Donovan Challenged the Bulls, They Responded

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Donovan Challenged the Bulls, They Responded

Chicago Bulls

After a nine-game winning-streak that brought the Chicago Bulls through the first week of January, it finally caught up to them. All of it. The good fortune that kept this team near the top of the Eastern Conference near a seamlessly endless supply of positive COVID tests and short-term injuries went on vacation.

The bumps and bruises continued to stack up, as Alex Caruso, Lonzo Ball, and Derrick Jones Jr. joined Patrick Williams on the bench with multi-week injuries. Zach LaVine also spent time on-and-off the floor thanks to a mix of knee and back issues. The Bulls went on to win just seven of their 18 games from January 9th to February 7th.

Thanks to a ridiculously competitive Eastern Conference, the Bulls evaded a massive tumble down the standings. They remained in the mix for a top-3 seed as the All-Star break neared. Yet, as the injuries showed, the basketball gods are only kind for so long, and head coach Billy Donovan knew it.

As easily explainable as it may have been, this team was trending in the wrong direction. They had to take advantage of a five-game stretch where the best opponent sat just 7th in their respective conference, so Donovan told them to do just that.

“The crazy thing is coach kind of set out a challenge for us five games ago,” DeRozan said after his 38-point performance on Wednesday. “Really just letting us know if you want to be a great team, at this point, take on the challenge of closing out this half of the seasons with the next five games. We need every single one of them. He challenged that. We took on the challenge, and that’s what I’m more proud of going into the break.”

The fact that mentioning this is one of DeRozan’s first instincts after a game where he broke a 60-year-old record speaks volumes about where his priorities stand. Likewise, as the team’s veteran leader, it speaks volumes about what the prevailing mindset of this team is with just 23 games left in the regular season.

Great teams don’t fold. While the Bulls have seen plenty of excuses thrown their way over the last couple of weeks, they let one after the other soar into Lake Michigan. They took care of business in five-straight games like a winning organization and a top-seeded team is supposed to. Arguably just as encouraging, they responded to their head coach.

“I’m just really appreciative of this group of guys from top to bottom,” Donovan told reporters. “The way they come to work every day, how professional they are. How they all try to keep themselves ready. How it’s all about the team. It’s all about winning and what each individual can do to impact and help in winning.”

As we watch DeRozan make history, Zach LaVine continue his ascent up the league ranks, Nikola Vucevic find his place, Ayo Dosunmu become the steal of the draft, and Coby White show consistent improvement, it’s easy to forget Donovan’s role in all of this. The expectations are set at the front of the bench. The culture is established behind the scenes. These players respond to their head coach in a way Bulls fans haven’t seen in quite some time, and his ability to garner that response is part of the reason the Bulls have repeatedly pushed through adversity.

“I’m hopeful that we can get whole at some point. I’d like to see what this group can do whole,” Donovan said. “But I’m very very grateful and appreciative up until this point to the All-Star break. We’ve had some really great moments and some not great moments, which is typical, but the way these guys have continued to fight, regardless of it’s been a win or loss, they’ve tried to get better and we’ve tried to get better as a group.”

The players deserve the biggest round of applause. I’m not trying to say otherwise. But all Donovan has done since he unexpectedly arrived in the summer of 2020 is hold this team accountable. He’s said what has needed to be said, and he’s made clear what this team needs to do to reach new heights. Without that, who knows where this team would be heading into All-Star weekend.

Author: Elias Schuster

Elias Schuster is the Lead Bulls Writer at Bleacher Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @Schuster_Elias.