The Bulls have been burned in the clutch too many times this season.
It happened against the Magic. It happened against the Hawks. It happened against the Pacers. And Wednesday night, it happened again against the Kings.
They weren’t letting that happen again.
It took two overtime periods to close them out, but the Bulls beat the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves 139-131, backed by DeMar DeRozan’s 49 points (15-of-25 shooting, 17-of-18 free throws), 14 rebounds and 4 assists and Zach LaVine’s 39 points (15-of-25 shooting, 4-of-9 threes, 5-of-5 free throws), four rebounds and five assists — the most combined points of any two Bulls in a single game in franchise history.
Despite Anthony Edwards leaving the game in what looked like severe pain after just eight minutes of play and Rudy Gobert fouling out in the first overtime, the Wolves were in charge for the better part of regulation.
But the Bulls are a mathematical anomaly. They took only 24 three-pointers to Minnesota’s 42. They shoot 30 free throws to Minnesota’s 31. They gave up 14 offensive boards but narrowly won the turnover battle 15-11.
It came down to making shots, as it often does in the NBA. But the process might be flawed, which leads to more questions about the longer term viability of this group.
“If you do do that, eventually it’s not going to be sustainable,” Billy Donovan said postgame when asked if this type of win can translate long term. “I’m happy we won, don’t get me wrong, I’ll always take that.
Even though, stylistically, maybe it’s not sustainable, it’s not going to be sustainable if we come out defensively, if we are fortunate enough to get to a point where we’re playing in the postseason, that’s not going to be sustainable either.”
Quite frankly, the Bulls probably should have lost this game. But missed free throws and some terrible turnovers left the door open for the Bulls, and to their credit, they earned a victory in a clutch, overtime game — something they have struggled to do in 2022-23.
To their credit, the Bulls, who were down 10 to start the fourth quarter, made on-the-fly adjustments, which they have struggled to do dating back to last season.
“We didn’t start well, but I thought as the game went on, they course corrected and got better,” Donovan said.
After digging in defensively, the Bulls put themselves in a position to go out and earn the win. They executed down the stretch and the Timberwolves did not.
The Wolves had some late-game foibles that could have been easily avoidable. After recovering a rebound on a LaVine miss, they could have run out the clock and forced the Bulls to foul. Instead, they turned the ball over and gave up the game-tying layup that forced a second overtime.
“I don’t know what they were doing. I went up hard, didn’t get a call. We got the ball back. Ended up making a layup on the other end.”
Additionally, they had a chance to win the game in regulation, but couldn’t get anything close to a good look, and ultimately turned the ball over after some elite point-of-attack defense from Zach LaVine.
“People can talk about my defense all they want to,” LaVine said. “I’ve always been one of the best on-ball defenders. One-on-one situations, there’s not a lot of people that are going to get by me…I can care less about what y’all say about my defense, I know what I’m doing.”
LaVine, who scored 21 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, was outstanding on the defensive end. He asked for the Mike Conley assignment after he started to get hot from three and effectively cut off the head of the snake, while allowing Patrick Beverley and Alex Caruso to dominate off the ball.
“From the fourth on, I just wanted to guard him,” LaVine said. Make it tough for him to make shots. We were switching a lot just point of contact on the ball.”
And to bring it home, Nikola Vucevic had the poster dunk of the year.
I’m not going to say this was a great win that fundamentally shifts the outlook of the team. They’re still just the 10th best team in the conference. They’re still five games below .500.
But ultimately, the Bulls need to rack up as many wins as they can. They’ve made their bed. They’ve committed to the path they’re on. Now they need to go out and execute.
“I’m going to take away from a double overtime game, and how hard those guys worked to get back in the game and win the game,” Donovan said. “So I’m very, very grateful. But as a coach, I’m always going to look at OK, how can we learn, how can we get better, how can we grow from this, what is sustainable, what’s not sustainable, what are the areas where we didn’t do a good job, where did we do a good job.
You’re always going to evaluate that.”