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Short-handed Bulls win second straight thanks to an unlikely hero

Second-year big man Daniel Gafford was barely hanging on to a rotation spot, but when four Bulls entered the NBA’s health and safety protocol on Thursday, he got the nod off the bench and did some damage in the win over the Wizards.

Daniel Gafford played 22 minutes and scored 15 points in the Bulls’ win over the Wizards.
Daniel Gafford played 22 minutes and scored 15 points in the Bulls’ win over the Wizards.
AP

The message from coach Billy Donovan shouldn’t have snuck up on any player.

He delivered it on Day 1 of the shortened training camp and reiterated it ad nauseam.

“Be ready.’’

Not a starter? Doesn’t matter. “Be ready.’’

Eleventh man on the bench? Get the work in and “be ready.’’

Seldom-used Cristiano Felicio? Yep, as crazy as it sounds, “be ready.’’

“I think this is something I’ve been talking about for a while, that you gotta stay flexible and different things can happen, and you gotta be able to handle that,’’ Donovan said Thursday.

“Different things’’ definitely happened before the visiting Bulls’ 133-130 victory against the Wizards.

Donovan couldn’t go into details, but four of his players — starting forward Lauri Markkanen and reserves Tomas Satoransky, Chandler Hutchison and Ryan Arcidiacono — were put in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.

The coronavirus had affected the rotation in the preseason after Garrett Temple tested positive, then several players had to go into the protocol because of contact tracing from Noah Vonleh. This time, however, it was much more significant because of the number of players, as well as it happening in the regular season.

So Donovan was left scrambling for new-look rotations just a few hours before the second consecutive game in Washington against the Wizards, and the first-year Bulls coach might have found a new toy to play with.

Otto Porter Jr. was huge in both games against his former team. All the veteran forward did in place of Markkanen was score 28 points in 31 minutes, including going 5-for-9 from three-point range.

But it was Daniel Gafford who opened some eyes, going from fringe rotation guy to playing 22 minutes, scoring 15 points and finishing plus-23.

“I thought as the game started, Wendell [Carter Jr.] got off to a slow start, and we threw Gafford in there,’’ Donovan said. “We knew we were going to have to play Gafford, just based on Lauri being out, and I give Gafford credit. I really appreciate him keeping himself ready and being professional as a young player. But he was really good. We tried to put him in situations where he could be comfortable.

“But I thought he was a presence defensively at the rim, and I thought he was a presence offensively on finishes.’’

Not that the Bulls’ escape was easy. With the Bulls holding on to a one-point lead with 14.4 seconds left, Bradley Beal appeared ready to change that as he had a clear path to the rim. The guard lost the ball on his way up, however, with Porter grabbing the rebound and making both free throws with 14.2 seconds left.

Davis Bertans missed a 28-footer to tie it with eight seconds left, and when Russell Westbrook grabbed the rebound, the Bulls (2-3) fouled him to send the All-Star to the line rather than allow the Wizards (0-5) to get another look from three.

Westbrook made both, and Zach LaVine all but iced the game, hitting both of his free throws to give the Bulls a second straight win, short-handed and all.

So now what, as the Bulls play in Milwaukee on Friday? The great unknown. The only information Donovan had was the four players would not travel with the team.

“All I’ll say is these guys are not traveling to Milwaukee with us,’’ Donovan said. “They will not be on the plane. Beyond that, I can’t really say anything, but I can let you know that they will not be playing in Milwaukee [on Friday].’’