Ok, no one expected this.
Having lost their six games leading into All-Star Break, the Bulls had an opportunity to go the other direction and give themselves the best possible odds to retain the top-four protected pick they owe to the Orlando Magic.
Instead, they took the other approach: All in on the 10th seed.
Patrick Beverley entered the starting lineup in his first game with his hometown team. Alex Caruso got the other guard spot, pushing Ayo Dosunmu and Alex Caruso to the bench. The Bulls are all the way in on a play-in push, and the first game with Beverley didn’t disappoint.
You may have expected the Bulls to come out with energy and pick up a key win at home, but no one could have expected this.
The Bulls absolutely nuked the Brooklyn Nets 131-87 in one of the most lopsided wins of the entire NBA season.
A few key stats:
- It was the largest margin of victory for the Bulls and the second largest of any team in the 2022-23 season (44 points, one point below largest lead)
- Brooklyn’s total was tied for 10th fewest points scored by a team in the 2022-23 season (87 points)
- Worst three-point percentage by a team in a single game, minimum 30 attempts (27.3, more than 5 percent lower than previous season-low of 32.6)
- Brooklyn tied for 17th most missed threes in a game (32)
This was an absolute beat down of the highest order. The Bulls led by as many as 50. Zach LaVine led the way with 34 points (12-of-17 shooting, 4-of-6 on threes), DeMar DeRozan chipped in 17 (8-of-17 shooting) and Nikola Vucevic added 13 points (5-of-9 shooting) and 10 rebounds.
But the real story was how poorly the Nets shot. Finishing 12-of-44 from beyond the arc, this was single worst shooting performance of the NBA season. They shot less than 40 percent from the field on the game.
The Bulls didn’t win this game by 44 points because Beverley had a box score outburst. But his leadership and communication allowed the Bulls to play to more than the sum of their parts. And they actually had fun doing it.
Leadership, communication, energy
In a season that has lacked consistency, the one thing you can rely on with the Bulls is that they come out flat, and cough up leads as a result.
Beverley’s reputation as an irritant and antagonist only applies to his opponent. Within the locker room, he is already making an impact in terms of his communication and positivity.
“His talk is really uplifting and inspiring and positive,” Billy Donovan said of Beverley. “There’s not negativity. If he’s getting on players at all, it’s lifting them up.”
Donovan has harped on communication dating back to late last season. When things start to go poorly, the Bulls stop communicating. When they stop communicating, they lose focus and the ability to regroup, reorganize and recover.
“I believe communication is the biggest thing to being human,” Beverley said. “If you’re in a relationship, married, whatever the case may be, no communication, wife is going to get mad. It’s the same thing in basketball.”
Beverley may not be on DeMar DeRozan’s level when it comes to the metaphor game, but he adds his own flavor.
Trickle down Bevenomics
The Bulls are beyond the point of fragile egos. If they want to make the play in tournament, let alone the playoffs, they need to play their best players, and that’s what Donovan did with his change to the starting lineup.
With Williams and Dosunmu moving back to the bench, this could have been a regression from both players, who have, at times, been shaken by disruption or adversity.
That couldn’t have been further from what happened. Williams finished with 17 points (5-of-8 shooting, 2-of-2 from three and 5-of-8 from the line), six rebounds, three assists and two steals. Dosunmu had seven points (3-of-8 shooting) but added nine rebounds, three assists and a steal.
All of a sudden, the Bulls have a ton of depth.
“Biggest thing with young players, is you have to give them a ton of confidence,” Beverley said of helping the young players. “Obviously they’re going to have their growing pains. I’ve been in this league 11 years, I have mine, still have mine. But it’s all about giving the young guys confidence.”
Despite getting rim stuffed on a runout dunk attempt, Beverley instilled confidence in Williams, who broke out in the second half.
“Him being himself is really important, but the idea that he’s yelling and screaming at guys, that’s not really what he does,” Donovan said. “He’s very inspiring and uplifting, and very positive, but the one thing I respect about him is he comes into everything with great energy…And then his voice has been really positive in terms of trying to uplift guys, give guys confidence and belief, that type of stuff. There’s no question you can feel his presence.”
Part of the reason I advocated for the Bulls to formally enter the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes is because it would have been useful to gather more data about how the young players (Dosunmu, Williams, Dalen Terry and Coby White) play, and play together.
In moving to the bench, all four of the younger players got a chance to play together and start to show what they can do with more usage and responsibility without LaVine or DeRozan as a crutch. If the Bulls want to continue to toe this line between (trying to) win now and build for the future, they can’t let player development go by the wayside.
Wet blanket time
Word of caution: Let’s not act like the Bulls have earned anything because of a lopsided win in their favor.
Since January 1 (and prior to Friday’ game), the Bulls are the third best defense in the NBA, but that number is propped up by incredible luck when it comes to opponents three-point percentage.
The Bulls allowed the fifth-most corner threes, yet opponents are shooting a league-worst percentage. They also allow the fifth-most above the break threes, and opponents are shooting a league worst percentage on such shots.
The Nets 12-for-44 performance against the Bulls (7-of-36 before the starters were pulled), only adds to that. Opponent three-point adjusted luck is not the end all as far as defense is concerned, but for as much as Beverley’s defensive acumen helps the Bulls, they are still experiencing some luck that could be primed to come back around at any moment.
Sunday’s game could be the most important of the season, to date.
With the Washington Wizards losing to the New York Knicks, the Bulls are now just one game out of the 10th spot. They play the Wizards on Sunday afternoon, in what will be a game of monumental importance for the play-in race.