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Bulls veteran DeMar DeRozan has emerged as key late-game facilitator

With Nikola Vucevic in the health and safety protocols, coach Billy Donovan turned to DeRozan as the decision-maker late in games. One glance at DeRozan’s last season with the Spurs shows exactly how well-versed he is as a playmaker.

Forward DeMar DeRozan’s 6.9 assists per game last season didn’t happen by accident.

No, his third season with the Spurs showed the rest of the NBA what DeRozan already knew: that his talents as a playmaker and facilitator were somewhat wasted with the Raptors.

The Bulls have been making sure not to repeat history.

With center Nikola Vucevic sidelined on the Bulls’ just-concluded five-game road trip after a positive COVID-19 test, that meant coach Billy Donovan had to get creative with his offense, especially late in games.

Vucevic has struggled with his shot this season, but he’s well-versed in the art of playmaking, whether it’s dribble-handoffs, pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop. Donovan calls it playing with gravity, which means defenders are pulled in the direction of the danger, and Vucevic is still dangerous from outside if left alone.

Without Vucevic, however, that option was off the table. Never fear, though, because DeRozan was there.

‘‘They’ve gotta pick either me or him,’’ guard Zach LaVine said after the Bulls’ victory Friday against the Nuggets in Denver. ‘‘One of us is gonna get a good look or create a play for somebody.’’

LaVine got a lot of the looks in the first half of the fourth quarter. In the last five minutes, however, it was DeRozan who often had the ball in his hands and played decision-maker.

It’s not that LaVine can’t handle that — he has shown he can — but DeRozan is better at it. He makes smarter decisions and turns the ball over less in crucial moments, and his mid-range game is a headache for any defense because he can get shots in or out of the paint and can draw fouls.

Throw help at him, like the Nuggets did several times, and he can find open teammates, like he did LaVine for a three-pointer.

It was Basketball 101, and DeRozan was the professor.

‘‘We know Zach and DeMar, they have their chance to break out,’’ teammate Derrick Jones Jr. said when asked about the two. ‘‘And once they get going, it’s real hard to stop them. I was on that other end last year and years prior. But now I’m with them. It’s different being able to be on the same team as them.’’

And don’t expect things to change as long as Vucevic is out, either. The strategy generated open looks in the last four games of the trip, especially in victories against the Clippers, Lakers and Nuggets, and the loss to the Trail Blazers was the result of a second-half meltdown. It was just a bad night at the office for LaVine and DeRozan, and that won’t happen often.

As for the game against the Warriors, you can throw it out the window. The Warriors have the top defense in the league for a reason. They were blitzing and double-teaming LaVine and DeRozan all night and have the personnel to recover and rotate when the ball did swing. Not many opposing defenses can do that as effectively.

The biggest benefactor of DeRozan’s late-game decision-making is LaVine. He no longer has to carry the pressure of ballhandler, facilitator and shooter at the same time.

‘‘Zach, last year being my first year, he had to carry an enormous load,’’ Donovan said. ‘‘A lot of times coming down the stretch of games like [the one Friday against the Nuggets], maybe you can use a play coming out of a timeout, maybe you can use him as a decoy, maybe you do something. But most of the possessions, you are going to have to find a way to incorporate him to get him to create.’’

Now there are options. Now there’s help.