Even shorthanded, Bulls proving they've learned how to win

Zach LaVine and a completely new cast of characters took the floor Monday at the United Center.

With Coby White in health and safety protocols, LaVine was the only player in uniform who was on the Bulls roster when Arturas Karnisovas took over as head of basketball operations in April of 2020.

At the same time, the Bulls were missing four of their top eight players, including top scorer DeMar DeRozan and NBA steals leader Alex Caruso, along with White and Javonte Green.

In the context of the previous four years, when the Bulls set out to be bad and then struggled to rebuild, this performance was amazing. It was a short-handed Bulls team that executed, made winning plays and did just about everything right in the final 16 minutes of the game.

LaVine carried them for a stretch late in the third quarter, but after that the bench played well and every stat category showed balance during crunch time.

After the game, LaVine and Lonzo Ball - two players who have yet to participate in an NBA playoff game - tried to explain how the winning habits are suddenly so abundant.

"It's a new team, man," LaVine said. "It's like I tried to say at the beginning of the year, this isn't last year. We've got a bunch of guys that support each other, step up, aren't scared of the moment. So it's a brand of energy and confidence we have."

Needless to say, that must feel good, considering the state of the Bulls when LaVine came aboard in 2017.

"You have no idea, brother," he replied.

Taking a page from coach Billy Donovan's talking points, there's no need to get carried away with one game out of 82. Denver is short-handed too and dropped to 11-12 on the season. The Bulls (17-8) could lose three in a row and easily drop from first to seventh place in the crowded East.

But with fan enthusiasm soaring inside the United Center, it's worth appreciating how quickly everything turned around. Then even with DeRozan and Caruso - the two guys with the most winning experience - sidelined, the Bulls didn't lose any confidence. Rookie guard Ayo Dosunmu delivered a solid performance in his first NBA start, which included 4 fourth-quarter assists. At one point, he flipped the script and found Ball for an alley-oop dunk. Usually, it's Ball on the giving side of those plays.

"He's a got a big heart, he competes," Donovan said of Dosunmu. "He makes a lot of timely plays that impact winning. There was a lot on his plate and he really did a great job."

Bulls media relations confirmed DeRozan did not make the trip to Cleveland on Tuesday. Any hope for a false COVID positive seemed to fade and he'll likely miss 10 days or more. White and Green are also in health and safety protocols, with the possibility of a return next week. Donovan said Monday the plan is to let Caruso rest a sore hamstring and reevaluate next week.

The Bulls saw Cleveland twice in preseason and so far the Cavs have exceeded expectations with a 13-12 record. Even after losing guard Collin Sexton to a season-ending knee injury, they've won four of their last six.

The Cavs have been starting a tall front line featuring ex-Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen, center Jarrett Allen and rookie Evan Mobley. Markkanen is averaging 14.6 points and 6.1 rebounds.

This will create some challenging matchups for the Bulls, who essentially used the 6-4 Dosunmu and 6-5 Derrick Jones Jr. as the starting forwards on Monday.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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