The Road Dawg Bulls
Notes from a 94-88 win over the Detroit Pistons in the season opener
Like everyone had been predicting, the Bulls won a gritty season opener thanks to some superb defense that carried a subpar offense.
In reality, it was a bizarro world win that nobody was expecting. Layups and 3’s weren’t falling but midrangers were automatic. This was supposed to be a different Bulls team, but the road dawg mentality was reminiscent of a former coach that was trending on twitter earlier in the day.
USA across the chest!
I wouldn’t say it was a pretty game, but there were some things both good and concerning to take away from it. Let’s start with the good stuff first.
I don’t care who you’re playing, holding a team to 88 points in today’s game is impressive. The Bulls managed that feat exactly once last season, in Detroit. Bet the under in the next road matchup.
I liked that the Bulls were willing to mix things up scheme-wise. Last season, they were way too dependent on one style of play. They were the most drop-heavy team in the league. With a more veteran team, Donovan looks like he’s going to be more flexible in rolling out multiple coverages every night.
The Bulls blitzed one pick-and-roll to throw the Pistons off-guard, bringing Nikola Vucevic all the way up to the ballhandler (click any of the links in this story to see the video of the described play). The Pistons turned the ball over, luckily failing to take advantage of one of Zach LaVine’s miscues of the night in leaving one of his assignments wide open underneath the basket. That’s the best way to use a blitz, sprinkled in as a change-up to catch teams off-guard.
DeMar DeRozan was as bad as expected defensively. LaVine surprisingly fell back to some old bad habits, missing a handful of rotations as a help defender. To his credit, he did have some very nice on-ball plays and Donovan, who is about a million times smarter than me, praised his off-ball defense post-game so he saw something that I didn’t.
Comfortingly, the Bulls were able to overcome those subpar performances and still dominate defensively thanks mostly to Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball.
Caruso was all over the place, recording four steals and two blocks. He was directing the defense as usual, even giving a little nudge to LaVine when he anticipated what was going to happen and saw LaVine drifting out of position as a help defender.
Caruso was also guarding a much bigger player in Jerami Grant to close the game in place of Patrick Williams, with mixed results. Donovan had a ton of success with three-guard lineups in Oklahoma City. It looks like he wants to roll with another one in Chicago with Caruso-LaVine-Ball in tight games.
Ball was solid defensively despite not putting up gaudy block and steal totals like Caruso. The Bulls use him as a kind of swiss army knife. They won’t switch every screen, but they do so a lot more willingly with Ball because they’re comfortable having him guard different positions including centers like Kelly Olynyk. He’s tough down there and held up well.
The offense was the bigger storyline. For a team that most were expecting to finish in the top 10, it wasn’t a great performance. How much should we be worrying?
The one area where I take comfort is that the Bulls were still able to get easy scores in transition when they couldn’t buy a shot. Even off makes or when the Pistons had all five guys back, DeRozan and LaVine were taking it to them. That will be there every night if they make an effort to go get it.
The Bulls also showed some nice stuff when the Pistons mixed it up and started to send two defenders at LaVine in the second half. That has been a huge problem throughout the years and especially in close games. LaVine’s teammates made some nice plays behind him when he gave up the ball.
If the Bulls are able to do that consistently, then they will cook because he proved again in an awesome 34-point offensive performance that you’re not stopping him from scoring unless you bring the house. He really deserves more words for how much he carried the team in this win, but 34 points is becoming just another normal game for him these days which speaks to how high of a level he’s achieved.
The Bulls have a nice diversified playbook. They incorporate seemingly-new sets every time I watch. Here was some wedge roll, which I hadn’t seen a ton of during the preseason. It is popular throughout the league and got them into great matchups.
The problem with the offense wasn’t the sets, it was the execution from everyone outside of LaVine. You could tell that these guys are a totally new team. Players didn’t seem to be on the same page.
It was particularly disconcerting in the crunch time offense. The Bulls were just 2-of-8 with three turnovers in the last five minutes of the game. Thankfully, the Pistons were 2-of-12 in that same stretch, but that isn’t going to cut it against the better teams in the league. On one late possession, Vucevic burned 11 seconds throwing his hands up in confusion at what the team was running before they settled on a heavily contested DeRozan long 2 that missed.
This stuff will get cleaned up as the team gets more acclimated with each other. The have very little continuity, so it was probably too optimistic to think that they would be roaring out of the gate.
What does worry me is that the team was forcing up a lot of contested 3-point looks. There is a ton of variance in 3-point shooting and percentages shouldn’t be counted on too much, but the Bulls shot just 7-of-23 from beyond the arc and a lot of those were heavily contested misses.
Another worry was the low free throw attempts. Some of that was maybe due to a bad road whistle, but DeRozan was supposed to solve the free throw woes and he only got to the line twice. The Bulls as a team shot only 15 free throws, worse than their league-low average of 17.5 last season.
It’s way too early to count on these things as season-long trends. It might have just been one-off opening night jitters that will go away naturally. But I’m here to recap what happened in this particular game, and these were the problem areas for one night. It’s something to keep an eye on as the Bulls try to clean stuff up for their next matchup on Friday against the New Orleans Pelicans.
As they say though, a win is a win. Soak it in and enjoy it like another former Bulls head coach did after winning his team’s opener.
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