The first game of the Chicago Bulls preseason did not end as they would have liked, falling 129-125 at home to the New Orleans Pelicans. It is important to remember the context of the game but even Billy Donovan was critical of the team’s defensive efforts in this one. It was a stark reminder of how far they are from their fully-healthy form.
That version of the Bulls – which disrupted opposing offenses at the point of attack – was built in part around Lonzo Ball.
But he is expected to be out until at least the New Year meaning the Bulls need a new identity.
Their identity will likely be built around the offense led by the trio of DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, and Nikola Vucevic. Both DeRozan and Vucevic saw over 20 minutes of action in the opener but LaVine says he was intent on doing the opposite.
LaVine Protecting Himself
The two-time All-Star LaVine saw just over 17 minutes of action in the preseason opener. He finished with 10 points on 50% shooting (2-of-4 3P) and three rebounds. He also had four turnovers to zero assists and was a minus-9, the worst mark among the Bulls’ starters.
His statistical performance aside, LaVine spoke to reporters after the game and revealed why he did not step foot on the floor in the second half.
“I just want to work my way into it, obviously coming off the knee. I’ve been feeling really good and don’t want to put any extra stress on there when I don’t need to. Felt good to get up and down. I feel fine. Want to keep it that way.” (h/t K.C. Johnson/NBC Sports Chicago)
LaVine — who signed a five-year, $215 million max contract this offseason — appeared in 67 games last season. 29 of them came as he battled through a knee injury that required an arthroscopic clean-up this summer.
Before that, he dealt with torn ligaments in his thumb. He was still among the elite statistically averaging 24 points, 4.0 assists, and 4.0 rebounds while shooting 38.9% on threes.
But he was even better before those injuries – a point DeRozan was sure to make note of.
“It can be very exciting and scary for other people, DeRozan said. “A lot of my load last year was Zach being out. We always talked about making things easier on one another. Being so up and down and not having each other made it tough on both of us. Having a healthy Zach and healthy me makes our job and everybody’s else job around us a lot easier.”
Familiar Issues for LaVine, Bulls
LaVine’s turnovers have been an issue in the past and were amplified in this game by his modest stat line and limited minutes. An argument can be made that he would have neared double-digit giveaways against the Pelicans. That is far too many and was just one troubling sign from this team that has preached improvement through continuity this offseason.
The Bulls struggled from beyond the arc connecting on just 9-of-27 on the night, including 4-of-15 in the first half.
Meanwhile, also in the first half, New Orleans went 8-of-17 and dropped 70 points.
It was just the first preseason game, so keeping things in perspective is important. But this team is out to prove, not just to the NBA world at large, but also to themselves that they are the team that began last season than the one that ended it with a gentleman’s sweep in the playoffs.
Up Next For Bulls
The Bulls face off against the Denver Nuggets and reigning MVP Nikola Jokic on October 7 at the United Center. He won’t play as he nurses a wrist injury, but Jokic would have been a good test for the defense’s discipline with his masterful passing.
Denver does have Jamal Murray, a premier (if not streaky) scorer back after two years of injuries.
LaVine is right that there is no need for panic right now. It’s the preseason. But, despite his assertion, this is already a pattern that needs to be addressed if the Bulls want success in 2022.