Bulls' defense looks to rebound, braces for Pacers stars Oladipo, Sabonis

K.C. Johnson
·4 min read

Bulls coach Billy Donovan knows Pacers' stars well originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The challenges don't get any easier for a Bulls' defense which got shredded in the season opener.

Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis lead a Pacers offense and are two players Bulls coach Billy Donovan knows well. Not only did Donovan coach them both for one season in Oklahoma City, but he recruited Oladipo for Florida when Donovan worked in college before the guard chose Indiana.

"It was probably a very poor decision on my part," Donovan cracked. "He played the power forward spot in high school, and I didn't know if he could play that position in college."

Oladipo arrived in Oklahoma City in the Serge Ibaka trade with the Magic in 2016. He averaged 15.9 points in 67 games but then got traded to the Pacers in the Paul George deal. He has made two All-Star appearances since and scored 22 points in the Pacers' season-opening victory over the Knicks.

"What a motor, great energy," Donovan said. "In Orlando a lot of the time the ball was in his hands a lot and then I think coming with us and having Russell (Westbrook) as our point guard and primary ballhandler, there was an adjustment period for him.

"Before he got traded, I spent about three or four days in Miami with him and he had done an unbelievable job with his body. He had lost a lot of weight. He was really focused. I thought he was going to have a really, really good year. And then he obviously exploded that following year in Indiana. I give him a lot of credit because even in high school, he was never really a shooter. He was a slasher and driver, and he's invested a lot of time into becoming a better shooter."

Sabonis appeared in 81 games for Donovan in his rookie season in Oklahoma City but only averaged 5.9 points and 3.6 rebounds. While a solid reserve, he has blossomed since also landing in Indiana in the George trade. His first All-Star appearance came at the United Center in February.

"Just calling it like it is, I think he was in a tough spot. We had Steven Adams, we had Enes Kanter, we had a lot of guys at the center spot," Donovan said. "He was playing the power forward spot and I feel with Domas, where he really can create advantages for himself is at that center spot because he's a really good playmaker, he's a terrific passer, he's physical, he can make a shot. I think the way they're using him in terms of handling and passing is where he was really good.

"We played him at the (power forward) spot as kind of a stretch guy because with Steven and Enes, it was just from a spacing standpoint, we had to move him to the perimeter. He's a capable 3-point shooter and he actually shot it pretty well for us the early part of the season. But I think as these rookies go through the year and players see them over and over, there's a period where familiarity creeps in and guys sort of understand who they are. I think the situation that he's in in Indiana right now and how they're using him has been great for him and him getting to the point of being an All-Star."

Sabonis posted a monster game of 32 points and 13 rebounds against the Knicks.

The players, and the Pacers, pose a tough test as the Bulls try to rebound from a disastrous defensive performance against the Hawks in which they allowed 83 first-half points. Veteran guard Garrett Temple said he is hopeful to make his Bulls debut either Saturday night or Sunday against the Warriors.

"I don’t think we have soft guys here by any means. So it’s a matter of building the right habits. And that starts in practice," Temple said. "A lot of young teams do things in practice but they don’t bring it over to the games. I think that’s what we’re in the transition of doing right now."

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