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The Chicago Bulls overcome their talent deficit with pace

Will Gottlieb Avatar
December 1, 2023

Without DeMar DeRozan (ankle) and Zach LaVine (foot) in the lineup, the Chicago Bulls were at a severe talent deficit against Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard and the Milwaukee Bucks. But that didn’t stop them from pulling together a feel good, vibes-recovering overtime win 120-113.

This was a full-throttle, full-team effort. A game in which the team actually played with a sense of urgency for 48 minutes rather than trying to flip the switch down 17 at the start of the fourth quarter.

Instead, they went on a 10-0 run to start the fourth quarter, Caruso hit a buzzer-beating three to send the game to overtime, and the Bulls pulled out a tremendous win without their two best players.

Refreshing.

Eight Bulls scored in double figures, led by Nikola Vucevic’s 29 points on 11-0f-21 shooting. Coby White had 23 points on 7-of-20. The team generated a season-high 32 assists and 14 steals. They shot 35 percent on a good volume of threes. They managed to win the free throw and offensive rebound battle while pushing in effective field goal and turnover percentage.

“I give our guys credit,” Billy Donovan said following the game.”We just kept we kept hanging in the game and just kept playing the next possession and there was some resiliency.”

As is true with most teams, the best players set the style. For the Bulls, that means DeRozan and LaVine’s methodic, mid-range oriented games become the default. And without them, the team had to assume a different identity.

Bulls rank last in the league in pace — an estimate of possessions per 48 minutes — averaging 95.5 possessions per game. Even after improving their offensive rebounding (a strategy designed to help them win the possession battle), the Bulls are generating roughly three fewer possessions per 48 minutes than last season. That tells you there has been a lot of dribbling, winding down of shot clocks and deliberate basketball being played.

Typically, the Bulls aspire to be a low turnover, high free throw attempt team to make up for their lack of three point shooting. Without their top talent, they need to add as much variance to the game as possible to give themselves a chance. If they get up a higher volume of threes, they have a chance to score more points, even at the expense of accuracy (and probably some turnovers).

Strategically, that makes sense. More threes, more possessions lead to more variance. In a game featuring fewer possessions, the value of each one grows. With their top talent in the lineup, the Bulls figure they can score efficiently each time down and force opponents to keep pace.

To add that variance, they needed to play fast. While that is usually not the case, it was against the Bucks on Thursday night, when their pace eclipsed the 100 marker for just the second time this season.

Pace only measures possessions, which paints the broad strokes, but doesn’t tell the whole story. The Bulls were zipping the ball around the court, attacking closeouts, moving quickly and intentionally into sets, and it resulted in some of the most enjoyable basketball we’ve seen from this group all year.

The question becomes, can they sustain this speed when DeRozan and LaVine return to the rotation or does their deliberate style hold them back?

“Nah that has nothing to do with it,” Vucevic said. “Those are our two best players. If we want to achieve anything big, we need them.”

“Yeah, I think so,” Caruso said when asked whether they can continue playing at this pace when LaVine and DeRozan return to the lineup. “I think we’ve shown it in spurts this year. I think sometimes you have that heightened sense of urgency when you’ve got two of your best players out.”

There is something to be said for this group having to solve their way to this win, and using pace and movement to do so. Whereas they can normally rely on DeRozan to bail them out of a failed progression of actions, they had to cut and dribble-handoff their way into points without that safety valve.

And though it was just one game, there is a sense of pride in the fact that they can do it themselves, without the help from the All-Star wings.

“[Playing faster] was something that that we had already been talking about as a solution for us as a team, before we even knew that those guys were out,” Patrick Williams claimed. “So that was that was already gonna be an emphasis of ours coming into this game. If those with those guys would have played, there would have been a lot of open shots for Zach, a lot of open shots for DeMar.”

“So, happy to get those guys back whenever they can and implement them into this offense that we’re trying to kind of starting to build,” he continued. “It’s only gonna make us that much better.”

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