Bulls find their winning identity while knocking off Utah
The Bulls couldn't pull out a victory on Joakim Noah tribute night. They managed to win one for Toni Kukoc on Saturday at the United Center.
It was an eventful game for the Bulls. By beating Utah 107-99, they knocked off the last unbeaten team in the NBA this season, improved to 5-1 and adjusted to some new faces in the rotation.
According to coach Billy Donovan, the best news about this win was the Bulls learning to play with a specific identity that will be conducive to success. It involves being aggressive, attacking the lane and not settling for outside jumpers.
"This was the most consistent game I thought we played to an identity," Donovan said. "I thought we ran consistently. I thought we played with really good pace. I thought we played downhill, we played at the basket. We got to the free-throw line 30 times.
"This, to me, is from an identity standpoint how we want to play. Not to say we were perfect, but I thought we were trying to establish the way we played."
The Bulls were led by DeMar DeRozan with 32 points and Zach LaVine with 26. Donovan said he thought LaVine still isn't himself, playing for the second time with his injured left thumb taped up.
With Patrick Williams out with a wrist injury, Javonte Green back in the starting lineup at power forward, and the Jazz posing some matchup issues, the Bulls' playing rotation was different from anything seen so far this season.
In the second half, the first three players off the bench were rookie Ayo Dosunmu, backup center Tony Bradley and forward Derrick Jones Jr. Those three combined to score just 10 points, but were a collective plus-54 in the plus-minus column.
Asked about adjusting to new teammates on the floor, DeRozan said, "I don't think it's difficult at all. When you have a great group of guys, it makes going to work easy, stepping on that court easy, everyone comfortable with each other and it shows."
The Bulls went ahead 94-77 midway through the fourth quarter when LaVine finished a lay in off a lob from Lonzo Ball. But Utah chipped away and used a 16-4 run to get within 98-93 with 2:13 left.
DeRozan hit a jumper to end the run, but on the next two possessions, center Nikola Vucevic hit a 3-pointer, then drove and finished a lay in over Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert to make it 105-97 with 53.9 seconds left. Before hitting those 2 baskets, Vucevic had gone 2-for-16 from the field and was visibly frustrated with how the night was going.
"I give Vuc a lot of credit," Donovan said. "He didn't make shots, but he kept his head in the game."
The Jazz played without point guard Mike Conley for the first time this year due to knee injury maintenance. Donovan Mitchell scored 30 points, but most of Utah's other scorers didn't get going until it was too late.
"Even if they would have come back and won the game tonight, I thought we made some steps of creating an identity of how we've got to play," Donovan said. "I think really good teams in this league, they consistently come out and they play to their strengths or how they want to play. We have to play downhill. We have too many ballhandlers and creators."
The Bulls honored Kukoc at halftime for his induction in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. The event wasn't as charged up as Thursday's Joakim Noah tribute, but still a chance to relive the days when Bulls-Jazz was a two-time NBA Finals matchup.