Bulls go back to defensive basics in beating Hornets

After seemingly hitting rock bottom Wednesday in Cleveland, the Bulls went back to a very familiar formula — defense, defense and more defense.

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The Bulls’ Nikola Vucevic shoots over the  Hornets’ Miles Bridges during the first half Thursday night.

The Bulls’ Nikola Vucevic shoots over the Hornets’ Miles Bridges during the first half Thursday night.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

There it was again Thursday — a mindset among the Bulls that there will be as little give as possible on defense, and that opponent’s baskets have to be earned. 

Following wins in the last week over the Cavaliers and Celtics — and an embarrassing loss against the same Cavs on Wednesday — the Bulls showed again in a 108-91 win over the Hornets at the United Center what they need to be without guard Zach LaVine and his nearly 28 points per game.

But why does this defense come and go so frequently? The Bulls have guesses but no solid explanation. That doesn’t mean the subject isn’t discussed daily.

What matters is they’re now 25-34 and just a half-game out of the final Eastern Conference play-in spot.

“Obviously, coming home last night [from Cleveland], we met before this game,” coach Billy Donovan said. “I don’t know whose message it was or what message it was, but we needed to compete better. The disappointing part in it is you go back to Boston, Cleveland and then this game, and you look at the differences. I just hope we can understand with the limited amount of time we have left and the number of games that are on our schedule, can we every night just put our best foot forward with physicality and the things that are going to go into winning?”

Veterans such as center Nikola Vucevic are trying their best to make it happen.

“We put a big emphasis on the defensive end because the games we were losing, we were just giving up too many points, 115, 120,’” Vucevic said. “It’s going to be hard to see somebody score that way and try to win games night in and night out. We put a big emphasis on it — we had a team meeting [last week] and we talked about it.

“[If] you put in the effort and follow the rotations and stuff, you are going to give yourselves a chance.”

He didn’t just mean a chance until LaVine gets back. This is the way the Bulls have to play with or without LaVine over the remaining 13 games. It sounds as if even LaVine understands that, watching from afar while following the league’s coronavirus protocol.

“Zach from Day 1, at least since I’ve been with him, has been very, very eager to find different ways that he can impact winning, and probably for most of his career,’’ coach Billy Donovan said. “I think he’s trying to do things because winning is important to him.”

Thursday’s win wasn’t without a somber moment. Bulls rookie Patrick Williams left to go into the tunnel in the third quarter, with teammates going in and out to talk to him. Donovan would only say it was for personal reasons, but a source told the Sun-Times that Williams was close with former Kentucky guard Terrence Clarke, 19, who was killed in a car accident Thursday.

“It’s sad,” Bulls guard Coby White said. “I just feel for his family, praying for his family.”

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