The Bulls, returning home chased by a devastating three-game losing streak and losing four of six on their road trip, sure needed something like a deep shot in the arm.
Instead, they pulled off the most penetrating shots of their season in the fourth quarter Wednesday, which came in much more useful in a Bulls’ 115-111 win over the Washington Wizards.
In the most therapeutic 12 minutes, the Bulls clinched 15 points from DeMar DeRozan, 13 points highlighted by three consecutive three-point rockets from Zach LaVine, and if it was a pedestrian, five points from Nikola Vučević, it was also a great Vučević clutch defense shows with one blocked shot and a turning point offensive rebound that denied the Wizards a chance to shoot for a tie or win in the dying seconds.
And we know how these things have often gone this season.
But this time around, the Bulls Three were worthy of the capital letter, as all three had at least 25 points for the first time this season — DeRozan sits just ahead with 27 — with a muscular late-game Bulls reaction that saw the Wizards in eight consecutive possessions scored finally put together a rare night shooting. LaVine’s three jamborees each earned a Wizards score. And then Vučević deflated a fourth straight three before LaVine scored with a quick break as DeRozan stripped Deni Avdija on a drive. This stunning sequence for the Bulls perhaps took the breath away for now from a draconian review of the team’s status.
Sure, the Bulls are only 10-14 and 12th in the Eastern Conference. But in the jumble of injuries, anger and uncertainty sweeping through much of the conference, the Bulls are just three games away from fourth-place and final playoff position in the first round of home court. OK, seven others too, but like I said, there’s a chance.
“Obviously it was very important to take three losses in a row and be 9-14, not play good basketball,” Vučević agreed of December’s urgency. “It was important for us to get back up, especially at home. Offensively I thought we didn’t have a really good night for most of the game. But we stuck with it and in the end, when it mattered most, we made a couple of big games at both ends of the floor. Of course we’re not there, but obviously it’s easier to work on things and get better when you’re winning than when you’re losing.”
Certainly a relief, because with the season seemingly faltering, the Bulls couldn’t afford to let it get away with it against a Wizards team without top scorer Bradley Beal and their leading reserve scorer Rui Hachimura.
And this time, despite some jittery moments, it was too late with the Wizards still a tenuous one-point lead at 3:04 in the game, the Bulls with the deciding games to end the game.
It started with Vooch-a-mania, a short hookshot from Vučević to the post after LaVine missed a three and posted back to Vučević, a rare assist for this Bulls team. LaVine has generally been the smartest to make these back passes at a time when most NBA players are unfamiliar with post-passing. That support helped the Bulls take a 106-105 lead with 2:48 left, and they would not fall behind again in a 21-lead-tie game.
“It just shows the trust he has in his teammates and in me in this particular game,” said Vučević. “It’s also something we’ve talked about a lot as I’m trying to post and he’s the next guy. A lot of times when I get (the ball) out and he doesn’t feel like he has the shot we repost because my guy often relaxes when I kick him out. It’s an opportunity for me to go deeper. Just shows what kind of guy he is. It was a good game for us and I was able to take the shot and get us a big bucket.
On the next possession, Vučević blocked a run by Washington’s Monte Morris, who appeared to have had a layup. DeRozan then added a jumper and a three-pointer play to bolster his strike early in the fourth quarter. It seemed like there would be enough for the Bulls with a six-point lead and 1:48 left against a Wizards team without Beal, a team that’s a worse three-point shooting team than the Bulls, nine of 31 overall , after missing 10 of their first 11 three-pointers.
But Kristaps Porziņģis with 28 points returned to the line amid the abundance of Bull’s late reactions, Washington with 29 free throws. Fortunately, without anyone waving at them, the Wizards appear to be little more competent than their Congressional neighbors when it comes to missing nine free throws. Maybe just kidding for the locals, Kyle Kuzma got a fast break layup after a fifth DeRozan turnover. Nervous time? Suddenly, the Bulls needed another big play.
Vučević delivered again by 9.7 seconds and the Bulls hung like a cat on a branch about to crack at 111-109. This one would have been a shattering fall for the Bulls. But Vučević got his hands on the rebound from LaVine’s driving miss and routed it to Alex Caruso. The Wizards had to catch someone for a foul, and it was DeRozan who made two free throws with 8.9 seconds left. LaVine made two more to finish with 1.9 seconds left after an earlier desperate Wizards result.
“We’ve stayed resilient,” DeRozan said. “A lot of things didn’t go the way we wanted; we stayed with it. We were able to clinch the win.”
And especially where it’s expected and wasn’t enough, on the shoulders of the big three of recent and former All-Stars, DeRozan, LaVine and Vučević.
“It’s been a conversation lately (the three of them taking on more responsibility),” admitted DeRozan. “Our teammates encouraged us to do this; They were sort of on top of us just telling us the three of us have to carry this thing and they’ll be behind us. Tonight we tried to be assertive and prove that point and we played well.”
It was also a challenge message sent by Donovan a few weeks ago. get through?
That’s also the palliative care this Bulls fan base needed after the disappointing start to the season. This was a team that, instead of nearing the water’s edge, looked like they were going to drown.
It wasn’t just the losses, but the almost constant changes for a team that advertises continuity as a calling card for the 2022/23 season. There have been roster and rotation changes, and Bulls coach Billy Donovan said Javonte Green will remain a starter once he returns from what appears to be a minor injury. So Patrick Williams was back as of Wednesday and had 11 points, the most in a two-minute run in the second quarter during a dismal first half when the Bulls led 52-49.
It could be said that the Bulls got off to a rare positive start, leading 23-13, 29-21 after a quarter. But that was partly due to an awkward response from the Wizards, who missed their five three-pointers, missed two of their six free throws, and committed five turnovers. It was the cops doing threesomes; how about this! By the end of the first quarter, Washington had played its 10 available players. The word often used in the nation’s capital came to mind: lame.
The teams combined for 37 turnovers, 19 for the Bulls and some that were actually forced, though not many. Washington had 28 points from those errors.
Neither DeRozan nor LaVine could get much started early on, DeRozan was mostly lacking in sweaters, a worrying sign of perhaps tired legs, which he later seemed to avoid. LaVine was crooked, too, just four of 13 through three-fourths. But when he insisted on criticism last month after a late-game bench press, “You play a guy like me on the track,” LaVine later demonstrated why. I don’t think we’ll see that again. shoot shooters; as you hear them say after they miss the first 10, they know 11 goes in.
With the Wizards actually going into the fourth quarter 81-80, LaVine had no hesitation with those three consecutive game-winning threes, his first shots of the quarter less than a minute after coming into play.
“Vooch, I thought, really played a great game tonight from start to finish,” Donovan said. “He was really efficient. I thought he had everything going, positioned himself, hit some middle distances, a couple of three-pointers in the second half. I give a lot of credit to DeMar and Zach for struggling to shoot the ball at the level they’re usually used to and staying in the game as competitors. Both guys stayed there and competed. I liked the spirit of the team tonight and the way we tried to fight.”
Though 20 games in a season is the first phase of the analysis, this is one of the most confusing seasons in recent memory, with no one but Boston appearing to be in charge. And the cops beat them two out of three.
The bulls aren’t great with the major historical trends. The two most commonly measured in terms of closing scores are points difference and road wins versus home losses. The bulls are ninth on both metrics, but also just behind. Nine teams between four and twelve in the Eastern Conference are separated by three games, which basically means a good week with four months to go.
So maybe get in rather than sell out. The rollercoaster ride of a season really is still in that first scary climb.
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