Chicago Bulls get a needed win before a crucial 6-game road gauntlet: ‘You need to be a desperate team’

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			Chicago Bulls get a needed win before a crucial 6-game road gauntlet: ‘You need to be a desperate team’
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The Chicago Bulls needed a win.

There were too many reasons they couldn’t afford a loss to the Boston Celtics on Monday night — including a four-game skid punctuated by a gut-punch, last-minute loss to the Orlando Magic on Friday and the impending challenge of a six-game trip against mostly winning teams.

A 121-107 win over the Celtics at the United Center delivered everything the Bulls needed. A confidence boost for third-year starter Patrick Williams, who scored a season-high 17 points as he confidently took on elite defenders one-on-one. Reassurance for guard Zach LaVine, who scored 22 points and dropped three fourth-quarter 3-pointers after being benched for the final minutes of the loss to the Magic. A reminder that DeMar DeRozan — who went 3-for-3 behind the arc and scored a team-high 28 points — can command a game against the best in the East.

Most importantly, the win reset the team’s momentum ahead of the most challenging gauntlet of the season so far.

“These guys are competitive guys. They’re prideful and they work hard and they want to win,” coach Billy Donovan said. “Tonight we were better. There’s still things we can get better at, but I thought tonight we had a next-play mentality.”

After Monday’s much-needed win, the Bulls face a turning point. That might feel melodramatic — after all, it’s only one month into the season. More than 60 games remain, which could feel like plenty of time to turn around a 7-10 record.

But the six-game trip kicks off one of the toughest stretches of the season. The Bulls are marginally better at home than on the road this season (5-5 at the United Center, 2-5 in enemy territory).

Regardless of location, the next three weeks will be a challenge with seven of nine opponents currently above .500. And one of the two outliers is the Golden State Warriors, the reigning NBA champions who still can turn any team on its head.

The four-game skid quickly sank the Bulls into the bottom third of the Eastern Conference. If they can’t begin to produce solutions over the next three weeks, they could sink even further into an early slump that might be impossible to shake.

“There’s a sense of urgency when you lose a game,” LaVine said. “We all have that sense of urgency, individually and collectively as a team. You need to have that. You need to be a desperate team when you go out and play and get those wins.

“The games aren’t going to stop. You’re going to have to continue to play these high-level teams. We need to get it going.”

LaVine’s benching in the final minutes of Friday’s loss to the Magic highlighted the delicate balance the Bulls must strike to hold their big three — LaVine, DeRozan and Nikola Vučević — to a higher standard necessary to start winning again.

Donovan made it clear the trio isn’t doing enough, particularly in the first quarter. All three are scoring at a lower rate than last season (a combined 61.7 points per game entering Monday, down from 69.9), and only DeRozan is shooting at a higher percentage as LaVine struggles to regain his athleticism after offseason knee surgery.

But Donovan said the trio’s burden of leading a turnaround in the next three weeks falls more heavily off the ball, where he has criticized their defensive effort — also particularly in the opening quarter.

“When shots get divvied up at the end of the year, my guess would be that Zach, DeMar and Vooch are going to take more shots than anybody on our team,” Donovan said. “It’s not going to necessarily be democratic offensively. Generally, those guys are going to have more shots than anybody else.

“But we can’t be any good (if) that takes away the responsibility of those guys having to run back in transition or guard in the pick-and-roll. Everybody has an equal share in that.”

It’s clear the Bulls can’t win on the shoulders of their stars alone. Donovan entered the season insisting the team’s adjusted offense would put less emphasis on “hero ball” and spread the ball more. Yet one month into the season, the Bulls offense ranks in the bottom third of the league, often forcing DeRozan to attempt a late-game bailout that falls just short.

As the Bulls head into the upcoming gauntlet of road games, the challenge is clear — figure out how to make this new offense work or face a long road back to .500.

“We’re trying to find it,” LaVine said. “When we’re down in games or we’re trying to come from behind, we’re fighting for our lives and that’s when we look good. We’re aggressive on both ends, we’re taking the shots we need, we’re getting stops.

‘It’s frustrating trying to catch that rhythm. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

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