The shorthanded Chicago Bulls hosted the Oklahoma City Thunder Saturday night with even more injuries than usual. Having Zach LaVine out isn't easy for the Bulls, and Javonte Green, who has been super hot offensively since the end of January, also missed this game. The Bulls had dead legs for the whole game after their 134-122 track meet victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night. Nikola Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan provided bulk scoring for Chicago, and the Bulls took home a narrow 106-101 victory.
The Set Up
The Bulls are one of the most injury-plagued teams in the NBA. They, along with the entire league, dealt with a variety of COVID-related absences. However, this team just cannot stay healthy. The only two players who have played in 50 or more games are DeRozan (52) and Ayo Dosunmu (51). To say they came limping into their matchup with the Thunder would be a literal statement instead of a metaphor.
Essentially, any time you see Troy Brown Jr. starting a game, you know the team's health situation isn't great. Still, the Bulls entered this contest on a two-game winning streak. The good news is that Derrick Jones Jr. came out of nowhere as the Bulls announced he was available just hours before tip-off. The bad news is that Brown Jr. starting tells you all you need to know about Jones Jr.'s availability.
On the flip side, the Thunder came into the game losers of four straight. The last time these two teams faced off, the Bulls won 111-110 as the Thunder amassed a significant fourth-quarter comeback that included a buzzer-beating three that brought the game to the aforementioned final score.
The Bulls got off to a shaky start. They didn't score their first basket until Dosunmu got to the rim for a layup 2:19 in. Offensively and defensively, Chicago seemed sluggish. That is expected to a certain extent on the second game of a back-to-back, but it is still disheartening to see so much stagnation. Billy Donovan called a patented early timeout to try to figure things out, and the Bulls responded by immediately turning the ball over. Fun times.
At least they proceeded to play virtually no defense the rest of the way. The Thunder walked into several wide-open three-pointers greeted by absolutely no close-out effort by the Bulls. As a result, Jones Jr. and Malcolm Hill entered the game in an effort to provide more defensive pressure on the perimeter. It didn't do much to improve the Bulls' play. Jones Jr. looked overwhelmed in his first action since January.
From there, it was a race to see whether the Bulls could accumulate more points or turnovers in the quarter. Okay, that may be a little bit of an exaggeration. Vucevic did force a turnover after turning the ball over himself once, so—you know—there's that. As the buzzer sounded and DeRozan had his shot blocked, Chicago had 22 points and five turnovers while giving up 30 to the Thunder.
The second quarter started with more offensive aggressiveness for the Bulls, even if it was solely DeRozan making things happen. They even started doing crazy things like rotating on defense and closing out on jump shots. It didn't last, but it was still cool to see.
Primarily, the Thunder just kept doing their thing, and the Bulls did nothing to try to stop them. OKC got steal after steal because Bulls players stood right next to each other, didn't move, and didn't make an effort to take care of the ball. Following these, the Bulls would make no effort to get back on defense to stop the fast break. It got so bad that the only highlights worth posting featured Neil Funk talking.
The Thunder played hard and relied on their length and athleticism to challenge the Bulls on both sides of the ball. They were getting steals, blocking shots, and giving Chicago fits. The Bulls, meanwhile, were playing like a collective Matt Thomas. They hit some shots every once in a while, were near the ball sometimes on defense, and contributed roughly nothing to the game. Fittingly, Thomas played two-thirds of the second quarter for some reason.
On a good note, DeRozan and the Bulls did end the quarter on a 10-0 run to bring the halftime score to 50-54. For all of the negatives throughout the half, there were certainly positives. DeRozan had 19 points and visited the line 10 times. Vucevic, despite a whopping five turnovers, had a double-double with 12 points and 10 boards. Dosunmu had 10 points on 4/5 shooting and 2/2 from deep. Still, make no mistake, this game being within four points at half was solely about how bad the Thunder are this season, not anything the Bulls did well.
Nikola Vucevic started looking for the triple-double of points/rebounds/turnovers early in the third. It didn't seem like a promising start out of the half. Despite the turnovers, Vucevic continued to produce offensively.
The Thunder had no one to contain him on the glass or under the basket. His three-point play brought the Bulls within two about five-and-a-half minutes into the quarter. His steady offense got the attention of the Thunder, and seemingly no one else could execute. At one point, Vucevic was triple-teamed before Malcolm Hill missed a wide-open three.
Vucevic would not be denied, though. He challenged shots, got rebounds, and ran the offense as he brought the Bulls their first lead of the game with 3:41 left to play in the quarter.
As the Bulls got back into the game, the two teams continued to trade buckets and leads. DeRozan's free throws at the end of the quarter kept Chicago in front by a score of 81-80 heading into the fourth. Vucevic and DeRozan (27 each) combined for 66.7% of Chicago's points through three.
DeMar DeRozan and Vucevic continued their offensive hot streaks in the final frame. The Bulls really just needed to follow a strategy of giving it to them and getting out of the way. However, when DeRozan sat down to rest at the 9:30 mark, that strategy was immediately in jeopardy. Billy Donovan noticed, and DeRozan was back in literally one minute later.
Benevolently, the Thunder decided to start paying the Bulls back for the early turnovers Chicago gifted them. DeRozan and Dosunmu teamed up for a steal that led to a slam by Ayo, and Coby White intercepted a pass that resulted in an emphatic dunk by Jones Jr. On his dunk, Jones Jr. clutched his fractured finger, but he stayed in the game.
The Thunder wouldn't go away, though. The lead continued to change hands as the two teams traded baskets.
Coby White picked up where he left off as a shooter last night against the Timberwolves. He hit his third triple with just over five minutes to go to give the Bulls a 92-90 lead. DeRozan added a two soon after to achieve his sixth-straight 30-point game before heading to the line after getting fouled on a jumper to make it 95-90. Next, Vucevic decided he wanted another poster and threw one down to make it 97-90.
The Thunder responded soon after with a Lu Dort three to make it 97-93, but DeRozan worked to swallow that momentum with a dagger jumper. That basket gave him seven points in the quarter and put the Bulls up 99-93. Dort wouldn't give up, though. DeRozan and Dort started trading blows. Dort hit a couple of free throws before DeRozan buried another mid-range jumper. Next, Dort hit a layup. DeRozan followed that by sucking the defense into the paint on a drive before Coby White hit a wide-open three.
The game stayed tight until the end. It didn't have to be as tight, but Jones Jr. unexpectedly shifted to try to take a charge while already making contact with Dort. This put the Thunder guard at the line to cut the Bulls' lead to 104-101.
The Bulls followed this with a possession that ended with a solid three-point look for Dosunmu. It didn't fall, but Brown Jr. got the rebound and passed it out to DeRozan. From there, the game was in the hands of the Bulls' MVP, and he didn't let it slip away. The Bulls won 106-101.
DeRozan had his sixth-straight 30-point game and fifth-straight 35-point game. He scored 40 points and visited the free-throw line 16 times.
Vucevic had 31 and 15. He committed five turnovers in the first half, but he only had one in the second. It's never great for your center to have six turnovers, but I'll trade that for 31 and 15.
Brown Jr. played 28 minutes, shot 0/9 from the field and 0/5 from three. He had 0 points, 0 assists, and 11 rebounds. Wild.
Matt Thomas played 14 minutes. Please get healthy, Bulls.
What's On Tap Next?
The Bulls rest Sunday, but the 22-35 San Antonio Spurs come to town on Monday at 7:00 PM CST for a Valentine's Day matchup (don't tell my wife this is why dinner reservations are at 4:30).
Don't let the record fool you. The Spurs have won two straight coming into the game, and they just had six players score in double figures in their last win over the New Orleans Pelicans. Moreover, the last time the Spurs and Bulls faced off, San Antonio won 131-122. Keep an eye on Javonte Green and Zach LaVine's statuses as the game nears, as Donovan and company may want to keep resting them.
Either way, check out the Bulls On Tap podcast for further postgame commentary and stay tuned with us here at On Tap Sports Net for all your Bulls needs and news.