Bulls win out of the break, but coach Billy Donovan wants ‘better’

The Bulls have 22 regular-season games left, and while Donovan will take the win over the Hawks on Thursday — in which DeMar DeRozan stayed hot — he’s asking his players to be better.

SHARE Bulls win out of the break, but coach Billy Donovan wants ‘better’
The Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan scores past the Hawks’ De’Andre Hunter (12) and Onyeka Okongwu during the first half of Thursday night’s game.

The Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan scores past the Hawks’ De’Andre Hunter (12) and Onyeka Okongwu during the first half of Thursday night’s game.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Bulls coach Billy Donovan didn’t look back on the first-half standings Thursday or give his players a pat on the back. He wasn’t much into discussing what he did over his mini-vacation over the All-Star break, either.

Instead, he laid out a no-nonsense challenge for the rest of the season.

“What we’ve done up to this point and time, in my opinion, is just not good enough,” he said.

Welcome back, Bulls.

After a narrow 112-108 win over the Hawks on Thursday night, they have the second-hardest schedule in the Eastern Conference, with 17 of their 22 remaining regular-season games against teams who are in position for at least a play-in spot. They have three more meetings with the Bucks, two more each with the Heat and Cavaliers and also have to play the Grizzlies, Suns and Jazz.

It would be one thing if the Bulls (39-21) had a solid history this season against the league’s better teams, but after beating the Hawks, they’re now 20-6 against teams below .500 and 19-15 against teams over .500. That includes a combined 0-6 record against the Heat, Bucks and 76ers.

“During the course of a season, there are different points and junctures of the schedule that are really challenging,” Donovan said, “whether it’s playing on the road a lot, whether it’s playing a lot of back-to-backs, playing a lot of games over a short period of time or what we’re dealing with right now coming up for the remainder of the schedule: the quality level of the teams that we’re playing. I’m not trying to be negative. . . . We’ve got to get better.”

It’s not a mystery where.

The Bulls handcuffed the Hawks (28-31) in the first quarter, allowing just 19 points. But they allowed 31 points in the second quarter and 32 in the third, turning a comfortable-looking 11-point lead into a nail-biter.

“The defensive side has got to be better,” Donovan said. “Being relatively small, we’ve done a good job of rebounding, but the three-point line has been a challenge, some of our fouling has been a challenge, our ability to control the ball and contain the ball has been a little bit of a challenge. It all starts for me where we’ve got to get better on the communication side. When you can communicate really well, it lessens some of the binds and difficulties you get into. We all have to help each other, coaches included.”

What the Hawks didn’t have was DeMar DeRozan, who hit the go-ahead basket with 15.1 seconds left and drew a foul that led to a free throw to put the Bulls up 110-108. It was the eighth straight game in which DeRozan scored at least 35 points (he finished with 37), continuing his NBA-record streak of shooting over 50% from the field.

“I trust him in those situations,” Donovan said. “He’s spectacular. He’s got just incredible composure and poise.”

Newest Bull Tristan Thompson made his debut off the bench with 11 points and six rebounds in just over 13 minutes. The help comes at an important time.

“You’re going to be able to see the separation from the good teams, the OK teams, and the great teams,” DeRozan said. “What position do we want to put ourselves in? That’s the next challenge for us.”

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