West Coast trip shows Bulls can play small-ball as well as any team

The Bulls' lack of height is certainly unconventional. They've been rotating 6-4 Alex Caruso and 6-4 Javonte Green at power forward, and played 6-5 Derrick Jones Jr. at center for long stretches in Friday's win over Denver.

The lineup seems to scream for some sort of trade to add height to the front line. But more than anything else, the Bulls' five-game road trip suggested there may be nothing to fix.

Sure, center Nikola Vucevic will return soon from a stint on the COVID list and the Bulls need to get him incorporated with the revised lineup. They definitely need a reliable third scorer to support Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan.

But the lack of size has been more of a strength than a weakness. The Bulls have been causing problems with their small-ball lineup, whether it's with Caruso in the starting lineup, or Jones and Green coming off the bench.

"The team is so locked in right now," LaVine said after scoring 36 points in Friday's win at Denver. "I think we're really good with our roles. Those guys come in, Javonte comes in and brings incredible energy. He does whatever the team asks from him. I mean, he's playing the four-man half the time this year, battling guys, getting rebounds, getting extra tipouts.

"DJ is flying around, his defensive effort and then being in the pocket, being able to create over the top and get fouls and dunks. Everybody, AC's defense; I could go on and on. But everybody's really connected on the team right now, so I think we know the mission at hand and we're going out there and executing."

The collective team IQ is very good. On multiple occasions Friday, one of those undersized front line guys created a successful rebound by tipping the ball to a teammate. Caruso had two highlight reel defensive stands, smothering Monte Morris and stealing the ball from Will Barton.

The Nuggets tried to bully the Bulls by posting up power forward Aaron Gordon, and it worked for a while, but the Bulls responded by spreading the floor and attacking the basket. Who knows what would have happened if Nikola Jokic suited up for the game. There will be plenty of tough matchups down the road for the Bulls.

Jones, the 2020 dunk contest champ, was a human highlight reel in Denver, including one soaring dunk when he gathered a pass from LaVine at the dotted line and exploded for a two-hand slam without even taking a step before takeoff.

"I've got so many dunks," Jones said. "I dunked on so many people in this league. That's not even top 10 for me right now."

Coach Billy Donovan pointed out how if Vucevic hadn't been sidelined, maybe he doesn't switch Caruso to the starting lineup and discover the energy boost of Green and Jones playing together on the second unit.

There's even energy in reserve, considering Troy Brown Jr. and Alize Johnson played well when in the rotation. Coby White has looked extremely rusty in his first three games back from shoulder surgery, but rookie Ayo Dosunmu keeps playing well.

It might take White some time, but it's easy to imagine the energy of Green and Jones, combined with the scoring skills of White and Dosunmu, becoming another good lineup.

It's only November, but this Bulls team could conceivably follow the template of last year's Phoenix Suns. The Suns added an all-star level veteran to a young group and went from out of the playoffs all the way to the NBA Finals. From what we've seen of DeRozan so far, maybe his impact could be similar to what Chris Paul did in Phoenix.

The idea the Bulls need to make a trade to reach the next level seems to be fading, though. When the Bulls can do small-ball better than any other NBA team, that might be their best edge.

• Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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