Backcourt puts on a show as Bulls close first half with a victory

Zach LaVine finished with 36 points and Coby White had 25 as the Bulls beat the Pelicans before the All-Star break. Now the hope of the front office is that the two guards can continue causing headaches for the opposition and return the team to the postseason.

SHARE Backcourt puts on a show as Bulls close first half with a victory

Executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas hopes his patience pays off.

He knows that his starting backcourt —Coby White in particular — has some growing to do as a combination, but he’s banking that with Zach LaVine a first-time All-Star, the duo could be a headache for opponents for years to come.

The Pelicans had to break out the aspirin Wednesday after White and LaVine combined for 61 points and helped the Bulls close out the first half of the season with a 128-124 victory at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.

“Coby has played 32 games at point guard,’’ Karnisovas said this week. “Zach has been unbelievable closing games for us. He has been one of the biggest scorers in the fourth quarter every game. Those guys’ contribution has been unbelievable for us to win games. We’re still looking for combinations. Those [two] guys are still learning how to play with each other. I think they’re just going to get better.’’

They’re not the only players on the roster Karnisovas can say that about, either.

The 16-18 record isn’t ideal going into the All-Star break, but it puts the Bulls in a play-in position for a postseason berth that has been missed since 2017. This despite the roster being mostly incomplete this season.

Otto Porter Jr. (back) is being targeted as another weapon off an already valuable bench, while Lauri Markkanen (sprained right shoulder) gives coach Billy Donovan more spacing on the floor, another threat from long range and a true 7-footer to play some center.

“I think development is the No. 1 thing with all of our players, especially with Lauri,’’ Karnisovas said. “The things that we met before the season and set the expectations for Lauri, I think he met. Obviously, before he got hurt, he was 19 [points per game] and shooting 52% from the floor and 40 from the three. I think that’s what he can do on a daily basis. We can’t wait for him to come back and help this team win games.’’

But even big leads like the Bulls had most of the night against the Pelicans (15-20) turn into unwanted adventures.

White and LaVine certainly carried the load, but it was Wendell Carter Jr. who came through in crunch time. His put-back with 1:05 left gave the Bulls some breathing room at 119-113.

It looked like LaVine had put the game on ice with a layup and only 40 seconds left, but White committed another head-scratching foul on a three-point attempt, pulling the Pelicans to five. It became a free-throw contest for the Bulls after that, but it was a contest they won.

It wasn’t a thing of beauty by any means, but it’s a win to take into the break. 

Donovan, however, wasn’t jumping up and down with excitement over how his team has performed this season, even with some really good moments.

“We have a losing record right now,’’ Donovan said. “The record, to me, is more about how we’re playing and if we are making progress. And I think this team has made incredible progress.

“But at the same point, too, we have a long way to go. I’m trying to not have them be satisfied, and we need to keep trying to pull more out of each other. They need to pull more out of me; I’ve got to pull more out of them. And there’s more to give.’’

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