Craig. Six players scored in double figures. The ball moved and players responded to in-game failure by moving on to the next play.

The Bulls are 6-3 since that quiet night in Boston. Two of the losses were winnable games, an overtime loss in Milwaukee and a buzzer-beating loss in Miami.

Things are clearly different. So what changed?

“I think the most important thing is a group with five guys connected,” coach Billy Donovan said. “If you don’t have that and the talent level is equal or you’re undermanned and your talent level is less, you have zero chance to win---none. So I think the most important thing is the connectedness, the sharing and moving of the basketball, the covering for each other (defensively), the extra passing, the rotations and taking charges. Those are all things that are about being connected.

“I liked the way they were after the Milwaukee game and the Miami game. Not that I want to see them there, but there was genuine hurt. There have been some games this year quite honestly where we have no right to be upset after the game because we didn’t even give ourselves a chance to win. But when you fight like they did against Milwaukee and Miami and come up short, that hurts. And then you got to look at what we have to do better.”

And along those lines, the Bulls gave up three critical offensive rebounds late in Saturday’s loss to the Heat and then cleaned up that department against a long 76ers team.

“We’re finally locking in on the things we’ve talked about all year that we want to do and we’re competing at a high level,” Alex Caruso said. “As crazy as it sounds, we could be 9-0 because we had a couple late games that we lost that we could’ve won.”

The Bulls aren’t planning victory parades. They’re still 11-17 and a game out of the meager play-in picture. They’ve dug themselves a hole and still have the LaVine trada saga on their plates.

But something has changed. It’s as obvious as Coby White's torrid stretch or their increased assist total. They posted 24 assists on Monday and have reached 30 or more assists three times in this stretch.

“Our energy has been different,” Nikola Vucevic said. “We’re playing with a much more aggressive mindset at both ends. We’re playing for each other, sharing the ball, playing at a faster pace. That has brought out the best in everybody.

“We’ve been enjoying playing. Each night it’s a different guy stepping up. All of us are supporting each other. You can just feel that. And when you play that way, it’s very contagious. Positive energy builds up. We haven’t been as stagnant as we were early on. We’ve been getting downhill, finding the open guy, making the extra pass. That’s how you get everybody involved.”

Caruso even cited the minor contributions from young players like Dalen Terry and Julian Phillips, who have received opportunities because mainstays have been out of the lineup. He likened their minutes to how he got his NBA start with the Lakers, moving from a two-way contract to one of LeBron James’ trusted sidekicks on an NBA champion.

“I think we just got guys that care about each other,” Caruso said. “We have great energy, great camaraderie. We crack a lot of jokes and keep it light and have done a good job of focusing on the game plan when we go on the court.”

Asked if he thinks the Bulls are a playoff team, Caruso didn’t hesitate.

“Yeah, for sure. I think we have enough talent clearly,” he said. “I mean, we just won at Philly. We won at Miami, went 2-1 on this road trip. We were up two buckets with 3 minutes to go in Miami in the second game. That team was in the Finals last year and this is a team that’s trying to win the Finals this year---two of the best teams. We beat Milwaukee.

“We can play with anybody when we play at our best. It’s just about doing it.”

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