Most nights, Zach LaVine doesn’t need to be the hero anymore for the Chicago Bulls.
That was always the goal of this season’s roster reorganization. The team picked up shotmakers such as DeMar DeRozan and defenders such as Alex Caruso to take the pressure off LaVine, giving him more room to run and relax on the court as the Bulls built a balanced dynamic.
But with four teammates sidelined Monday night — including DeRozan and Caruso — LaVine reminded fans how he can put the Bulls on his back with a 32-point, eight-assist performance to lead the beleaguered team to a 109-97 win over the Denver Nuggets at the United Center.
The Bulls were thrown into flux when DeRozan entered the league’s COVID-19 testing protocol hours before tipoff. The team is now facing a potential outbreak after Coby White and Javonte Green tested positive last week.
With DeRozan out of the lineup, LaVine created offense from behind the 3-point arc and slashing to the rim. After a stilted start left the Bulls trailing by six, LaVine led a charge to finish the first half on a 10-2 run, then opened the second half with seven unanswered points. LaVine’s third quarter shifted the momentum fully behind the Bulls as he dropped a pair of 3-pointers and drove for three layups.
“You’re not going to replace what (DeRozan) does, especially at the level of play that he’s playing right now,” LaVine said. “But guys will step up and we can compete for each other and still be a really good team. I think we showed that tonight.”
Unlike in past seasons, LaVine wasn’t forced to do it all on his own. Lonzo Ball and Nikola Vučević finished with 20 points apiece. Vučević matched up with reigning MVP Nikola Jokić in their first meeting of the season. Although the Nuggets center finished with a triple-double (17 points, 15 assists, 12 rebounds), his performance was controlled by Vučević's presence in the paint.
Rookie Ayo Dosunmu matched the veteran energy in the first start of his NBA career, tossing up a pair of lobs to LaVine and Ball for dunks and finishing with 11 points and eight assists.
Bench players who don’t see consistent minutes also stepped up to provide production on both ends. Derrick Jones Jr. scored 12 points — including a pair of vicious dunks in the second half — and grabbed nine rebounds. Troy Brown Jr. had six points and eight rebounds, and Tony Bradley added three and six.
“A lot of these guys have done a terrific job keeping themselves ready,” coach Billy Donovan said. “I give Matt Thomas an enormous amount of credit. That guy works like you can’t believe. Same thing with Troy Brown. And tonight their number was called and they were professional and they stepped up and they played and contributed and did a really, really good job.