The Bulls hoped to use a massive win over the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday as a springboard toward the playoffs when they began a five-game road trip in Indiana against their division rivals. Entering tonight, both teams were on track to secure a spot in the Eastern Conference play-in round as the tenth-place Bulls and ninth-place Pacers met for the third and final time this season.
Most importantly, should the Bulls and Pacers finish with identical records, tonight’s game would determine the season series and head-to-head tiebreaker after each recorded a win on the other’s court earlier this season. The Bulls won the most recent matchup on February 15th when Zach LaVine finished with 30 points and six of his teammates contributed with double figures, leading to a thrilling 120-112 overtime victory.
Newly-acquired Nikola Vucevic contributed 22 points and 13 rebounds in Sunday’s 115-107 win over the Nets, which ended a six-game losing streak. While fans were eager for immediate success after the Vucevic trade, coach Billy Donovan knew it would take time for the team to gel, noting how they’ve had to change their style of play to accommodate their superstar center.
Nagging injuries to key players such as Coby White (neck), Garrett Temple (ankle), and LaVine (ankle) as well as the timing of the transaction all played a part in the losing streak. Vucevic joined the team on a tough west coast swing against the Spurs, Warriors, Suns, and Jazz before returning home to face off against the Nets, viewed by most as the favorites to win the championship.
After tonight, the Bulls have stops in Tampa (to play Toronto), Atlanta, Minnesota, and Memphis before returning home for a Vucevic reunion game against the Magic next Wednesday.
Before tonight, the Bulls had lost four in a row on the road and their last eight in Indiana. But with Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon sidelined with injuries, this was clearly a game Chicago needed to make sure they won. Their game plan was simple; without the defensive presence of Sabonis down low, they sought to attack the rim at every opportunity and it paid off.
Nikola Vucevic was dominant, finishing with 32 points, 17 rebounds, and five assists. LaVine chipped in with 19/8/6 and the Bulls had six different players finish with double-digit efforts. Most impressive was their defensive energy from start to finish and the way they shared the ball, recording 28 assists on 44 baskets. If tonight was any indication, the Eastern Conference has officially been put on notice.
Bench Leads the Way Early, Starters Take Over Late
With the starters coming out flat in the opening frame, it was the bench that led the way for the Bulls. Lauri Markkanen wasted no time making his presence felt and had a team-high seven points in the first quarter. Troy Brown provided infectious defensive energy as soon as he stepped on the court, which the rest of the team then duplicated. With the Bulls down three, Brown’s first offensive possession produced a three-point layup on a strong drive to the hoop. For Indiana, Caris LeVert led the way with nine first-quarter points. Having seen enough, LaVine made a point of it to guard him aggressively, completely shutting him down from that point forth and the Bulls overcame a slow start to grab a two-point lead at the end of the first.
LaVine came out with purpose to start the second quarter, attacking the rim on the first Bulls’ first possession and converting a tough layup. Markkanen followed suit with a layup of his own, bringing his point total to nine. Three minutes into the quarter, the Bulls went on a 9-0 run, seven of which came from White, and they found themselves in control of the game. Chicago spread the ball around beautifully, with eight different players accounting for 35 points with seven minutes left in the half, a theme that would continue later into the game.
But just when it looked like the Bulls would pull away, the Pacers pushed back, going on a 7-0 run and cutting the lead to five. The biggest reason for the shift in momentum was Indiana switching to a zone defense which the Bulls had difficulty navigating. With the Pacers posing a legitimate threat, Vucevic took over the game and showed why Chicago traded for him at the deadline. With three minutes to go in the second quarter, he had 12 points, 11 rebounds and three assists, his 33rd double-double of the season and third with the Bulls.
A hustle play by Satoransky was the biggest turning point of the first half. With less than two minutes remaining, he went up for an offensive rebound and ripped the ball away from the Pacers defender. He then found a LaVine at the top of the key for a wide-open three-pointer. The Bulls had five players with nine or more points in the first half and went into the locker room leading by 13.
Bulls Shake Off Pesky Pacers, Pull Away
The Bulls started the second half on fire, highlighted by five quick points from Vucevic. By the eight-minute mark in the third quarter, the visitors enjoyed an 18-point lead. Indiana had absolutely no answer for LaVine or Vucevic, both of whom carved up the Pacers defense every time they were double-teamed. Brown continued his hustle play, diving out of bounds to knock a loose ball off Indiana and maintain possession for his team. This led to a Markkanen three-pointer, increasing the Bulls’ lead to 20 points after a 9-0 run.
Already without Sabonis, an injury to Myles Turner made Indiana even thinner down low and the Bulls took full advantage. An absolute hammer from LaVine off a beautiful feed from Thaddeus Young put an exclamation mark on the quarter.
Heading into the final frame, the Bulls were coasting, up 23 points, and it appeared as if coach Donovan would get the opportunity to give his starters some much-needed rest. But not so fast…
Just as they did in the first half, the Pacers refused to go away, starting the fourth quarter with with 4-0 run to cut the deficit to 19. Sensing a slight shift in momentum, Donovan called an early timeout to settle things down. But Indiana doubled down, going on a 10-0 run to start the quarter and the Bulls lead went from 23 to 13. At that point, Chicago hadn’t scored since the nine-minute mark and found themselves losing the quarter 14-5.
Someone needed to step up to avoid a repeat of the Bulls collapse against San Antonio earlier this year. Enter Markkanen who hit a big three-pointer to stop the Pacer’s run and increase the Bulls lead to 16. White added a layup on the next possession to put Chicago up 18, allowing the team to breathe easy once again. Vucevic put the icing on the cake with two late buckets and the Bulls won by a final of 113-97.
What’s On Tap Next?
The Bulls travel to Tampa on Thursday night to take on the Raptors. Tip-off is scheduled for 6:30 PM CT. The game will air on NBC Sports Chicago and 780 WBBM Newsradio. As always, you can check out all the latest Bulls content, articles, podcasts, and more at Bulls On Tap.