Billy Donovan, DeMar DeRozan think rising Bulls can do even better

NEW YORK — Following the Chicago Bulls’ impressive short-lived victory over the Nets, who both won the season’s series and took them within half a game of the Eastern Conference lead, Billy Donovan questioned its significance.

Donovan talked for almost 3 minutes. Like any coach, he saw more points for improvement than opportunities to relax.

And while he praised the Bulls’ competitive spirit, especially as they won without Patrick Williams, Coby White, Javonte Green and with Alex Caruso playing just eight minutes with a paralyzed hamstring, he concluded with this thought.

“I’m not going to sit there and play a game in mid-December and pretend this is unbelievable. It’s one game,” Donovan said. “We have to be better than we were tonight. And we are able to be better.”

Consider yourself warned, Eastern Conference.

This mindset, this ability to focus on the job, is a big reason why this tough, serious group is where it is. It’s a major reason why they’re defying preseason forecasts and not disappearing.

The Bulls are real.

“I’m not taking anything from our guys because all I think you need to be a really good team is what these guys have. They’ll fight and fight and they’ll really try to come back,” Donovan said, perhaps realizing that he needed to soften what certainly sounded like a postgame critique after such an unlikely win. “I like that competitive spirit about these guys.”

That competitive spirit is why DeMar DeRozan rose to his leading score in the fourth quarter by 13 of his 29 points. That competitive spirit is how Lonzo Ball shook off the recent 3-point shooting blues to sink a massive — from a DeRozan assist — for a five-point lead with 16.9 seconds left.

That competitive spirit fueled Ayo Dosunmu’s mentality as he accepted the larger role that came with Green’s new absence and Caruso’s inability to finish. Dosunmu scored 11 points, offered a highs block and sank a critical free throw with 9.3 seconds left for a four point lead.

“It’s about staying mentally prepared, always staying mentally locked in,” Dosunmu said. “There were a few games the previous two games where I didn’t play as much as tonight. But it’s about staying ready. In those moments I think how you handle yourself and how you are mentally locked in, that carries over to when it’s your chance.

Reminder: Those words came from a rookie.

But Dosunmu’s mental toughness and approach match the collective personality of this team. It even extends to non-rotation players. This season, time and again, a player who has been completely out of rotation is doing his bit, even if only for limited minutes.

Against the Nets, Tony Bradley and Troy Brown Jr. contribute to while the rotation was in motion. Bradley helped turn the rebound script in his 6 minutes and 30 seconds. Brown scored five points, six rebounds and three assists in 13 minutes, taking on the challenge of slowing Kevin Durant.

“That’s the only thing I love about Alize (Johnson) and Matt (Thomas) and Troy and Tony. When they were out of rotation and not playing, they did the job. They played 5-on-5. They’re going up,” Donovan said. “After last night’s game against New York, Matt Thomas is training in the back of the Garden. Troy Brown is training. It would be very easy to get dressed, shower and go out to dinner. They put in the work and I give them a lot of credit for staying ready. ”

And then, if there’s a chance late, DeRozan and Zach LaVine usually work their magic.

Like Donovan, DeRozan largely downplayed the importance of winning the first two games against the Nets, who are widely regarded as a frontrunner in the Eastern Conference.

He focused more on the personality of the team.

“It says a lot about our team. How resilient. How we tackle challenges. We don’t shy away from them. We accept them,” DeRozan said. “If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.

“We just keep coming. We have learned not to chastise ourselves. We learn a very crucial part of the game of understanding to stay sober and balanced. There is a lot of time in the game to turn things around. Stick to the lesson. Do what we work on. Trust our transgression. Trust our defense. Trust each other. That is what we do.”

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