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The Chicago Bulls finally got their first win since the trade deadline, a 115-107 victory over the Brooklyn Nets that snapped a six-game losing streak Sunday afternoon at the United Center.
The Eastern Conference-leading Nets were playing without Kevin Durant and James Harden, but the new-look Bulls looked more comfortable together than they had in any game since the March 25 trade deadline.
Their pair of All-Stars worked in tandem: Nikola Vucevic recorded a double-double in the first half and finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds in one of his best games as a Bull, complementing a game-high 25 points from Zach LaVine. Tomas Satoransky added his best performance of the season with 19 points and 11 assists, both season highs.
And the Bulls put together a strong defensive game — the Nets had been held to 107 points or fewer only once in their previous 10 games — while limiting turnovers (nine) and getting to the free-throw line more frequently (21 of 30) than the Nets (6 of 7).
“I think its natural when you make big changes like we did, players are going to have tendencies to overthink things, make sure everybody fits in, that we don’t step on anybody’s toes,” Vucevic said. “But at the same time, you just have to play your game and be who you are because that’s the reason all of us were brought here.
“We understand it’s going to take time. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
Coming off the trade deadline, the Bulls were thrown right into the fire. They faced a gauntlet of Western Conference playoff teams while integrating a new one-third of their roster with their backcourt in flux. LaVine played through an ankle injury, and a neck injury cost Coby White two games before he missed Sunday’s game while in the NBA’s COVID-19 protocol.
It resulted in a season-worst skid as the team figured out how to play together on the fly while mixing and matching rotations.
“These guys were really pretty mature and experienced in a lot of ways, knowing that it was going to take this group some time to figure things out,” coach Billy Donovan said. “Stylistically, we’ve completely changed the way we played in a week’s period. And that takes time.
“I think these guys have done a good job. They’re very committed to finding out and learning more about each other and getting comfortable playing with each other.”
Donovan has experimented with different lineup combinations, and although he has started to settle on a rotation lately, his roster has shifted dramatically. At the start of the season, Donovan leaned toward smaller lineups, using rookie Patrick Williams at power forward and Thad Young or Lauri Markkanen at center as much as possible.
Now the Bulls have a much bigger roster. Their strength now lies in the frontcourt after adding a pair of 7-footers in Vucevic and Daniel Theis to pair with Young and Markkanen, who has lined up at small forward lately for the first time in his career. It has forced them to play bigger with two 7-footers on the floor frequently. Even their point guard, Satoransky, is listed at 6-foot-7.
“It does change a lot,” Satoransky said. “Our offense was running through Thad in the pocket, cutting off him, playing (dribble handoffs). Zach played a lot on the ball. Now we all have to adjust a little bit. We have an All-Star down there. ... Vooch is a great passer as well, and that can create a lot of offense.
“Sometimes we can play fast like we used to, but we still have to bring it. I still feel that we have an athletic team that we can take advantage of.”
Fortunately for the Bulls, the schedule gets much easier coming up.
Their next three games are against the Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks, all of whom are in the crowd of teams fighting for playoff position in the Eastern Conference, before closing out the week against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The upcoming schedule gives the Bulls (20-28) a chance to make up some of the ground they’ve lost recently, but their losing streak reduced the margin for error.
The Bulls have about a month and a half remaining in the regular season to make things click if they want to secure their first playoff spot since 2017.
“The one thing that I thought was good about the schedule to start with was we played against really good teams,” Donovan said before the game. “We’re playing against all these teams that are currently in the playoffs, and you find out more about the things you have to do as a team to get better, to really improve.”