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The Chicago Bulls stumbled into some exciting small-ball combinations

Will Gottlieb Avatar
December 29, 2023

The Chicago Bulls lost to the Indiana Pacers 120-104 behind a masterclass from Tyrese Haliburton, who scored 21 points on 7-of-17 shooting, with 20 assists and zero turnovers. Yes. 20 assists and zero turnovers.

The Bulls struggled early against the best offense in the league. The Pacers play faster than anyone, throwing high screens at you, that allow Haliburton to dissect. He’s a brilliant shooter, passer and thinker of the game, and can pick you apart.

Early in the game, that’s exactly what he did. The Bulls threw drop coverage at Haliburton, who rose up or found Myles Turner for easy pick-and-pop shots that Andre Drummond was unable to contain.

The Pacers were up 11 at the half, but entering the third quarter, they started to break the game open. They went up as many as 25 on a flurry of threes, pick-and-pops, and transition layups.

And that’s when Billy Donovan went small. With Nikola Vucevic (adductor) sidelined, Donovan was short on options. Though many have been clamouring for minutes for rookie two-way center Adama Sanogo, Donovan instead went small.

And it worked.

Juxtaposing the two different schemes matched up against the same stagger screen action, helps explain why.

When Drummond was on the court, the Bulls weren’t able to switch everything, which meant they couldn’t keep Haliburton in front of them. When they began switching everything, the ball pressure prevented pull up threes and forced the Pacers guards to beat Bulls defenders in isolation, which they were unable to do.

Alongside combination of Ayo Dosunmu, Patrick Williams and DeMar DeRozan, Dalen Terry and Terry Taylor entered the game at 7:03 in the third quarter, ahead of two Myles Turner free throws. The Bulls were down 81-56.

At 8:52 in the fourth quarter, Andre Drummond returned to the game with the Bulls down 90-88.

Over the course of 10:11, the Bulls had used a combination of Dosunmu, Williams, DeRozan, Terry, Taylor and Alex Caruso to accrue a 32-9 run and erase a 25-point deficit. And it was largely a result of dynamic switching defense.

The Bulls were able to shut off much of what the Pacers wanted to do because of their ability to squash early actions. With their ability to hound the ball 94 feet, switch high screens and take away mismatches, the Bulls prevented the Pacers from getting many threes up over screens. Rather, they forced them to isolate one-on-one, where they forced Haliburton, Andrew Nembhard, Benn Mathurin and Aaron Nesmith into difficult pull up mid-range shots.

The start of the fourth quarter was much of the same. Terry and Taylor were fighting with Jalen Smith in the paint. Guys were chasing down loose balls, taking charges, getting in passing lanes, contesting shots. It was impressive execution considering lineups with both Taylor and DeMar DeRozan had played just 11 possessions together prior to Thursday.

The one area of weakness in these lineups was the defensive rebounding. The Pacers got four of their six offensive boards during this stretch, but the Bulls were doing their best to gang rebound, or at least rip the ball away from whoever grabbed it.

By the time the Bulls had climbed back into the game, and eventually taken a three-point lead at 7:51 in the fourth, Drummond was back in the game. The Pacers rattled off a 12 straight points in 1:55 before Donovan could re-insert Terry.

The Bulls made a bit of a push, but with how many minutes the small-ball unit had played, they ran out of gas, and the Pacers closed out.

Terry deserves a shout for his performance. In 17 minutes, he had six points (two-of-three shooting), three rebounds, one assists, three blocks and a team-high +28 in plus-minus. Reminder: the Bulls were at one point down 25 in this game and lost by 16. Terry’s play was a massive factor in the success of the small-ball unit that turned the game around.

Williams, another stronghold of the small unit, had one of his best games of the season. He had 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting, with five rebounds, three assists and two steals. He had a thunderous put-back dunk and generally was aggressive attacking the rim all game.

Dosunmu was also fantastic on both sides of the ball. He scored 15 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and his defensive pressure at the point of attack helps make those lineups work and his defensive IQ and ability to direct traffic has greatly improved.

Though the Bulls couldn’t close the game out, the success of the small-ball group was a bright spot. It’s not going to work against every team, but it’s the kind of tool you want in your back pocket for when the time is right.

We’ll see how much Donovan aims to use it moving forward.

Up next: The Bulls six-game homestand comes to a close on Saturday against the Philadelphia 76ers.

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