Observations: Bulls ride reserves, late-game surge to second straight win

Rob Schaefer
·6 min read

Observations: Bench, ball movement key Bulls' 2nd straight win originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Bulls capped a two-game road series against the Washington Wizards with a short-handed 133-130 win, moving their record to 2-3. Here’s what stood out:

Some breakneck bench play

Just under 90 minutes before tip-off, Billy Donovan reported Lauri Markkanen, Tomáš Satoranský, Chandler Hutchison and Ryan Arcidiacono to be late scratches for the game, and entrants into the NBA’s health and safety protocols. 

That left the Bulls coach without a starter finding his groove and three reserves Donovan had displayed trust in throughout pre- and regular-season play. In Markkanen’s place, Otto Porter Jr., who’s been a boon for the bench, ran with the starters.

And still, the Bulls reserves showed out. Daniel Gafford, Thad Young, Garrett Temple and Denzel Valentine combined for 41 points.

Leading the way was the infectiously-energetic Gafford. He finished the evening with 15 points (7-for-8 from field), five rebounds (three offensive), two assists, two steals, a block, a handful of his typically thunderous dunks and multiple active-handed defensive plays.

"I really appreciate him keeping himself ready, being professional as a young player," Donovan said. "I thought he was a presence defensively at the rim, and I thought he was a presence offensively on finishes."

In one salient stretch, Gafford subbed in for Wendell Carter Jr. with six-and-a-half minutes to play in the second quarter and the Wizards on the heels of a 10-0 run that featured four Bulls turnovers. Gafford threw home a rim-rattling jam off a feed from Garrett Temple that sparked a 7-0 Bulls run to tie the game at 56. They entered the halftime break ahead 71-68, with Gafford closing the quarter.

“We take a lot of pride," Gafford said of the bench. "We stay locked in. We stay ready. When it comes to us stepping up to the plate and being able to play like we did tonight, it’s a real big thing for the team."

In his season debut, Young notably posted 15 points and six assists, and closed the game alongside Coby White, LaVine, Temple and Porter. It was a stay-ready type of night.

"The crazy part is I’ve only played 5-on-5, like, one time in the past month," Young said. "So I was actually shocked myself that my rhythm and timing was still there."

Otto-matic

On that topic, Porter, in an oscillated role, continued to deliver for the Bulls. In 31 minutes, he led the Bulls with 28 points, many of them timely -- including the two free throws that made it a three-point game late.

Embedded in that line: 5-for-9 3-point shooting. Alongside it: 12 rebounds, three assists and two steals.

"I think with my process the last couple of years, being hurt and having to work my way back, it just shows that hard work really does pay off," Porter said.

All in all, it's his fifth consecutive double-digit scoring output to open a critical season for him. As a veteran being asked to adapt his role with the passing breeze, he's been a breath of fresh air so far. 

Certified shootout

These teams entered the evening first (Bulls) and third (Wizards) in PACE, and looked the part. This was a high-octane affair.

The Wizards stormed out of the gate to a 41-point first quarter -- the third 40-plus point quarter the Bulls have allowed this season -- on 68.4% shooting and 6-for-8 from 3. The Bulls, though, kept pace, notching 35 points of their own with 6-for-10 3-point shooting. They assisted on 11 of 14 made field goals overall, that assist mark a season high for a quarter (which they'd go on to match in the second).

And the bucket-getting hardly slowed from there. The Bulls entered the halftime break with a 71-68 lead. They broke the century mark with 1:46 remaining in the third period. The final tally speaks for itself.

Obviously, that doesn't add up to a satisfactory defensive performance. The Wizards nearly broke 50 percent from the field and 3-point range and attempted 39 free throws. They had three players break 22 points, including another triple-double from Russell Westbrook and a 10-for-11 explosion from Thomas Bryant.

But...

So close, yet so far away

The Bulls' ball movement was sublime. For the second game in a row, they had three players break the six-assist mark -- this time, Coby White, Zach LaVine and Thad Young. White's 16 points and 10 assists marked his first career double-double.

And they very nearly broke ex-head coach Jim Boylen's coveted, 35-assist watermark. Alas, they finished with 34 dimes on 50 made baskets. And had seven players in double figures for the second consecutive game.

"I thought our ball movement was really good, I thought we generated really good looks," Donovan said. "The turnovers (they had 17), at times I think were a little bit too much... But I felt like they got a little bit more comfortable offensively and things were doing, which was good."

Sure, it was against a leaky Wizards defense. But after the way the Bulls' first three games played out, they'll take it.

Buoyant Bulls

Responsiveness to adversity has been a common talking point around Billy Donovan Zooms early in this season. The Bulls took a step in the right direction on that front in this one.

First, consider the second-quarter example from the Gafford blurb above. Then, the 10-2 run that the Wizards opened the second half with, to which the Bulls responded by outscoring the hosts 34-22 over the final nine minutes of the quarter.

More jabs to the chin came in the fourth, as the Wizards heated up from 3 and got to the foul line routinely. The final minutes of this one featured lead changes aplenty, with the Bulls trailing by five with four minutes to play. And, again, they were without four players, including a starter in Markkanen who was playing well.

But the night ended in victory.

"I thought it was some growth," Donovan said. "I thought we fought a lot better tonight in the midst of a lot of runs and momentum changing and shifting and having to kind of regroup and refocus. And, you know we made some plays coming down the stretch which was great to see."

LaVine had timely buckets (10 fourth-quarter points in all); in fact, he, White and Porter combined to ice the contest with free throws. And the Bulls backcourt, oft-criticized for their defensive shortcomings, made strong contests on back-to-back Westbrook and Beal layup attempts in the closing seconds.

"Obviously we all know how Westbrook is, aggressive and one of the all time greats," said LaVine, who blocked a layup attempt by the Wizards guard with the Bulls up one and 44 seconds to play. "You have to step up to the plate. It’s just competition."

All things considered, an evening to feel good about. This team was 3-18 following wins in the 2019-20 season. Make it 1-0 for 2020-21 for the time being.

"It’s a step in the right direction," Young said. "Guys stepped in and guys played well. Two in a row is a huge for us. We want to keep this thing rolling."

Next up: In Milwaukee to face the Bucks on New Year's Day.

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