Down 17, Bulls figure out defense, rally for win vs. Portland
The Bulls found themselves in an unusual spot Saturday, where they could potentially do themselves a favor by losing.
That's because the Bulls own Portland's first-round draft pick from the Lauri Markkanen three-way sign-and-trade.
But it's top-14 protected, which means the Bulls only get it this year if the Blazers make the playoffs.
Heading into Saturday's action, they were tied for 10th in the West.
At the same time, Portland had won five of its last six games and all-star guard Damian Lillard has been on a tear, averaging 40 points in those six contests.
Lillard finished with 40 points Saturday at the United Center, but collected just 12 of those in the second half as the Bulls got their defense figured out and rallied from a 17-point deficit to win 129-121.
"When we got down, I think we were in a mindset where we were trying to solve problems," Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. "To me it was a positive step, because I think at times when we get into some of those runs that other teams go on, we can kind of get a little bit fragmented, or our offense can affect our defense. I thought the guys worked to try to really stay together and solve problems."
Zach LaVine had a nice hot streak of his own and led the Bulls with 36 points, while hitting 5 of 10 three-pointers. DeMar DeRozan added 27 points and 7 assists, while Nikola Vucevic finished with 23 points and 11 boards.
The Bulls (25-27) shot 60% from the field and dished out 32 assists, which was a sign the offense was locked in.
"I think (LaVine) read the game really well and took what was there," Donovan said. "To me he's so hard to guard when he's that decisive and that aggressive."
The Bulls got off to a decent start, then watched Portland pile up 43 points in the second quarter. But they turned things around completely, allowing just 17 in the third.
What may have saved the Bulls was Portland played Friday in Washington, while the Bulls had a day off. The Blazers ran out of gas after opening a 17-point lead with 6:38 left in the third.
Maybe the biggest difference was the Bulls turning around their free-throw deficit. They were outscored at the foul line 15-2 in the first half, then finished the game with a 21-19 advantage.
LaVine, Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White combined for 9 fouls in the first half, then didn't get any in the second half. Dosunmu's court time was limited by 3 fouls before halftime, but he came back to go 3-for-3 from 3-point range in the third quarter, and he never gave in while guarding Lillard.
Late in the game, the Blazers created a turnover while trailing by 6 and the Bulls were scrambling with their transition defense, but Dosunmu found Lillard and locked on, not letting the Blazers star touch the ball on what ended up being an empty possession.
"I think it's just growth of being in the NBA," said Dosunmu, who finished with 13 points. "You're going against a great offensive talent like Dame, at times he can run off and get hot. One thing I learned is it's not about them running off, it's staying with it and staying consistent and keep coming, no matter how many times they score.
"You've got to stay in the game. I picked up my third foul, I know me getting into myself would not help the team, so I wanted to just put it behind me and try to slow him down as much as I can."
This obviously wasn't a great night for the Bulls to be missing Alex Caruso, their best defensive player. Donovan gave an update on Caruso's foot injury, which happened early against Charlotte on Thursday.
"Just a foot sprain. He's had that happen before," Donovan said. "He really felt substantially better the next morning, but there really hasn't been a lot of change (since then). Still having some discomfort. ... I'm not quite sure when we'd have him available again."
The NBA trade deadline is looming next Thursday. There was a report the Bulls are among the teams interested in trading for Brooklyn's Kyrie Irving, but that seems extremely far-fetched. The Bulls have put a premium on gathering nice guys who won't cause problems in the locker room.