After the first loss of the season to New York, Chicago now face a brutal stretch in the schedule against playoff contenders in both conferences.
The United Center matchup between the Bulls and Knicks had fans buzzing, in what felt like a throwback to the 90's when each franchise were perennial postseason contenders.
DeMar DeRozan airballed a midrange jumper at the buzzer, with a wild fourth-quarter rally falling just short, 104-103.
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Chicago have been one of the stories of the first week of the season, with a new-look roster surging to their best start in over two decades.
The 4-0 record has widely been taken with a grain of salt in the basketball community, with the wins coming against expected non-playoff squads.
The light schedule is about to change in a big way, with the loss to the Knicks opening up a torrid stretch of 13-straight games against playoff teams from last season.
|Oct. 30||vs. Utah|
|Nov. 1||at Boston|
|Nov. 3||at Philadelphia|
|Nov. 6||vs. Philadelphia|
|Nov. 8||vs. Brooklyn|
|Nov. 10||vs. Dallas|
|Nov. 12||at Golden State|
|Nov. 14||at LA Clippers|
|Nov. 15||at Los Angeles Lakers|
|Nov. 17||at Portland|
|Nov. 19||at Denver|
|Nov. 21||vs. New York|
The defense question
Entering the season, the biggest question mark around the Bulls was on the defensive end. Early returns suggest the backcourt duo of Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso have unlocked frisky perimeter defense, with the issues still largely with their ability to compete on the interior.
Zo with the takeaway 👋@NBCSChicago | @ZO2_ pic.twitter.com/4DXJiSrWk1- Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) October 29, 2021
Coming into the game against New York, the Bulls were giving up 49.5 points in the paint. Against the Knicks, they lost the battle 50-40.
They also rank in the bottom ten for opposition total rebounds (47.8 per game) and on the offensive glass (11.2).
Despite the concerns, head coach Billy Donovan believes the defense is well ahead of the offense in terms of building chemistry in the early part of the season.
"Tonight, I thought our defense was ok. We did get hurt on the boards but our defense kept us in it. Our guys worked, I just think we have to get more cohesive on offense," Donovan said after the loss to New York.
The Bulls' 97.0 defensive rating entering the Knicks game has been fuelled by playing the Detroit Pistons twice (30th ranked offense), New Orleans Pelicans (29th) and Toronto Raptors (19th). The next stretch against some of the highest-powered offenses in the league is likely to paint a clearer picture of where the Bulls stand.
Bulked up offense
On the offensive end, the Bulls are as advertised even if they are yet to fully hit their straps.
Zach LaVine should thrive playing alongside another dynamic shot-creator in DeRozan, while Nikola Vucevic provides a consistent option inside and out. Against the Knicks, the trio combined for 67 of Chicago's 103 points, with Caruso the only other player to reach double digits with 10.
The biggest question on that end of the floor may be who takes the final shot.
On this night it was DeRozan, who attempted to isolate on the right wing, before failing to hit rim as R.J. Barrett refused to bite on his pumpfake.
"I'm happy with the look. I didn't expect to be that open. I tried to get my feet set, but kinda rushed it at the end," DeRozan said.
He explained the play gave him the option to hand off to LaVine, who was well covered for any potential hand off.
"It's all about the defender, I seen him switch. They switched it, Zach didn't have an angle, I had an angle to get to my spot and pull up, it was just short."
DeMar DeRozan, for the win! pic.twitter.com/BWRGPoGSF1- Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) October 29, 2021
Despite some good individual point totals, DeRozan believes the offense has room to grow.
"We still building, still trying to get our rhythm and understanding where our shots are coming from. It's going to come with time. There will be that game where we catch some rhythm."
Nikola Vucevic echoed DeRozan's thoughts
"We're still trying to figure out how to play alongside each other. I feel like sometimes when we get stuck we tend to settle. It's learning each other's tendencies and what we like to do in certain situations."
With the chemistry still a work in progress, the upcoming stretch may hit the Bulls a little earlier than they would have liked. If Chicago can escape the upcoming games with a .500 record it may be time to believe in the hype as the franchise looks to make its return to the postseason.