No Joker, Bulls finally end long losing skid in Denver
The Bulls were expecting to face a tough matchup against Denver center Nikola Jokic on Friday.
It turned out Jokic was a late scratch due to a right wrist injury, so the Bulls defense was posed with a different challenge.
The Nuggets sent power forward Aaron Gordon to attack the Bulls' undersized front line, and it worked for a while.
But the Bulls used their speed to turn things around. Zach LaVine scored 36 points, DeMar DeRozan got to the foul line down the stretch and the Bulls held off the Nuggets for a 114-108 victory.
The Bulls not only completed a winning West Coast trip at 3-2, they finally snapped their 13-game losing streak in Denver, dating back to 2006. They'd also lost nine straight overall to the Nuggets.
"Just wanted to end the road trip the right way," LaVine said. "They were making big shots, we were making big shots. Obviously when the ball's in me and DeMar's hands, we're going to make the right play, I think, pretty much every time with me and him shooting the ball and making the right pass."
Denver jumped out to a 26-14 lead in the first quarter, with Gordon scoring 12 early points. The Bulls were able to turn the tables by using their speed to attack the lane.
Derrick Jones Jr. put on a one-man dunk contest, producing a season-high 16 points. The highlight was a pick-and-roll slam from LaVine where Jones took off from the dotted line. LaVine also had an emphatic dunk in the third quarter. From a 53-52 lead at halftime, the Bulls pulled out to a 12-point lead late in the third.
The Bulls' best highlight might have been when Javonte Green hustled after 2 offensive rebounds and LaVine hit a 3 as the shot clock expired to put the Bulls up 97-90 with 4:50 left. The 6-4 Green led the Bulls with 9 rebounds.
"I thought I had a ball of energy in me, but he's different," Jones said of Green. "He's got more energy than me. I'm not going to lie to you."
But Denver wouldn't quit and got within 3 points a few times in the final two minutes. But after a flurry of LaVine baskets, the veteran DeRozan (26 points) took over, drew 4 fouls and made 8 free throws in the final 1:15. As a team, the Bulls went 24-for-24 at the line.
This game featured an impressive turnout for Bulls fans, with multiple "Let's go Bulls" chants audible inside the arena. Word is getting around that the dark days of the rebuilding era are finally over.
"I haven't heard that before, so that was really cool for me," LaVine said. "I think the Bulls have obviously one of the best fan bases in sports. It was great."
This was just the second game Jokic, last season's MVP, has missed in the last two seasons. The other was the one-game suspension for hitting Miami's Markieff Morris a few weeks ago.
In his third game back from left shoulder surgery, Bulls guard Coby White finally scored his first basket of the season on a driving lay in midway through the second quarter. White finished with just the 2 points in 11 minutes, hitting 1 of 7 shots from the field. Rookie Ayo Dosunmu scored 10 points.
Before the game, Donovan said center Nikola Vucevic, who missed the trip due to a positive COVID test, has yet to move onto the stage where they'll test his cardio to make sure he's ready to return to action. So he's probably questionable at best when the Bulls return home to face New York on Sunday.
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