Bulls are down players and a coach, but their culture keeps pushing forward

Billy Donovan went into the league’s health and safety protocols Friday, but thanks to the culture he has established, the machine kept rolling Sunday in the victory against the Pacers.

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It has been easy to lose sight of coach Billy Donovan’s influence in the Bulls’ 20-10 start.

After a 113-105 workmanlike victory against a slumping Pacers team Sunday, that’s exactly where his team is at — 10 games above .500 for the first time since Jan. 7, 2016, and in second place in the Eastern Conference.

Donovan’s secret sauce in all of this?

“Billy has done a great job of making it a player-driven team and including those guys in all the decisions,’’ acting head coach Chris Fleming said. “Any conversations we have about basketball moving forward, our team is included in that. And I think that has enabled that group to compensate for losses of personnel and continue to play the right way. In addition to that, you have guys that are high character. They don’t dwell on it too much.’’

That culture Donovan has established was evident against Indiana, even without Donovan and despite missing key players such as Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. The Bulls announced Friday that Donovan was the fourth NBA head coach to go into the league’s health and safety protocols, so Fleming was handed the controls.

As Fleming pointed out, however, when the tone has been established, that culture can coach itself at times.

“I’m really proud of how these guys have handled themselves,’’ Fleming said. “They’ve dealt with a lot of adversity and earned that place in the standings.’’

It was obvious early that the Pacers were going to have a Nikola Vucevic problem, which wasn’t the case in the meeting last month.

Vucevic was still serving his time in the health and safety protocols in that Nov. 22 game at the United Center, and Indiana’s bigs felt very comfortable doing what they wanted, especially in the physicality department.

In that 109-77 Pacers victory, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis combined to finish with a plus-47 rating and had a combined 33 points, 21 rebounds and four blocked shots.

Vucevic’s presence in the rematch made a big difference, especially early on.

The Bulls are usually going to have a good night when Vucevic gets going early.

He came out in the first quarter and went 4-for-5 from the field and outrebounded Sabonis and Turner by himself five to four.

It also showed on the scoreboard, as the Bulls led 33-27 after one. A much different showing than the 31-16 hole they dug for themselves five weeks earlier.

Vucevic didn’t let up much in the second quarter, either, as the former All-Star helped the Bulls build a 63-48 halftime lead, going into the locker room with 13 points, seven rebounds and two blocks.

What’s left of Pacers pride — which considering all the talk of a roster blow-up that’s coming wouldn’t seem like much — did show up for the third, along with the Bulls helping the visiting team as much as possible. It’s the season for giving, but not what Fleming wanted to see from his crew.

Thanks to six Bulls turnovers that led to eight Pacers points, that comfortable 18-point lead the Bulls held was down to eight.

No worries. Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan made sure of that.

Thanks to the Bulls’ two alphas, Indiana’s hopes of a comeback were crushed in that last quarter. LaVine scored 12 in the quarter, and Mr. Fourth Quarter himself, DeRozan, added six.

LaVine finished with 32 in his first game back out of the protocols.

“I’m tired of getting COVID,’’ LaVine said. “We’ve been good with guys out, and that’s saying a lot.’’

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