The Chicago Bulls were supposed to beat the Dallas Mavericks.
Luka Dončić, arguably the league MVP through the opening two months of the season, was ruled out prior to tip-off. As were rotation mainstays Maxi Kleber and Josh Green. This, of course, after suffering a narrow defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks the previous evening, only to travel to Chicago soon after.
Kindly, the schedule had presented the Bulls an opportunity to convincingly rout an opponent.
And so the Bulls did, outscoring the Mavericks 144-115 in a game that was effectively over by halftime.
Seven Bulls scored in double figures. 33 assists were handed out on 54 made baskets. Impressively, the Bulls posted a season-high 144.0 offensive rating — a season-high by a significant margin.
In a singular sense, this game was exactly what it needed to be for the Bulls: A compressive beatdown on a weakened opponent. More holistically, though, the formula used to dismantle the Mavericks is one the Bulls must continue to employ as they embark on a season-defining stretch of games.
Here are three takeaways from the win:
1. Defense fueling offense
One core tenet of the Bulls’ defense is sending help at the nail as an opponent ball-handler drives middle. The objective? Disrupt offensive flow and force turnovers.
Such a task was made simpler without Dončić orchestrating the Mavericks offense. Still, the way in which the Bulls swarmed and cramped the ball-handler was a timely reminder of what this team is capable of when engaged defensively.
As illustrated in the above clips, the Bulls look their best on defense when they disallow opponents to use offensive possessions. Additionally, by forcing turnovers, it’s a means to create easy scores in transition.
This is who the Bulls need to be; a defense-first team that generates efficient offense by getting stops. The premise is simple enough. For the most part, the Bulls have done so, ranking eighth and 12th in defensive rating and opponent turnover percentage, respectively.
If the team is to climb back toward .500 basketball, we need to see more of this level of defense.
2. Using the post as a passing hub
Force-feeding Nikola Vučević a steady diet of post touches so he can methodically back his way into a contested attempt is something I’ve never enjoyed. It’s not overly efficient and it stagnates the offense.
Using the Bulls center as a passing hub from the block to generate clean 3-point attempt? OK, now you have my attention.
As the above clip shows, using Vučević as a creator for others is a perfect way to connect strong and weak sides of the ball in one swift passing motion. Moreover, it reduces the burden placed on DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine to create scoring opportunities off the bounce.
Sensing an advantage, the Bulls continued to run the offense through Vučević. As his touches increased, so did the defensive attention, with the Mavericks actively putting their defense in rotation by sending two-to-the-ball. Ever the willing passer, Vučević continued to feed his teammates. Though it wasn’t always his pass that directly led to a 3-point jumper, make no mistake, these attempts were derived by the initial post entry.
Vučević ended the game with four assists. A nice figure, no doubt. Still, given the ball-movement generated by hitting the post early and often, this feels understated.
3. Zach LaVine is quietly rounding into form
Don’t look now, but Zach LaVine is slowly starting to put together a string of quality games.
We saw our first glimpse last week against the Sacramento Kings, a game in which LaVine dropped a season-high 41 points. The entire scoring package was on display that night. And whilst 16 points against the Mavericks doesn’t leap off the box score, the efficiency does (7-of-11 field goals, including 2-for-5 from 3-point range).
The numbers read nicely, but it doesn’t tell the entire story.
One aspect which LaVine has uncharacteristically struggled with all season is finishing at the rim — converting only 62 percent of attempts, a figure which is seven points below his last season averages in the same shooting zone.
This is hardly a surprise. Offseason knee surgery with limited recovery time will do that to a player. It was going to take time for his bounce and burst to return. Slowly but surely, though, those traits are creeping back into LaVine’s offensive repertoire, as Mavericks center Christian Wood unwittingly discovered.
It may not seem like much. After all, Wood isn’t a fearsome rim protector. LaVine should finish this basket over him. And in the above clip, he does so by exploding up and into Wood’s midsection.
Had this been a possession from his previous two All-Star seasons, that which he proved to be one of the most dynamic and efficient three-level scorers in the league, I doubt such a basket makes it into this column. Unfortunately, for most of this season, LaVine hasn’t been that player.
In 21 games played this season, LaVine has been blocked 26 times. The majority of these have occurred at rim. Does the ground-bound, inefficient version of LaVine finish this play?
That’s why the above basket feels significant. It was a stark reminder of who LaVine can be. It may only count as two points, but it represents a progression back to full health.
- The Bulls rank 27th in 3-pointers made, averaging 10.1 per game. Knowing this, how mad must the Mavericks have been when the Bulls poured in 7-of-12 threes in the first quarter? By the half, they had already made 10-of-17. The Bulls would go onto sink nine more threes in the second half, finishing the game 19-for-35. Somewhere abroad, skimming through the box score, our pal Will Gottlieb is smiling.
- Andre Drummond made four baskets, all of which were thunderous dunks. As impressive as his finishes were, the violent intent to put his opponent in the basket was far more telling.
- Alex Caruso was ruled out of the game after his first stint. Per Bulls PR, the dogged defender sustained a tailbone contusion, an ailment that will see him miss the Bulls’ next game.
- Up next: The Bulls fly out to Atlanta to face Trae Young and the Hawks on Sunday night.