10 Observations: Bulls Hang on for Needed Win Over Thunder

10 observations: Bulls avoid 2nd-half collapse in OKC originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Oklahoma City has been quite a house of horrors for the Chicago Bulls the last three seasons.

On Dec. 16, 2019, the Thunder stormed back from 26 points down to defeat the visiting Bulls 109-106. On Jan. 15, 2021, the Bulls committed 24 turnovers in a game Oklahoma City flipped from a 22-point deficit into an overtime win.

On Monday, the Bulls avoided a similar disaster, holding on for a 111-110 win in a game they held a 28-point third quarter lead, but tightened to a one-possession contest inside the final minute of the fourth.

For a team that entered play having lost seven of nine, the result is what matters. The Bulls move to 29-17, the Thunder to 14-32.

Here are 10 observations:

1. Slow starts have plagued the Bulls in their recent slide, but they got off to a much better one in Oklahoma City. Not only did their 10 first-quarter assists match their game-long total against Orlando, they also scored 35 points, marking their first 30-point first quarter since Jan. 12 against Brooklyn. That they led the Thunder 35-26 meant they won their first first quarter since Jan. 11 against Detroit.

2. DeMar DeRozan took a rest night amid a packed stretch of schedule, but Ayo Dosunmu was there to replicate his midrange mastery as best the rookie could. Dosunmu scored 18 points in the first half on pristine 8-for-8 shooting, which included four midrange pull-ups and two catch-and-shoot 3s.

A 3-pointer at the 8:42 mark of the third matched a career-high with 21 points, and set the Bulls' rookie record for most consecutive makes to start a game. Then, after a rare miss, he clinched an career-high 24 points with this 50-foot heave at the third-quarter buzzer:

Add in that he manned the Shai Gilgeous-Alexander defensive assignment, and slung eight assists, including a first-quarter fastbreak hit-ahead reminiscent of another sidelined teammate in Lonzo Ball, and it was another eye-opening outing by Dosunmu, even if he fouled out with four minutes to go in the fourth quarter.

That he did it after back-to-back subpar, yet big-minute, showings in Milwaukee and Orlando was all the more impressive.

3. DeRozan’s absence wasn’t sharply felt as the Bulls built a 28-point lead midway through the third quarter on the strength of a 26-8 run out of the halftime locker room.

But down the stretch, the Bulls looked flustered without their closer.

Oklahoma City won the final six minutes of the third quarter 22-8 – and the Bulls only scored eight because of Dosunmu’s heave – to trail just 92-78 entering the fourth. They continued to chip away from there, trailing just 105-99 with 3:08 remaining in regulation, 108-105 with 53.6 seconds remaining and 108-107 with 14.9 seconds remaining.

4. That comeback featured some hot Thunder shooting, but also some incredibly sloppy offensive play by the Bulls. They committed a whopping seven turnovers in the fourth quarter and struggled mightily with traps and full-court pressure, forcing Billy Donovan to burn multiple timeouts in the final five minutes to save cornered ball-handlers.

5. Zach LaVine returned after a five-game absence, logging 35 minutes in his first action since leaving the team’s Jan. 14 loss to the Golden State Warriors with discomfort in his left knee. Through three quarters he was more than solid, if a little off with his shot, tallying 18 points (on 5-for-13 shooting), seven assists and six rebounds.

But he was party to much of the Bulls’ fourth-quarter struggles, shooting 1-for-6 in the period and dribbling out multiple empty offensive possessions. LaVine was also the one holding the ball when the Bulls were whistled for an eight-second violation – which Donovan tried to save them from with a timeout – with 2:56 to play, and he lost Josh Giddey for a back-cut layup with that made it a one-point game with 14.9 seconds remaining.

Give LaVine this: It was his first game back from injury, and he did bury two free throws that gave the Bulls back a three-point lead after the Giddey layup. But the stretch run was too close for comfort.

6. Donovan also noted that this game will be a valuable learning experience for Coby White and Dosunmu, given the Bulls’ struggles handling ball pressure, getting into their offensive sets and drawing fouls. White, Dosunmu and LaVine each had three turnovers by game’s end – with all of LaVine’s and two of White’s coming in the final frame.

7.White entered play 1-for-16 from 3-point range in his last two games, and his shooting struggles continued. He began this one 2-for-12 from the field and 0-for-5 from deep before hitting a massive corner 3 to extend the Bulls’ lead back to 108-99 with 2:30 to play. His 3-for-14 finish means he shot 29.8 percent on the team’s three-game road trip.

8. A bounceback, though, was in order for Nikola Vučević, who had one of his most abysmal games of the season against the Magic on Sunday, but finished with 26 points, 15 rebounds and four assists in Oklahoma City, shooting 10-for-18 and 4-for-7 from 3-point range.

Not only that, as the Thunder cut to 11 early in the fourth quarter, Vučević initially steadied the ship with 10 points in the first 6:12 of the period, canning two midrange jumpers, an and-one hook shot and an above-the-break 3. He was also noticeably more engaged defensively after bemoaning his lack of focus at that end against the Magic, logging his 24th double-double of the season and swatting three shots.

That’s the first time in 11 games Vučević has buried more than two 3s, a span in which he shot 25 percent from distance, and 14th game this season shooting over 50 percent. Now the key is consistency.

9. Javonte Green also made his return after 12 games on the shelf with a groin strain. In typical Green fashion, he was a bundle of energy, notching two steals, generating an extra possession on the offensive glass at the beginning of the fourth quarter, and throwing down this monstrous slam:

Green started over White in a last-minute move by the Bulls’ coaching staff, and played 25 minutes on a “hard” playing-time restriction. Stay tuned for how he progresses now that he’s back. But with Alex Caruso six-to-eight weeks away from re-evaluation after undergoing successful wrist surgery Monday, Ball due for knee surgery later that will hold him out six-to-eight weeks later this week, Derrick Jones Jr. and Patrick Williams still sidelined, and Tyler Cook exiting the game with a left eye injury (just three games after returning from an ankle sprain), Green's presence was needed.

10. The Bulls did get back to a few of their core tenants when they were humming, shooting 15-for-39 (38.5 percent) from 3 and scoring 14 fastbreak points. Long-range makes and transition run-outs were hard to come by in each of their last two losses. They shot a 12-for-59 from 3 and scored five total fastbreak points against the Bucks and Magic.

Next up: Back to Chicago for a makeup game against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday.

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