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Bulls’ Chris Fleming finding success with next-coach-up mentality

An NBA assistant for seven seasons, Fleming took over for coach Billy Donovan, who went into the NBA’s health and safety protocols last week, and the Bulls have gone 3-0. More important, Fleming is just being himself.

Acting Bulls coach Chris Fleming watches his team during the second half of Wednesday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks.
Acting Bulls coach Chris Fleming watches his team during the second half of Wednesday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks.
Nam Y. Huh/AP

It could have gone much differently for the Bulls the last three games.

When the leader goes down it often does.

So when it was announced last week that coach Billy Donovan was yet another member of the organization going into the NBA’s coronavirus health and safety protocol and assistant Chris Fleming would take his place, there was a certain amount of anxiety.

“It’s not easy to step in for the head coach,’’ veteran center Nikola Vucevic admitted recently.

Would Fleming try and be “Billy 2.0?’’ Would he use the opportunity to focus on promoting himself like previous Bulls assistants have done in the past? Would his overall demeanor change?

Three games later — all wins — Fleming has answered each of those burning questions with a resounding no.

He has just been himself, and for a franchise that has embraced that next-man-up mentality all season long, that’s good enough.

“I’ve got to know ‘Flems’ over the last couple years, and he’s a great coach, stepped right in, almost like the players are doing,’’ guard Zach LaVine said. “It’s like that next-man-up mentality. He’s done a great job, commanded the locker room, and we went out there and performed for him.’’

Not just performed, but shined.

The offense has averaged 125 points in those three lopsided wins, while the defense was holding the opposition to 113, for a 12-point scoring differential. Then there was the precision in which the offense took the Hawks apart on Wednesday, finishing with 38 assists, the most the Bulls have had in a game since Dec. 2, 2014, in a double-overtime game against Dallas.

“We’re obviously so used to Billy so you’re gonna see a difference, but he did a tremendous job, made the right calls, and didn’t try and replace Billy, was just him[self],’’ LaVine added.

Not that any of this has come as a surprise. When executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas was hired, he eventually tossed out the entire coaching staff — Jim Boylen and all — except for Fleming.

The seven-year assistant had built a good reputation with Karnisovas’ Nuggets in the 2015-16 season, and added to that resume for the Nets from 2016-19. Plus, he has head-coaching experience, winning German League Coach of the Year in 2011 when he steered Brose Bamberg to four league championships.

There’s not only coaching smarts mixed in with that thick New Jersey accent, but there’s also some tough love from Fleming.

“He doesn’t really tell you what you want to hear,’’ guard Coby White said. “He’s more of a tell-you-what-you-need-to-hear type of guy. He’s a straight-up dude. If you do something good, he’s going to say you did good. If you’re holding yourself back, he’s going to say you’re holding yourself back. If you can do something better, he’s going to say do something better.

“This is my third year. He’s been my coach ever since I’ve been here. Me and him have that type of relationship where we can just be real with each other and have a real conversation as men and then just go on about our day.’’

Make no mistake, Donovan still has his hands all over the daily operations of the coaches and players over Zoom calls, but he also trusts Fleming and the rest of the staff to continue that single mindset — win games — when the ball is tipped.

A mindset that likely will continue through the weekend, with Donovan expected out until early next week.

“Billy is probably the most competitive guy I’ve been around,’’ Fleming said. “He wants to be here. He really helped our staff. He said, ‘I’m here if you need me. You guys just go ahead and coach and help these guys win.’ I think his support was really important.’’