3 reasons behind Bulls' 51-win pace at season's quarter-mark originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
The Chicago Bulls officially hit the quarter-mark of the season at halftime of Saturday’s loss to the Heat, which seemed fitting since it carried the feel of a measuring stick game and certainly one of playoff intensity.
“It just shows you how grimy and gritty you gotta be,” DeMar DeRozan said. “That’s a great team over there. You gotta give them a lot of credit. They got a lot of dogs who are very experienced in playoff play. That’s the type of physicality you’re going to get when you’re in the playoffs. That’s a lesson for us to take from.”
Two quarters into the second quarter of the season, the Bulls are 13-8 and on pace for 51 victories. Few prognosticators saw that coming.
And what’s tantalizing is the potential for improvement.
Nikola Vučević struggled early, missed seven games following a positive test for COVID-19 and is trying to regain rhythm, shooting 40 percent overall and 26.3 percent from 3-point range — well below his career averages.
In his first eight games since returning from offseason shoulder surgery, Coby White only has made an offensive impact twice.
Still, the lack of halfcourt execution against the Heat felt a bit like a warning sign given how essential that is come playoff time. Then again, this team’s belief and confidence, bordering on defiance, is a big reason it sits where it does.
“They’re a good team. They’re going to get better. We’re a good team. We’re going to get better,” Alex Caruso said. “I really don’t look too deep into it. I’m a game-by-game kind of guy.”
So who knows where the Bulls will end up? They’ve already made fodder of most preseason predictions. Here are the three biggest reasons why:
It’s hard to overstate how important the veteran has been, both on and off the court.
On it, he’s sixth in the NBA in scoring at 25.8 points per game. He’s fourth in free-throw attempts per game. And his career-high 33.9 percent 3-point shooting on the second-highest attempts per game of his illustrious career has added another wrinkle for defenses to consider.
He also has alleviated the burden on Zach LaVine, who ranks ninth in scoring. No longer can defenses load up on LaVine, particularly come closing time. In fact, DeRozan has been featured more in late-game situations than LaVine.
Off it, DeRozan has displayed the poise and professionalism that has defined his decorated career.
“The first thing that stands out is his consistency every single day of who he is as a man,” coach Billy Donovan said. “I think his willingness to share his experiences with guys that he’s played with, teams he’s been on, what he’s learned. He invests in guys. I think the team dynamic to him is very important in terms of building chemistry.”
The defense of Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball
The Bulls rank third in the NBA with 19.9 points off turnovers. They are tied for fourth by forcing 16 turnovers per game.
At the center of his havoc are Ball and Caruso.
Ball is averaging a career-high 1.9 steals and guarding everyone from point guards to power forwards. His ability to read plays and anticipate to jump into passing lanes is notable. He’s seventh in the league in deflections and 12th in steals.
Caruso is second in the league in deflections and steals. He also has guarded everyone from point guards to power forwards. Throughout each game, he can be spotted shouting out plays and defensive assignments to teammates.
Chemistry and coaching
As usual, Donovan hasn’t been afraid to tinker with starting lineups or rotations. He has toggled between Javonte Green and Caruso as starting power forward — leaning into small ball fully — and is currently using 6-foot-6 Derrick Jones Jr. as the backup center.
Donovan has kept rookie Ayo Dosunmu in the rotation even after White’s return. And he has created defensive game plans good enough for a top-five defense.
As previously mentioned, there’s room to grow offensively, particularly when it’s not generated by defense and in transition. The halfcourt offense is lacking.
But know this: The buy-in is complete. And team chemistry is evident, no small detail for a team that has so many new faces.
LaVine has welcomed DeRozan as a primary scoring option. The Bulls have showed resilience weathering the absences of Vučević, White and Patrick Williams. They respond maturely after big wins or bad losses, always putting the work and improvement first.
“The chemistry is there amongst the group,” DeRozan said. “We fight for one another on both ends. We want to see each other succeed. That’s always beneficial, especially with a new group.”
The Bulls have succeeded more than most thought in the first quarter of the season. They’ll be the first to tell you there’s a long way to go.