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Zach LaVine and Javonte Green return from injuries — but it’s Ayo Dosunmu who helps save the Chicago Bulls to end a 3-game road trip with a 111-110 win

Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
 2022-01-25

In the final three minutes of Monday’s game in Oklahoma City, the Chicago Bulls panicked.

Zach LaVine and Troy Brown Jr. ran straight into half-court traps. Nikola Vučevic sent off-balance 3-pointers sailing past the rim. Billy Donovan called timeouts in an urgent attempt to calm his team, watching as the Thunder carved a 28-point Bulls lead down to a single point.

The bell ultimately saved the Bulls, who pulled out a 111-110 victory iced by free throws from LaVine and Javonte Green in their first game back from injuries. The win was the latest in a long string of sloppy, off-kilter games — but it was a win nonetheless, ending a three-game trip on a high note as the Bulls broke the free fall of a 2-7 skid.

“Obviously I’m happy we won,” Donovan said, “but this will hopefully be a really good learning experience for our guards about how to manage the game and handle pressure and draw fouls.”

DeMar DeRozan had emphasized a silver lining after Sunday’s dismal blowout loss to the Orlando Magic: The cavalry is coming.

Those reinforcements arrived Monday when LaVine and Green returned, allowing DeRozan to take the night off for some much-needed rest after scoring 41 points against the Magic .

DeRozan wasn’t on the court in Oklahoma City, but an echo of him remained: Ayo Dosunmu, who terrorized the Thunder with the midrange jumper synonymous with his veteran mentor. Dosunmu led the offense with 24 points and eight assists, hitting nine consecutive baskets from the field to break a Bulls rookie record held by Orlando Wooldridge.

For most of the game, it seemed Dosunmu couldn’t miss — even when he launched a desperation shot from half court at the end of the third quarter, watching the ball kiss off the backboard and rattle into the basket.

The rookie fouled out with four minutes left, removing the Bulls’ offensive leader as the Thunder roared back, but the performance was the best of his young NBA career. After the game, Dosunmu said he even surprised himself with his stat line.

“I didn’t know what it was. I knew I didn’t miss. I didn’t know what was the exact percentage,” said Dosunmu, who was 10 of 14 from the field and 4 of 6 from 3-point range. “I was just trying to stay focused. I’m always trying to stay in the moment.

“I felt like I was in the zone offensively and defensively, and I just wanted to continue that. I think that at times when you’re in a zone and you’re celebrating too much, it can easily take over that zone you’re in.”

For LaVine, the wait to return to the court lasted 10 days; for Green, it was nearly a month. Green remained under a strict 25-minute limit set by the Bulls medical staff. Before the game, coach Billy Donovan said he would circulate Green in five-minute stints to prevent exhaustion as he eases back into his starting role.

LaVine carried a full workload after suffering a knee injury attempting to rebound a ball in the opening minutes of the Jan. 14 game against the Golden State Warriors. Donovan said LaVine previously played through nagging soreness and inflammation in the knee, but he didn’t show any signs of discomfort in a 23-point, seven-assist performance.

Green injured his groin in the New Year’s Eve game against the Indiana Pacers. His recovery has been slower, requiring weeks of non-contact work on the sidelines before he could return to regular practices this week.

Both players flew to Oklahoma City to meet the team Monday, allowing for one day of practice with their teammates before plunging into the final game of a disappointing trip for the Bulls.

“I just didn’t want to wait any longer,” LaVine said. “I’d been working out at home, and this is about as healthy as my knee’s going to get and obviously nothing’s structurally wrong like (the team doctors) said and I felt fine. I just got tired of watching the games.

“The guys have been fighting hard. ... I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to just come out here and do what I can to help us.’”

Green and LaVine hope to add a spark to the Bulls, who have been gutted by injuries. Their presence also helped to shake Vučević out of a recent scoring rut.

Vučević was in the starting lineup despite swelling and soreness in his left knee after taking a heavy fall against the Magic. After lackluster performances in the last two Bulls losses, he scored a team-high 26 points and pulled down 15 rebounds.

The return of Green and LaVine also helped balance out the losses of Alex Caruso (right wrist) and Lonzo Ball (left meniscus) , who are sidelined for six to eight weeks. Donovan said Caruso underwent successful surgery Monday morning and Ball’s surgery will be scheduled for the end of the week. The Bulls also still are missing Derrick Jones Jr. (right knee), although he is nearing the end of his estimated two- to four-week window to return.

LaVine will relieve the pressure on DeRozan to carry the offensive load on his own. DeRozan’s 41-point burst Sunday couldn’t salvage the team’s performance in a 19-point loss to the team with the league’s worst record.

LaVine’s shooting prowess and ball movement offer a salve to the Bulls offense, which shot 45% from the field during LaVine’s six-game absence.

“Anytime you take that kind of scoring off the floor, you don’t want to necessarily feel like one person’s got to make it up, but you try to do it collectively as a unit,” Donovan said. “But (LaVine’s) ability to generate things both for himself and for others is always something he does an incredibly high level.”

Green’s return will be equally impactful on the defensive end, where the Bulls have struggled to withstand the bullying tactics of larger opponents. With three power forwards sidelined, Vučević often stood alone in the paint during the Bulls’ 12 games without Green.

Although slightly smaller at 6-foot-5, Green quickly became the primary selection to lock down top opposing scorers. His versatility allowed him to switch from guarding the 6-10 Kevin Durant to the 6-1 Trae Young from game to game. The Bulls have sorely missed this defensive component throughout January, which was evident when the Magic wore them down in the paint with dual big men Moe Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr.

After losses to the Milwaukee Bucks and Magic to start the trip, Monday’s win kicked off a critical stretch for the Bulls to regain their footing — seven games against teams with records at .500 or lower.

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