Bulls’ Billy Donovan has raised ‘the standard’ and team is buying in

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Rob Schaefer
·6 min read
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Donovan has raised 'the standard' and Bulls are buying in originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Listen only to his tone, and Billy Donovan's postgame press conferences in his first season as Bulls head coach have been relatively uniform. Win or lose.

And Donovan's message of late has been clear: While the Bulls have come a long way, there's work still to be done to reach their envisioned "standard."

"The one thing for me I think as a coach, you always try to look at a standard that you want to play to. I am by no means disappointed. I think any time you win, you make the corrections the next day, you celebrate the win. These guys have worked really, really hard," Donovan said after a 133-126 overtime victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves Wednesday night. "But I don't think that we play to the level of the standard that we want to play to. And we've got to build those kind of habits to be able to do that on a consistent level."

Indeed, days after Donovan warned of jinxing the Bulls' progress in the turnover department, they committed 21 against the Timberwolves, their first 20-turnover game in over a month. Facing a 7-24 team playing on the second night of a back-to-back, and in its second game under a hurriedly hired head coach, the Bulls squandered a 10-point lead with four minutes to play to allow overtime. Though they stepped on the gas to the tune of a 7-0 run in OT that turned into, again, a victory, it was too close for comfort.

"These guys have put a lot of work in. They've been great to work with. I've enjoyed every day with these guys. They've been great," Donovan said. "But I think part of my disappointment is I see so much more in them, and there can be so much more in them. And I think a lot of times as  coach when you're trying to pull more from your team, you walk off and you sit there and say, 'OK, we can play better and be better than that.'"

That's the balance Donovan deftly walks a daily basis: Empowering and building up his team, while also persistently reminding them that there is more yet to accomplish. Winning habits yet to install.

So the Timberwolves win, which moved the Bulls to 15-16 overall, 5-1 in their last six games and into the sixth seed of the Eastern Conference -- a position they haven't sniffed this late into a season since the start of the rebuild -- meant something. But not everything.

"I'm happy with the win. I'm happy with the way we've fought. I'm happy with the resiliency we've showed," Donovan said. "I'm happy about that. But I still want these guys to strive for more. I don't want to have a team where it's like, 'OK, you know, this is great.' We need to strive to be better.

"I've always felt like at the end of the year, when you throw everything into it, you don't want to have any regrets. And I think for this group, I know that we haven't won a lot and they maybe have made some strides, but I think there's more this team can do and I just feel like I need to keep pushing them and challenging them. 

"And that's not to take away what they've done up to this point in time. But we need to keep being more consistent in terms of playing to an identity. Because I think that's what really good teams do. Regardless of who they're playing against, they play to a certain standard, and that's what you try to build, and that's what I'm trying to do."

That leadership style, combined with Donovan's reputation as a winning culture setter, has elicited full buy-in. Asked if Donovan's never-satisfied coaching philosophy, and assessment that this team hasn't yet reached its potential, resonated, the response of Bulls players was emphatic.

Coby White: I love it, man. Never satisfied. Like I've been saying since day one, he's been challenging us on and on again. I got the sense that it's never going to stop, no mater how good we are. I love it, man. Everybody on the team loves it. He keeps pushing us, he keeps challenging us, each and every day to become a better team. We still have a long way to go as a team, so he's not going to quit until we get to where we want to. I don't get annoyed by any means."

Wendell Carter Jr.: "I definitely appreciate that, especially coming from our coach. It just shows that he cares. He’s been here. He’s been on winning teams. He’s been on playoff teams. And he understands what it really takes to be a playoff team and to actually make a playoff push. I love the fact that he’s doing that. But at the same time, we have to be able to respond to it. When he drops gems or tells us what he expects from us every game, we’ve got to be able to go out and do that. Win, lose or draw, we’ve got to be able to establish that identity so it becomes a habit."

Zach LaVine: "100 percent. We were upset. I think Thad (Young), me and Garrett (Temple) were definitely upset with the way we came out (against the Timberwolves). A little lackluster and we let them get confidence into the game. With a guy with [Karl-Anthony Towns] on their team, it slows the game down. You don’t know what’s going to happen. We turned the ball over. Myself turned the ball over too many times. Just too many careless mistakes and didn’t get in the flow of the offense. In the third quarter, we played a little erratic. Fourth quarter, it got close. I thought we closed it out. But we let them back in the game. It was unfortunate. I’m glad we got the win. You can pat yourself on the back for that. But we can play a lot better."

Carter credited the team for coming out strong in overtime, but bemoaned not playing to their identity for a full 48 minutes. White recounted a meeting of the veterans -- specifically, Thad Young -- in the locker room after the game, rooted in frustration for not closing out the Timberwolves sooner; White, again, was out on the United Center floor after the game getting shots up despite going 9-for-17 from the field because of his 0-for-6 mark from 3.

"Yeah, but you don’t want to play down to what you can be," LaVine said when asked the significance of the team's position in the standings. "We have a lot of potential. We can be a lot better. At the end of the day, we got the win. And we are where we are in the standings. But we can’t let that dictate how we play. We have to live up to how good we can be."

At long last, the Bulls are scratching that potential, and giving reason to believe this stretch of hot play can be built upon.

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