Notes from Bulls-Knicks Redux

The Bulls use the same formula with the same result

Eleven days ago when Nikola Vucevic was still healthy, I declared that the Bulls were indeed for real and probably closer to a 60-win team than a 40-win team. Since then, they’ve lost Vucevic, played a brutal six games including five straight on the road, and somehow looked even more convincingly like a great team than before.

In beating the Knicks 109-103 on Sunday, the Bulls proved yet again that they are a sleeping giant in the Eastern Conference. I’m going to take it a step further. They have a puncher’s chance of being a Conference Finals team.

The Bulls used the same formula that they have hung their hat on all season — Defense from Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball, plus closing offense from DeMar DeRozan.

At this point, I’m convinced that Caruso and Ball together could guard anyone in the league. Caruso has dominated matchups against opponents both big and small. In the last few weeks alone, he’s contained Paul George, tortured Will Barton and Monte Morris, held his own against Kristaps Porzingis, and completely shut down James Harden in the fourth quarter.

Monday’s victim was Julius Randle, who torched all other Bulls defenders for 34 points on 13-of-19 shooting. Caruso did foul out, but only two of those Randle makes came against him. For the most part, he was stymying Randle and doing his typical thing of ruining plays that coaches draw up against him.

A lot of the credit for that containment goes to Billy Donovan, who changed his double-team scheme on Randle since the last time these teams played. Ball was the other part of the equation. He didn’t do as well on Randle one-on-one. But he was a great helper all night, particularly when Caruso was drawing Randle duties.

The other half of this equation has been DeRozan all year long. He’s been the Chris Paul to LaVine’s Devin Booker. We saw a bunch of the same screening actions for them that I’ve detailed before.

LaVine obviously has a ton of confidence in DeRozan, to the point where LaVine was directing sidelines out-of-bounds plays for him on Sunday.

*Note: On further rewatch, I’m pretty sure LaVine is saying Go get 'em, T (Tony Bradley) to direct the initial ballscreen in the Spain pick-and-roll screen. This is why twitter needs an edit button.

DeRozan was asked about the team’s fourth quarter success (they’re no. 4 in fourth quarter net rating and no. 8 in the clutch) in a good line of postgame questioning by KC Johnson. He modestly deflected a lot of the credit to teammates, but the real truth of the matter is that he is creating everything for this team in high-pressure situations.

The Bulls spend a ton of time matchup-hunting for DeRozan. He’s basically Terminator out there, hunting guys he can score on and getting them to switch onto him via ballscreens.

Down two, the Bulls were in real danger of losing this game until the start of the fourth quarter. That’s when DeRozan scored, assisted, or created an advantage that led to every single Bulls bucket for six minutes (see the note at the bottom for the full game log with video). That two-point deficit morphed into a five point lead when DeRozan finally got a breather, and the team put up an astounding 210.0 offensive rating (!!!) during that span. That’s where this game was won.

This was another great victory from the Bulls in what was supposed to be a trap game, being the first home game back from a long road trip. Not even an ugly incident involving Cuppy Coffee and Dashing Donut could mar this Bulls victory.

Note: Here’s the DeRozan game log from the first six minutes of the fourth quarter. It was too wordy to put in the main story.

DeRozan set up Coby White for a 3, created an advantage out of a blitzing Knicks defense to allow a cascade of passes for a Derrick Jones Jr. 3, passed to Jones again out of a double team for an easy dunk, hockey assisted another White corner 3 out of a double. hit a pullup 2, collapsed the defense to set up a wide open Ball 3, collapsed them again for a hockey assist to a White corner 3, got fouled and hit two free throws, and finally got subbed out for a little breather.

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