10 observations: Bulls’ bench saves the day in rout of Pacers

The Chicago Bulls moved to 3-2 on the 2022-23 season with a 124-109 victory over the Indiana Pacers at the United Center Wednesday night.

Here are 10 observations:

1. There was clearly a team-wide intention to involve Patrick Williams early, and the third-year forward seized it, a refreshing development.

In a five-minute first quarter stint, Williams scored 5 points on a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer and steal-and-score sequence — grabbing a pass intended for his defensive assignment Buddy Hield — plus sprayed out to dime a Nikola Vučević 3, his first assist of the season. Even in Williams’ only missed field goal attempt in the period, a stumbling layup attempt, there was a positive: It came on the Bulls’ first possession of the game.

Williams checked out at the 6:31 mark of the first quarter — and for the first time in two games, received multiple first-half stints, starting the next one at the 7:20 mark of the second. A strong, driving floater ensued, bringing him to 7 points on 3-for-4 shooting. A third quarter pick-and-pop 3 pushed him into double figures for the first time this season.

2. The Bulls’ offense hummed positively early on against a Pacers team that they had every reason to beat badly. Their 38-point first quarter was their highest-scoring quarter of the season, and came with 9 assists and 5-for-9 3-point shooting. By halftime, their 19 assists on 26 made baskets matched their full-game totals from each of last week’s losses to the Wizards and Cavaliers.

Although the offense stalled for stretches later, 124 points and 34 assists by the game’s end were also season highs.

3. Billy Donovan’s rotation patterns are beginning to take shape. With eyes still trained on Zach LaVine’s knee, Donovan replaced the two-time All-Star, along with Williams, at the 6:31 mark of the first quarter, running Coby White and Javonte Green alongside Ayo Dosunmu, DeMar DeRozan and Vučević. Three minutes later, White, Dosunmu, DeRozan and Vučević came out, and LaVine, Goran Dragić, Alex Caruso and Andre Drummond came on.

That lineup, which saw Derrick Jones Jr. again spell Green to open the second quarter, was devastating, as it was in Monday’s win over the Celtics. In roughly eight minutes bridging the first and second quarters, they expanded a 13-point lead to 23 with their typical brand of active and high-octane play.

4. The Pacers, however, did not go quietly into the night. Trailing by as many as 24 in the opening two quarters, and 19 at halftime, they came out blistering in the third quarter, making six of their first seven 3-point attempts, including a perfect 3-for-3 from Hield. That stretch trimmed their deficit to nine, and they drew as close as 95-91 at the 2:51 mark of the third.

5. Then, LaVine and Dragić entered, joining Caruso, Drummond and Green, and stabilized their side. The Bulls built their lead back to 10 points entering the fourth quarter, nabbing three steals in the final three minutes of the quarter and engineering an 8-2 run off multiple waves of fastbreak attacks.

With Jones again in for Green to open the fourth, that lead expanded further, thanks to more forced turnovers and a flurry of 3-pointers from Dragić and LaVine. By the time this group was broken up, they had authored a 17-6 run to pull ahead 112-97 with just under eight minutes remaining in the fourth. The Bulls finished with a season-high 43 bench points.

6. On that note: The offseason signings of Dragić and Drummond may have been widely framed as marginal at the time, but their impact on the Bulls’ depth has been anything but.

Dragić posted 13 points (5-for-9, 3-for-3 from deep) and 5 assists in just 16 minutes, pushing the tempo and freeing up teammates with anticipatory pass after anticipatory pass. Drummond, meanwhile, produced his third double-digit rebounding output in five games, pulling down 13 boards to go with 8 points and a blocked shot.

And the two-man chemistry that began as teammates in Brooklyn but has quickly blossomed in Chicago has been fun to watch:

7. LaVine had by far his best scoring game since debuting, tallying 28 points on 6-for-13 shooting, 6-for-8 from 3-point range. Two encouraging signs as it relates to monitoring his knee soreness: He looked sharp playing — and shooting — off of screens, one of his most devastating qualities when healthy; and he got to the free throw line 12 times, making 10.

8. While White played 12 minutes and is clearly Donovan’s go-to option to spell LaVine during his mid-first quarter breaks, the fourth-year guard is clearly the odd man out between Caruso and Dragić off the bench. That is particularly true of Donovan’s recently-established rotation. Against Boston, the first game the Bulls’ coach staggered LaVine with the second unit, White played just 9:24, although there was plenty of garbage time in that 18-point victory.

9. Playing in the first close game since LaVine’s debut, Donovan offered a look at his preferred closing group, running Dosunmu, LaVine, DeRozan, Caruso and Vučević. Although the Bulls went 5 minutes, 37 seconds between the 9:35 and 3:58 marks of the fourth quarter stuck on 112 points, they held on for a 15-point victory.

And the game-icing sequence was a perfect one: Caruso stripping Jalen Smith on a drive for his third steal, then assisting a Vučević and-one layup at the other end. Caruso was again phenomenal with 8 points, 3 steals, 2 blocks and countless sublime stretches of individual defense.

10. With 24 points in this one, DeRozan would have become the 54th player in NBA/ABA history to eclipse 20,000 career points. Instead, with the Bulls beating the brakes off Indiana from the jump, he put up just five shots in the first half and finished with just 17 points. With seven points separating him from the milestone, DeRozan will get his next crack in San Antonio against his old coach Gregg Popovich, which would be rather fitting.

Next up for the Bulls: At the San Antonio Spurs on Friday.

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