Settling In

Billy Donovan shares some wisdom with Zach LaVine.

The Chicago Bulls have collected their first victory of the 2020-21 season! After the heartbreaking, last second, loss to the Golden State Warriors (129-128) on Sunday, the Bulls got right against their favorite punching bag, the Washington Wizards. The win (115-107) was an all around team effort. 7 players scored in double digits for the Bulls. Coby White, Zach LaVine, and Tomas Satoransky each had 6 assists. After averaging about 20 turnovers through the first 3 games, the Bulls only gave up 14 while forcing Washington into 19 turnovers. With the win, it looks as though the Bulls are settling into the new offensive and defensive schemes.

The season is still very young, but one of the things that I can say with great certainty is that I am a fan of Billy Donovan. Maybe you noticed in my last post (Folding Under Adversity) but I’ve been paying attention to what Donovan has been saying in his pre- and post-game interviews. He tells it like it is, but always with an encouraging spin for his players sake. I’m not going to spend a lot of time praising Donovan in this post, but I think his presence is making the Bulls better.

The Bulls have been getting better. Game by game, the play on the court is crisper; players are no longer thinking basketball, they are simply playing it. A lot of the credit for the improvement needs to go to the veterans on the team. Otto Porter Jr, Tomas Satoransky and Garrett Temple have been a steadying force off the bench for this young team. Porter has been the “3 and D” wing this team has needed for years, doing a little bit of everything, from scoring to facilitating, from defending the perimeter to grabbing rebounds. Satoransky has been an excellent playmaker, racking up assists left and right, while also showing a great knack for picking the right spots to create his own scoring opportunities. Garrett Temple has been the Bulls stopper off the bench. Donovan has brought him in to try slowing down the opponents offense, and for the most part he has. He isn’t as skilled as Kris Dunn at locking down opponents, but his ability to make baskets on offense means Temple is a net positive for the team.

Otto Porter sharing some wisdom with Coby White mid win.

Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine have also played well in the first week of the season. Markkanen has been especially aggressive, not just in attacking the basket, but in the little things that make up a game: setting screens, diving for loose balls, rebounding, etc. It’s been nice to see him consistently playing like we know he can. The one concern with Lauri is his latest injury, a calf contusion, which has sidelined him in the second half of the last two games. Hopefully, he’ll be over it in a few more days.

As aggressive as Markkanen has been this season, LaVine has been pleasantly quiet to start the season. What do I mean by that? He hasn’t dominated the ball as in previous seasons; He hasn’t stagnated the flow of the offense, or forced up a bunch of bad shots. He seems to be trusting his teammates, and finding his scoring within the flow of the game. That’s not to give the impression that he hasn’t been playing up to his full potential, or giving his full effort while in the game, on the contrary, if anything this is the most complete version of Zach LaVine the basketball player we have ever seen.

Last night against the Wizards, LaVine did everything for the Bulls, and he did it with very little fanfare. He led the team in scoring with 23 points. He was tied for most assists with 6. He grabbed 5 rebounds and added 4 steals. His effort, while deviously understated, was significant and necessary for the victory. The most assertive moment of the night from LaVine was his wicked tomahawk dunk over Wizard’s rookie Deni Avdija. It came just after LaVine had been posterized challenging the dunk attempt by Wizard’s big, Thomas Bryant. Zach just wanted to restore his dignity while exacting a measure of revenge; I think he did both.

Despite losing the first 3 games of the season, I’ve found the Bulls fun to watch. Donovan has put together some very interesting lineups and rotations. The Lauri Markkanen at center with a bunch of wings has been an especially intriguing lineup. Donovan has staggered minutes among starters and has the Bulls playing a fun, flowing, motion based offense. You might not be able to tell from the amount of points allowed, but the defense has also improved over the course of these 4 games. And even Coby White has gotten better as the starting point guard and lead ball handler. What I’m trying to say is, I think the knee jerk and all too familiar hand wringing and negativity that I’ve seen among Bulls fans over the past week can stop for a while. No, this Bulls team probably won’t win a bunch of games, but they will, and are, getting better.

Day by day, game to game, the one goal of this team has been to get better, and through week 1 of the NBA season, they’ve lived up to that goal. It’s encouraging to see after several seasons of stagnation and regression, that they are settling into new habits, winning habits. Coming up the Bulls get another shot at the Washington Wizards (Thursday, December 31st) and their first look at the Milwaukee Bucks (Friday, January 1st, 2021). We’ll see if their gradual improvement will be enough to overcome the reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo and his squad. Until they do, thanks for reading and GO BULLS!

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