DeMar DeRozan

Bulls show respect, praise for Jalen Brunson, Tom Thibodeau

Knicks represent 3 of final 6 games as bid for homecourt advantage in play-in intensifies

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Back when DeMar DeRozan played for the Toronto Raptors, his close friend Kyle Lowry would go to watch his alma mater of Villanova University play.

That’s when Jalen Brunson first landed prominently on DeRozan’s radar.

A year later, DeRozan won a gold medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where Tom Thibodeau served as Mike Krzyzewski’s assistant coach for Team USA.

Chicago Bulls coach Billy Donovan’s associations with both men predate DeRozan’s. He coached Brunson for USA Basketball’s U18 national team in 2014. And Thibodeau used to come watch Providence practices when Donovan played for Rick Pitino because Thibodeau, then coaching at Division III Salem State (Mass.) and Harvard University, wanted to soak up as much knowledge as he could.

In a scheduling rarity, the Bulls and Knicks square off three times in the final six games, beginning with Friday’s matchup at the United Center. The teams meet again on Monday in Chicago and then end the regular season on April 14 at Madison Square Garden.

Even with Thursday’s news that All-NBA forward Julius Randle needs season-ending shoulder surgery, the Bulls know how dangerous the Knicks can be.

“Every one of these games is important for us,” DeRozan said. “Just to be playing the right way and get back to being competitive every night and understanding these games going into the play-in are everything for us to be playing our best basketball.”

Brunson, who entered Thursday’s home game against the Sacramento Kings averaging 27.8 points and 6.6 assists, earned his first All-Star appearance this season. He has 61-point and 50-point games on his resume this season.

“Helluva player,” DeRozan said. “Obviously, when I was in Toronto, my relationship with Kyle, he used to go to a lot of Villanova games. I was a fan of him since then, even a fan of him when he was in Dallas. To see what he’s doing now is amazing. He’s an All-Star for a reason. He’s leading his team to the success that they’ve had. He’s one of the most dangerous players in our league. You gotta respect him.”

Donovan coached Brunson before his senior season at Stevenson High School, which culminated in a state championship.

“Ty Jones was going into his freshman year at Duke. He never holds down that I ended up starting Ty Jones over him,” Donovan cracked. “I got a lot of respect for Jalen. When you’re with people for a few weeks like that tournament was and you’re around him every day and see him competing, clearly he was a straight winner.

“He’s so smart and competitive and savvy that sometimes I think people look at him athletically and they may be earlier on were like, ‘How good is he?’ And he’s an elite player. He’s all about winning.”

So is Thibodeau, who is leading the Knicks to their second straight playoff berth. During his five seasons with the Bulls, Thibodeau finished with a 255-139 mark and five straight playoff appearances, including the 2011 Eastern Conference finals.

“I love Thibs,” DeRozan said. “When I came in the league and he was with the Bulls, always hearing that loud, raspy deep voice he got, you can tell he’s a competitor. I don’t think I ever seen him smile on the sidelines or laugh or crack a joke. You gotta love that in your coach. His attitude is very indicative of the teams he has coached.”

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