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The Chicago Bulls tried anything they could to stop Damian Lillard

Will Gottlieb Avatar
February 5, 2023

That feeling when holding someone to 40 points is a success …

The Bulls have already given up a 50-point game to Devin Booker and a 71-point game to Donovan Mitchell. So when Damian Lillard started creeping up the score sheet with 28 points at half time, the Bulls knew they needed to do something differently to prevent another behemoth scoring outburst.

Ultimately, they were able to slow down Lillard with an extremely aggressive game plan to take the ball out of his hands. Of course, slowing him down is relative, he still scored 40.

But with Zach LaVine scoring 36 points (11-of-18 shooting, 5-of-10 on threes and 9-of-9 at the line), DeMar DeRozan adding 27 (10-of-16 shooting) 7 rebounds and 7 assists and Nikola Vucevic continuing his hot stretch with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists, and the defense making adjustments on the fly, the Bulls dug themselves out of a 17-point deficit to win 129-121 and inch closer to .500.

“When we got down, we were in a mindset where we were trying to solve problems, and I think that’s where we’ve got to be,” Billy Donovan said after the game. “I think it was a positive step, because when we go onto these runs that other teams go on, we can kind of get a little bit fragmented or our offense can affect our defense or previous play and I thought the guys worked to stay together and really solve problems.”

The Bulls have struggled with this dating back to last season. After getting smacked in the mouth, they haven’t been able to respond with enough firepower to stay competitive. And it looked like that might be the case once again on Saturday night.

In the first half, Lillard got downhill with ease. Without Alex Caruso (foot) in the lineup, there was close to zero resistance at the point of attack. The Bulls were tasked with containing Lillard in pick-and-roll by forcing him to get rid of the ball or at least backtrack, giving the Bulls enough time to reset and keep him in front. They had no answers.

The Bulls let this go on until mid-way through Lillard’s 19-point second quarter before they started to get a little more aggressive with him.

“We tried trapping him in pick-and-roll,” Donovan explained. “He’s seen everything, so he starts holding the ball a little bit more. And he’s trying to manipulate the guard and our guards had a hard time of keeping him under control.”

Eventually, they had to turn up the pressure even more.

“And then what we started doing to close the half was just ran at him,” Donovan continued. “Even if there was a screen coming, forget about the screen, two guys go get him and try to get the ball out of his hands.”

When a player of Lillard’s caliber has it going, you abandon ship and sell out to force anyone else to beat you.

Despite the Bulls throwing soft hedges, hard hedges, traps, all out double teams, a box-and-one at one point, Lillard, poised as ever, brought even more pressure to him to try to exploit the aggressive measures the Bulls were taking to contain him.

“There’s a way to play against it. And the way to do that is to accept it and play to the advantage it gives our team,” Lillard explained.

But that leaves you vulnerable on the back end.

I just like having that coverage so high up the floor,” he said. “I’m able to get downhill with a lot of real estate. A couple times I was able to get in there and score. I’m coming from so far, the help has to come all the way over early and I can see where the play is.”

“A lot of times, I’m coming downhill from half court, I can see the guy pulling all the way over from the corner, so I can see where the play is. But just really to give myself space. If they’re gonna play that way, I can use my speed against the bigs, try to turn the corner, but also take those guys out of the paint.”

So much of the Bulls defensive system relies on the guards get over screens swiftly enough that their bigs don’t have to sell out to contain. If the big gets out of position, the weak side corner defender needs to slide to the help line to protect the rim and they go into rotation from there.

In this case, Lillard was able to get around the big and turn the corner before the guard could recover, giving himself an open runway to the hoop for a layup or a dump off pass.

“On the back side of that, you’re vulnerable at the basket right because you’re out so high trying to get the ball out of his hands,” Donovan explained.

But over the course of the fourth quarter, the Bulls tightened the screws enough to outlast Portland.

“I give Vooch and Drum a lot of credit. That’s hard to be a center. You’re trying trap and they’re bringing you up there and you’ve got to try to contain him in the middle of the floor.”

The Bulls defense is more suspect than the numbers would indicate. Especially when things start to go wrong.

But give them credit, they threw the everything and the kitchen sink at Lillard and found a way to get the stops they needed.

Up Next: Bulls are back home Monday to face the Spurs, before heading to Memphis on Tuesday, with a chance to capture their first four-game win streak and get back to .500 before Thursday’s trade deadline

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