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Bulls coach Billy Donovan hoping toughness comes with new-look roster

The Bulls had some soft moments last season in Donovan’s first year, but with a more experienced roster and some players who aren’t afraid to get physical, the hope is those days are long gone.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan doesn’t expect toughness to be a problem this season.
Bulls coach Billy Donovan doesn’t expect toughness to be a problem this season.
Carlos Osorio/AP

Emotion doesn’t always register in Zoom meeting rooms.

Coach Billy Donovan, however, didn’t have a problem conveying his feelings last season.

Usually calm and poker-faced, Donovan didn’t hide his anger after losses in which he thought the other team was simply tougher than his Bulls.

The bad news for Donovan and his players is that several Eastern Conference playoff teams didn’t exactly soften up with the regular season just a few weeks away.

The Heat have a roster built for a street fight, Tom Thibodeau’s hard-nosed Knicks squad remained mostly intact, the Bucks have a championship trophy and the goal to repeat and the Celtics added some veteran toughness to an already-solid defensive starting unit.

So what does that mean for a team that too often wilted mentally and physically when the physicality of the game picked up?

Well, Donovan says it’s no longer a concern — at least on paper.

“There are certain players that, to me, [toughness] just comes very, very easy,’’ Donovan said. “And I do think when our season started off last year, we were a little bit young and maybe not fully developed physically.

“I’m hopeful because of more veteran experience . . . like, DeMar [DeRozan] is a tough guy to me. And the reason I say that is because he gets fouled all the time. You gotta have a level of toughness to create contact and get fouled. Even seeing Lonzo [Ball] defend, he comes across as a much more physical presence on the ball.’’

And Donovan didn’t even get into the gritty style Alex Caruso displays most nights or Derrick Jones Jr.’s defensive mindset.

Then there’s Zach LaVine.

Considered a finesse player throughout his career, LaVine is fresh off a summer in which he played with some of the league’s elite while capturing Olympic gold in Tokyo.

Most of those Team USA players don’t exactly fall into the “tough guy’’ category, but they do have a mental toughness that LaVine was able to scrutinize. Whether it’s their practice routine or how they watch film, LaVine admitted that he took note.

“I think that experience definitely taught me something about what goes into winning and being part of a winning team at a very, very high level, and it’s something I can bring back here and hopefully be a better leader going forward, trying to push us to be a playoff team,’’ LaVine said.

“We were all at the top of our game, and we all couldn’t be the No. 1 option. So we had to find a role and help the team win, and it was an incredible experience for me, and I was really honored to fight for my country.’’

Donovan’s hope is that LaVine will be poised to fight for the new-look Bulls.

Last season, Wendell Carter Jr. did play with a certain physicality in the screen game, but Otto Porter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen won’t ever be mistaken for enforcers. Donovan is hoping things have changed with the roster flip.

“I don’t think that necessarily the guys weren’t tough as much as they were young, and there was youthfulness there,’’ Donovan said of the team at the start of the 2020-21 season. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be physically tougher because we’re older.’’