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Bulls coach Billy Donovan getting defensive through winning streak

Alex Caruso is in the health and safety protocols, but Lonzo Ball has returned. That means the Bulls can get back to a strength — defense — that is sustainable in the second half of the season and, more important, in the playoffs.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan still has concerns about his team’s defense.
Bulls coach Billy Donovan still has concerns about his team’s defense.
Paul Beaty/AP

The difference between how a coach feels after a game compared to how a fan base feels is often vast.

That was once again on display the last few weeks.

While Bulls fans were contemplating bringing a lawn chair to Grant Park and setting it up in the snow just to make sure they have a good spot for the June championship parade, coach Billy Donovan had concerns.

Sure, the first seven wins in the current eight-game winning streak were impressive considering all the in-and-out for the roster, but Donovan — who missed five of those games while spending time in the league’s health and safety protocol — knew it wasn’t sustainable.

Those seven wins were more of a mirage when weighed with the big picture.

Donovan and the front office built this roster with big-picture rewards in sight. And while wins are most important, practicing habits that will matter when the playoffs arrive are just as important.

That’s why Donovan sounded a bit like a buzzkill when discussing the winning streak.

“I just don’t know if we could sustain shooting the basketball at that clip for the rest of the season,’’ Donovan said of those first seven wins in the streak. “I think it’s probably unsustainable. I didn’t think defensively we were going in the right direction and what happened over a seven, 10-game period we shot the ball at an absolutely unbelievable rate. We’ve got to have the mentality if the ball is not going in the basket we can still defend.’’

That’s what Wednesday’s practice was about. Donovan also announced that injured guard Alex Caruso (mid-foot sprain) was in the protocols, but the focus was getting back to the habits that will mean something in April and May.

A simple look at the numbers in the first seven wins of the streak were a reminder of that.

The Bulls went 98-for-208 (45%) from three-point range. That isn’t sustainable, even with the Bulls taking over the top spot in the NBA in three-point field goal percentage at 38.5%

Donovan is more concerned about the defense. Starting with the win against the Lakers and going through DeMar DeRozan’s late-game heroics against the Wizards, the Bulls allowed opponents to shoot 48% (295-for-613). That’s currently last in the league. The Warriors entered Wednesday with the best field-goal percentage allowed at 42.6%.

The Bulls’ win Monda against the Magic looked ugly, but Donovan saw the beauty in it. The defense held the Magic to 42.4% from the field while the offense struggled from three (11-for-31) and still escaped with the win.

“[If people are saying], ‘If they don’t shoot it well they’re going to have a hard time winning.’ I don’t know if that’s a good recipe for our team,’’ Donovan said. “If we didn’t defend [against Orlando] and shot it the way we did, we would not have had a chance to win, and that to me was the encouraging part.

“When you win sometimes it masks things and you lose sight and there is slippage in areas and slippage in things we’ve got to get better at.’’

The good news was they likely will.

Lonzo Ball missed five of those seven games in the streak, and Caruso left early against the Rockets with the sprain and hasn’t played since.

Improvement to the defense will happen with those two.

It has to in Donovan’s world.