Down 20 in the 2nd quarter, the Chicago Bulls, yes, the same Chicago Bulls that lost to the Atlanta Hawks by 20 just a week ago, staged a come back, rallying to a 111-108 victory! It was the most encouraging win in 3 seasons. It cemented the importance of competent coaching for a developing team, and it showed just how necessary it is to have grizzled NBA veterans on the roster.
Going into last night, I fully expected we were in for another blow out loss. I told my wife I thought the Bulls were going to lose by 30. The Portland Trailblazers had the dynamic duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, the aging superstar Carmelo Anthony, and bruising big Jusuf Nurkic all healthy and ready to go, there was no reason to expect the Bulls to win. But win they did!
Chicago weathered a blistering Portland start, as the Blazers sunk the first 4 three pointers they took. The Bulls countered with a couple threes of their own but quickly found themselves down by double digits. Zach LaVine, coming off of his 39 point explosion in the Bull’s win against Dallas on Sunday, was obviously having an off night. He was bricking shots, missing lay ups, and just generally struggling with his shooting. To his credit, he didn’t hang his head or pout, instead he started passing the ball, dishing out 8 assists in the first half alone. He doubled down on his defense as well, finishing the night with 2 blocks, and something that won’t show up in a box score: effort.
Despite LaVine playing the team oriented brand of basketball coach Billy Donovan wants the Bulls to be known for, Portland’s lead ballooned to 20 points in the 2nd quarter. That old familiar sinking feeling of resignation started to flood the pit of my stomach. “Here we go,” I thought, “Another 30 point spanking.” Enter Garrett Temple, Thad Young, and Otto Porter Jr.
All season long, Donovan has been preaching resilience in the face of adversity. He has spoken about how the Bull’s young core doesn’t know how to be resilient, but that doesn’t mean other players on the roster can’t show them the way. Most people were disappointed that the Round Table signed Garrett Temple as their lone free agent pick up this off-season. Fans wanted a splashier name, a younger, more skilled player, someone to elevate the Bulls to another level. What the Round Table got in Garrett was a confident man, secure in his role as an off-the-bench stopper. A player happy to share his expansive knowledge with a green behind the ears roster, and a leader vocal enough to challenge his teammates to be better. Along with Young and Porter, Temple is the spine of this Bulls team. The three of them have been through enough NBA basketball to understand that a 20 point deficit in the 2nd quarter doesn’t mean you’ve lost the game, it just means you have to fight harder.
The three grizzled vets looked at that 20 point deficit as a challenge. They rallied their teammates. Midway through that 2nd quarter, the Bulls ratcheted up the defensive intensity – That was a phrase I never thought I would have a chance to type in this blog, so I’m going to type it again: The Bulls ratcheted up the defensive intensity. Holy Shirt! – And the comeback was on.
Chip, chip, chip. The Bulls slowly chisled away at the Blazers lead. At first it wasn’t that noticeable. The Blazers hot start petered out and they started missing some shots, no big deal, that was to be expected. Then the Bulls started to capitalize on the Blazers misses and turnovers, making their own little run. But every time the Bulls made a run, Lillard or McCollum would hit a shot, or one of their teammates would make a play on defense, and they’d settle down and build the lead back up. It wasn’t until the middle of the third quarter that the Blazers started to realize the Bulls were not going away.
Temple, Young, and Porter set the tone for the rest of the game. The screens the Bulls bigs set on offense were hard, and you could tell that by the time the 4th quarter rolled around, Lillard was tired of trying to fight through them. Temple started putting the screws on Lillard and McCollum defensively. The Bulls fought for every loose ball and rebound. They fought through the screens that the Blazers bigs were setting for their dynamic duo. The Bulls were done giving up open shots. Any points the Blazers got, from midway through the 2nd quarter to the end of the game, were earned. Bulls defenders at the very least were getting a hand in the face of every shooter. After Blazer wing, and former Dunk Champion, Derrick Jones Jr. had a monster highlight dunk in the 2nd half, any time he would make a move toward the rim, Thad or Otto would put their body on him, letting Jones know, “Yeah, that first one was free but everything else is going to cost you.”
That fight, that tone, that pride, has been absent from this Bulls team the last 3 seasons. Temple, Young, and Porter are showing this young Bulls team how to face adversity head on. And it’s contagious. The Bulls took the lead for the first time in the game about halfway through the 4th quarter, and I just about burst into tears. Even as the Bulls lead expanded to 6 points, 2 possessions, I couldn’t let myself believe that they would win the game. It was enough that they fought back from 20 points down. It was the proudest I’ve been to be a Bulls fan since Rose and Noah were a legitimate threat to LeBron and the Heat.
Zach Does Them Dirty
With 30 seconds left, the Bulls were hanging on to a 1 point lead (106-105). They had just had a series of poor offensive possessions that featured Thad Young missing shots and turning the ball over. It wasn’t just that Thad hadn’t come through in the clutch, it was also Coby White not being able to create enough space to get his shot off, and even more so, it was Zach LaVine actively avoiding taking shots because his confidence was so low. With 30 seconds left, a 1 point lead, a disappointing series of offensive possessions, and a shaky Zach LaVine, I was pretty sure the Blazers were going to win the game. And then LaVine put his cape on…
With 20 seconds left and Damian Lillard on the other team, I knew the game wasn’t over, but for some reason it felt like it was. Somehow I knew when Zach hit that silky smooth 3 the Bulls were going to be okay. The confidence with which he shot that ball, even after one of the shakiest offensive outings I have ever seen from him as a Bull, I knew he wasn’t going to let the team lose. The rest is, as they say, history.
Lillard came back and hit an impossible step-back, fall-away three with 5 seconds left, and a little seed of doubt crept into my mind, but I looked at the clock and knew it would take a second miracle for Portland to win. Coby White hits his 2 free throws after being intentionally fouled on the inbounds pass. The Blazers have 4.7 seconds left to get the ball to Lillard for that 2nd miracle, but the Bulls defense denies Lillard the ball on the inbounds play. Instead, the Blazers are forced to give it to Carmelo Anthony who throws up a contested three that misses.
The Bulls start their West Coast road trip with the 111-108 victory.
I cannot say enough good things about what Donovan has done this season with his lineups and rotations. Understanding how to use the players that he has available on the roster, putting them into roles and situations that allow them to play to their strengths, knowing when to sub in the Expenda-Bulls for the young core, and how to stagger the substitutions so as to have a constant and effective mix of veterans and young guys, Billy Donovan has been masterful. Most importantly, he hasn’t bowed to ego down the stretch. He only plays the guys he knows gives the Bulls the best chance at collecting the victory. That means it’s Zach, Coby, sometimes Patrick Williams, and some combination of the Expenda-Bulls finishing games. If the vets can keep their legs fresh this season, we might see the Bulls upsetting more playoff caliber teams, and reaching the modest goal of 23 wins I set much sooner rather than later.
Until they do, thanks for reading and GO BULLS!