These Bulls are dominating winning time

Another big fourth quarter performance sealed the deal against the Celtics

One of the biggest problems that plagued last year’s Bulls team was the inability to hold onto late leads. But if this new team has shown us anything, it is that they are not like any of this franchise’s recent teams. 

Winning time, that period in the last five minutes of close games, has morphed from one of the team’s biggest weaknesses into one of its biggest strengths. It’s still early and the sample is very small, but they have been dominant on both ends of the court. 

In fourth quarters, the Bulls have essentially morphed into Larry Bird, Steve Nash, and Steph Curry-level efficiency. They’re shooting 51 percent from the field, 46 percent from 3, and 90 percent from the free throw line as a team. They’re also holding opponents to the seventh-lowest scoring mark in the league defensively. 

Things really ramp up in crunch time, which the NBA defines as the last five minutes of a game with a five-point margin. The Bulls have a +70.0 net rating in an admittedly tiny sample. This comes though a year after having a -7.4 net rating and blowing a ton of close games down the stretch. Last year’s team easily could have been 2-5 at this same point. Instead, the Bulls are atop the league with their 6-1 record. 

The formula for winning these games has been pretty simple. As good as Zach LaVine has been offensively, he has had a penchant in years past for trying to do too much and turning the ball over late in games. Instead, they have lessened LaVine’s load a bit and given it mostly to the extremely reliable DeMar DeRozan. 

Clutch shot distribution for the Bulls

DeRozan was already a very good clutch player for the Spurs. With the threat of LaVine, he’s been even better. He almost single-handedly won them a game in which the rest of the team was collapsing against the Toronto Raptors with a series of midrange shots. He followed that up with 10 points on a perfect 3-of-3 shooting from the field and 3-of-4 at the line in the last six minutes of the Bulls’ comeback victory against the Boston Celtics on Monday. Via ESPN, it was the first time in the shot clock era where a team went from up 14 to losing by 14.

The other end of this clutch time formula has been Alex Caruso. He has been a monster as a one-on-one defender when the games slow down and teams go more isolation-heavy. 

Lonzo Ball has also had some remarkable fourth quarter defensive sequences, guarding both big and small players. The combination of those two guys on the court at the same time has wreaked havoc, particularly when they are on the weak side together providing help defense. 

The down side of teams attacking DeRozan/LaVine and Nikola Vucevic in pick-and-rolls late in games is that unless they get a blow-by, Caruso and Ball are going to be back there lurking and waiting to generate a turnover.

If you’re still not a believer in this team, you should be. Their formula for winning these games down the stretch is sustainable. They have better closing personnel than most other teams, and Billy Donovan is putting them in the positions to succeed. 

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