Bulls' record disparity vs. elite, lesser teams a confounding trend

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Bulls must keep same energy vs. elite, lesser opponents originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

DeMar DeRozan isn’t just a master of the midrange. He’s an assassin of the analogy.

Some of them may be tortured at times. But they’re typically entertaining and appreciated by a media corps that has heard its share of cliched answers.

Asked about the Chicago Bulls’ ability this season to play well against the league’s better teams, DeRozan smiled

“It’s kind of like when you’re running fast, you run faster when a dog starts chasing you, right?” he said. “It’s kind of like that type of feeling, if that makes sense.”

That does make sense. The Bulls, however, do not.

How else to explain a 7-1 record against the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat and a 4-8 mark against currently sub-.500 teams? How else to explain flipping last season’s script of struggling against playoff teams but laying an egg at home against the Houston Rockets earlier this week?

It’s maddening, really.

“That’s the disappointing part to me,” coach Billy Donovan said of the Bulls’ inconsistent compete levels. “We gotta be the same group every night.”

And Donovan said this after Wednesday night’s stirring, come-from-behind, overtime victory over the Bucks, a game in which DeRozan was masterful and the Bulls never quit.

Where is that effort when the Rockets are jumping to a 23-5 lead?

“I guess the best bring the best out of you. Now we gotta translate that over and carry that within us and play like that every single night and not worry about ‘we’re playing a good team or we’re playing a not-so-good team and we’re just going to run over them,’” DeRozan said. “We have play with a sense of urgency every single night.”

The Bulls have said such things before. Nearing the season’s midpoint is the time for action, not words.

In other words, take care of business on Friday night at home against the Detroit Pistons, who are last in the Eastern Conference.

“We talked a lot going into training camp about playing against the best teams. I think we’ve competed well against those teams,” Donovan said. “But some of these other games, I think that we haven’t performed and competed and played at the level we have against some of the (playoff) teams.

“It’s good to see us compete. We’ve gotta play like that all the time. We just do. We all have to hold each other to that standard.”

It’s well documented how badly the Bulls struggled against the top-four from both conferences last season. They went 1-13 against the East’s top-four, which included complete domination by these same Bucks.

So the fact the Bulls are 2-0 against the Bucks, who obviously played without Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, means at least a little something. Even if it’s simply a mental benefit.

The up-and-down nature to this season also could lend credence to Donovan’s theory that the Bulls are experiencing early-season adversity that could harden them for the stretch run. In Donovan’s view, the Bulls coasted to such early-season dominance in 2021-22 that when injuries hit and losing followed, matters cratered.

Perhaps this season, that script, like the Bulls’ fortunes against playoff teams, could flip. That is, if they ever compete consistently enough to have a stretch run.

“We gotta play the way we’re supposed to consistently. Same mindset each game,” Zach LaVine said. “The record against the better teams shows what we can do. And our record against teams under .500 shows it too. If we come with the same mentality every game, I think we’ll be alright.”

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