Bulls pick up timely victory against Cavaliers

It was an ugly game from start to finish, but the Bulls held on to the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference.

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CLEVELAND — The Bulls know there’s one absolute when it comes to executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas: Expect the unexpected.

He showed that at the trade deadline in 2021, then again when he turned over most of the roster last summer.

That’s why center Nikola Vucevic’s motto is ‘‘control what you can control.’’

On Saturday, the Bulls stayed in control of the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs by holding off the Cavaliers 98-94. It turned out to be no easy task, even though the Bulls led by 18 points at halftime and seemed to have the Cavaliers in handcuffs for most of the night.

With 4:51 left in the game, however, they seemed to have lost that control. Cavaliers guard Darius Garland made an 18-footer to cut the Bulls’ lead to three and forced coach Billy Donovan to call a timeout.

But there’s a reason the Bulls have played well against the Cavaliers this season, and they showed why from that timeout until the final horn. Their experience was the difference.

Vucevic made two free throws, DeMar DeRozan made an 11-foot jumper, Zach LaVine made a basket and the Bulls came up with some well-timed stops and clutch free throws to improve to 43-31.

LaVine finished with 25 points, DeRozan with 20 and Vucevic with 16, and defensive shark Alex Caruso added 10 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and two steals and was a plus-18.

‘‘I thought we were really better moving the ball,’’ Donovan said. ‘‘When they did make a run, we kind of steadied ourselves, figured out how to make plays. I thought there were a lot of good things that came out of it from a competitive standpoint.’’

Which brings us back to Karnisovas and what has been going on with the Bulls in March. How they finish the final eight regular-season games and the playoffs might determine whether Karnisovas will want to bring this core back next season.

Vucevic is well-aware his contract expires after the 2022-23 season and knows a disappointing finish to this season might mean no one is safe this summer. He just doesn’t want to dwell on it.

‘‘That’s something that’s totally out of our control as players,’’ Vucevic said. ‘‘Our job is to try and go as far as we can, then the front office makes the decision on the team going forward. I was in a limited amount of trade rumors in my time in Orlando, so it’s something I really don’t think about very much. What’s the point of me worrying about that when it’s completely out of my control? That’s how I approach things like that.’’

Plus, the way Vucevic sees it, he, LaVine and DeRozan have unfinished business.

‘‘I like it here, of course,’’ Vucevic said. ‘‘It’s been very good for me since I got here, as far as the way the team accepted me. The players, coaches, front office, the fans, everything has been really good. The cold has been an adjustment. . . . Nah, I’m kidding. It’s been very good here.

“It takes time to build a team when you have so many new players and so many young players. I think we’ve shown that we can play really well. I know lately we haven’t, but that’s part of being a new team, growing together, going through the ups and downs and trying to figure it out. Right now, it doesn’t look great because we’re losing. But things can turn around quickly in the NBA.’’

Perhaps the victory Saturday will be the start of that.

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