LOS ANGELES — Getting through the next week without Nikola Vučević might force Chicago Bulls coach Billy Donovan to get even more creative with his rotations.
Donovan came up with a winner Sunday night at the Staples Center, inserting Alex Caruso into the starting lineup to guard Los Angeles Clippers star Paul George.
The Bulls responded with a 100-90 win over the Clippers, snapping the hosts’ seven-game winning streak behind 35 points from DeMar DeRozan, who was playing back home.
“Man, it’s something I would never take for granted,” DeRozan said. “You don’t know how long you’re going to get to play this game. … This is my first time I came home and played since my dad passed. He was at every game. He didn’t miss no games. Tonight was one of those games, I wish he was here.”
The Clippers took a lead two minutes into the fourth quarter on George’s fall-away jumper before the Bulls came back on a drive by DeRozan and never let up. Caruso’s steal led to a Zach LaVine 3-pointer that upped the lead to eight, and after the Clippers sliced the deficit to four, DeRozan answered with a three-point play.
LaVine’s 3 from the corner with 51.9 seconds left sealed it — and led to an emotional response from DeRozan. Was thinking about his dad part of that emotion?
“I wouldn’t say that’s why,” he said. “It’s always fun to come home and play, especially against a good team. The Clippers are a hell of team. We just got our butts whupped (Friday by the Golden State Warriors) and we wanted to respond. And we did.”
Caruso was 0-for-5 from the field but led the Bulls with nine rebounds and stuck to George like flypaper. George finished with 27 points but went 7-for-25 from the field.
“That’s the role I think I’m going to be thrown out to a lot this year with this team,” Caruso said. “Being thrown on elite players from other teams. I’m always up for the challenge. I like the challenge. I like the competitive nature of it.
“I have to bring my best. If not, these guys are capable of having really good games. Just try to do my best. Paul George is an All-Star, All-NBA, MVP conversation this year for a reason. He’s a really good player, and he showed it.”
Donovan received some good news before Sunday’s win when guard Coby White was cleared to play Monday against the Los Angeles Lakers after rehabbing from shoulder surgery during the first month of the season. That gives Donovan another 3-point shooter to come off the bench and help with the second unit.
But White will come along slowly, at least in the first few games.
“There’s probably going to be a lot of rust on him,” Donovan said. “Whatever happens for him (Monday) night, he’s always got the mentality to come back and work and try to figure out and get better.”
White’s return doesn’t fix the season-long problem the Bulls have had rebounding, and without another true big man on the roster, the only solution may be to play faster with smaller lineups.
It worked Sunday, but the Clippers also played small, which made it easier for Donovan to match up.
The Bulls came into Sunday night’s game ranked 26th in the league in rebounding with an average of 44.2 per game and 24th in offensive rebounds (9.1). And that was with Vučević starting the first 11 games.
Without Vučević and forward Patrick Williams, who is out after wrist surgery, the search for someone to do the dirty work inside against bigger and more mobile centers might be ongoing for a while.
In two of the next three games, the Bulls will face two of the premier big men in the league in the Lakers’ Anthony Davis and the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić, while the Portland Trail Blazers’ 6-foot-11 Jusuf Nurkić also figures to be a handful Wednesday.
Donovan said he has to figure out the frontcourt rotation to get through this stretch. Tony Bradley started at center for the second straight game Sunday and had four points and five rebounds in 24 minutes.
So what’s the solution if teams are going to key on the Bulls’ top two scorers?
“It may require us playing a little bit smaller,” Donovan said. “It may require us playing four guards. We’re going to probably have to look to do some different things just to create spacing. The one thing that’s great about Zach and DeMar is they are willing passers, and if teams are going to (double them), they’ve got to find the open ball and share it and find the open man when it’s available.
“Tony is generally a big man roller. Derrick (Jones) is a slasher; so is Javonte (Green). Sometimes the lane can get a little congested for those guys.”
The Bulls knew this would be a difficult stretch, and it really began two weeks ago with a two-game trip to Boston and Philadelphia. The fact they are 9-4 is a tribute to the team’s cohesiveness and overall fearlessness.
“You can’t be scared to be playing these teams,” LaVine said at the start of the stretch. “Because you want to be playing them later on in the season. It’s a challenge to see where you are as a group and how much you can get better. I look forward to playing these teams. That’s the mentality you have to have.”
Chicago Tribune Sports Newsletter
A daily sports newsletter delivered to your inbox for your morning commute.
Vučević heard some booing during a recent game at the United Center for his slow start. But now it’s apparent how valuable he is to the Bulls and their hopes to get into the playoffs and make a run.
It’s a shame it took a bout with COVID-19 to prove that, but at least it happened early enough in the season that the team can learn a lot about itself in the next week.
“I think this is good for us,” Donovan said. “Because it’s going to force us to have to get better as a group under these circumstances.”
Mental toughness is something that comes with work, and now the Bulls can make a statement with back-to-back road wins against the Clippers and Lakers.
“As far as us playing basketball the way we want to play and showing up and being present and trying to win every moment, that would be great for us,” Caruso said of the possibility of an L.A. sweep. “We’re coming off, not a really poor performance, but getting beat like we did in Golden State, coming back and proving we’re a better team than that, we’re resilient.
“I think (Monday) night will be another test for us, on a back-to-back against a good L.A. team that after having a little success against the Clippers, we’re going to see how we show up and how we compete. And I think that, if anything, will be more of a statement than a win or loss.”