Bulls embracing a mantra early: 'You can’t consider yourself a really good team if you don’t defend'


CHICAGO (670 The Score) – Near the end of his postgame press conference Saturday night, Bulls coach Billy Donovan paused.

“How many points did we have tonight?” he asked the assembled media.

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He was reminded – 97. Upon digesting this, Donovan then shared an observation that qualified as mildly surprising.

“So two out of three games, we haven’t scored past 100,” Donovan said. “And I would’ve expected this coming into this year. And people wouldn’t have. I expect this offensively, because we have got to find a rhythm and some of it is a little bit different. But because of these guys’ ability and their intelligence, these experiences will help them get better.”

Donovan’s comment came after the Bulls cruised to a 97-82 win against the Pistons at the United Center, a game Chicago controlled throughout not because of its ability to put the ball in the basket with its high-profile three-headed scoring attack but because it once again fiercely dug in at the defensive end. The Bulls held the Pistons to 38.6% shooting and registered 13 steals and 11 blocks in a relentless defensive effort as they again blitzed passing lanes, endlessly poked at the ball and cut off dribble penetration much better in the second half. (For reference: The Bulls averaged 6.7 steals and 4.2 blocks per game in the 2020-'21 season.)

Point guard Lonzo Ball did much of the damage with three steals and four blocks, including a ridiculous one at the rim to deny Pistons big man Isaiah Stewart of a dunk.

"You don't have many starting point guards in the league that are challenging, let alone even attempting to challenge, and getting the block," said guard Alex Caruso, who had five steals himself.

The Bulls' defensive work has sparked their 3-0 start, as it was also on display in a 94-88 win against the Pistons in the season opener Wednesday. While it’s too early to declare the Bulls have changed the external narrative that defense would likely be their weakness, Donovan has loved what he has seen from his players.

“You can’t really consider yourself a really good team if you don’t defend,” Donovan said. “Clearly if you go back and look statistically at teams that have gone from the first round to the second round, from the second round to the like conference finals, every single one of those teams is in the top 10 defensively. They just are. I think that (Nikola Vucevic), Zach (LaVine), DeMar (DeRozan), Lonzo, Alex, guys that have been around – they know we have to guard. They know that if we don’t do that, it’s going to be really challenging. The offense is going to come. I agree with them. It will come, but it will take some time for them to learn to play with each other.”

A key figure in the Bulls’ defensive progress has been Caruso, the team’s sixth man who has wreaked havoc and helped address their previous weakness in pick-and-roll coverage. Caruso was a key member of the 2020 Lakers team that won a championship behind what they liked to call their three stars at the time – LeBron James, Anthony Davis and their defense.

Asked what the ceiling of the Bulls’ defense could be, Caruso responded, “As good as we want to be.” Through Saturday, the Bulls’ defensive rating of 93.7 was the fourth-best mark in the NBA. It’s really early and the Bulls’ competition has been pitiful – the Pistons and Zion Williamson-less Pelicans are a combined 0-5 and could be among the NBA’s worst teams all season – but the team is controlling what it can control and buying in on the defensive end.

That’s a good start.

“Defense is all care,” Caruso said. “It’s just care factor – care factor, effort and execution. And our effort and our care factor, I think, is high. I think it just comes down to the execution part, which we’re going to grow, we’re going to get better. It’s game three. But we have all the tools and players and the desire to do it. It’s just about going out there and doing it on the court.”

Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.

Featured Image Photo Credit: David Banks/USA Today Sports