Bulls need Green's defense, energy as injuries pile up


Javonte Green played on a strict 22-to-25 minute playing-time restriction in his return from a groin-injury-induced absence against the Thunder on Monday.

The bouncy Chicago Bulls forward reported feeling good in those ticks multiple times after the team’s Wednesday morning shootaround — and he used them the only way he knows how. He swiped two steals and swatted a block. He tipped multiple passes and rebound chances. And he logged two of his five points on this rim-rattling dunk, which belied the severity of the right adductor strain that cost him 12 games:

“You gotta try to touch the ceiling to know what you can do,” he said. “That was a good try to feel how good my legs feel.”

That’s Green’s game. Fly around the floor, hunting deflections with reckless abandon. Wriggle through — and explode over — opponent box-outs for offensive rebounds. Dunk everything in sight.

It’s how he gets by as a 6-foot-4 power forward. And the Bulls need all the energy he can provide as they gear up for at least another six-to-eight weeks without Alex Caruso (right wrist surgery), Lonzo Ball (knee surgery) and Derrick Jones Jr. (fractured right index finger) — all cogs, of varying cruciality, to the team’s defensive nucleus.

“You work so hard to be whole. This year, it's always been one or two guys down,” Green said. “But you just gotta take it on the chin. You can't do anything about it. Just take it on the chin, just try to step up for each other and (have a) next man up mentality.”

Green’s emergence this season is a result of that next man up approach. He jumped into the starting lineup in Patrick Williams’ stead when the second-year forward went down in late October, and has provided a jolt ever since, averaging a career-high 5.8 points with above-average steal, block and offensive-rebound rates for his position.

The chaos he generates on the floor, and ability to take on weighty defensive assignments, has also been a seamless fit alongside the Bulls’ cerebral stars, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vučević.

“Just sitting there, you know how much you bring to the team. You see what they was lacking. So it's just frustrating just to see my contributions to the team was missing,” Green said of his injury absence. “It was just frustrating (that) I couldn't go out there with my teammates and fight with them.”

Ball and Caruso, in Green’s words, have been the “head of the snake” of the Bulls’ defense. And it’s true: With those two on the court, according to Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls allow 105.4 points per 100 possessions, an 87th percentile mark. With them off, that number rises to 118.0. Seventh percentile.

So it’s no surprise that a unit which excelled early in the season has fallen from ninth to 16th in the NBA in defensive rating since Christmas, when the injury bug’s reign began. Before even their respective surgeries, Ball (five games with COVID-19) and Caruso (13 games with a foot sprain and COVID-19) missed extended stretches. Jones Jr., at the time of his latest injury, had already missed seven games with a bone bruise in his right knee. Green, before Monday, had been sidelined since New Year’s Eve.

Now, it’s on the remaining Bulls to pull the team from its recent malaise, which has produced seven losses in their last ten games, and re-establish themselves as an Eastern Conference power — at both ends of the floor.

While Green says that task is “on all of us,” his importance is no secret.

“We're just trying to build our (defensive) habits right now, and take it towards the playoffs,” Green said. “It just don't start with them two (Ball and Caruso), even though they're the head of the snake, put pressure on the ball. You just gotta follow suit, pick up where they left off.”

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