The last time the Chicago Bulls were at the United Center, the players were booed loudly by their own fans during an embarrassing blowout loss to the Charlotte Hornets.
It figures to be a much different atmosphere Friday night when they return for the first time in two weeks after a pulsating 114-110 win over the Milwaukee Bucks evened the first-round series at a game apiece.
“Bulls fans are hungry for some home playoff games there,” Nikola Vučević said. “They’ve been great with us all season long, so I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in the playoffs.”
Vučević remembered he did get a glimpse of what it was like in 2012 when he was a Philadelphia 76ers rookie. What he didn’t mention was the UC was rocking for most of the game until Derrick Rose suffered a knee injury that took the wind out of the stadium with a minute left in the fourth quarter and altered the future of the franchise.
The top-seeded Bulls lost the series and never had a dominant team again. Friday’s game will be their first home playoff game since 2017, and suddenly fans have reason for optimism, something that was in short supply after the way the Bulls finished the regular season. They lost their final four home games to the Miami Heat, the Bucks, the Boston Celtics and the Hornets by an average of 19 points and limbed into the playoffs.
After the Big Three of DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Vučević each shot poorly in the series-opening loss Sunday, they made all the right moves Wednesday to send a message to the defending champions. The three combined to shoot 53.2% (33 of 62) with DeRozan leading the way with 41 points. If they can keep up that kind of shooting, the Bucks might be in for a street fight they didn’t count on a few days ago.
And with Khris Middleton’s status up in the air after suffering a sprained MCL, the Bucks may be facing the kind of adversity that can change the complexion of a playoff series. They know by now the Bulls defense is back to early season form with Alex Caruso healthy and being the disruptive force he was before the Grayson Allen incident sidelined him with a broken wrist.
Is this the old Bulls? Or just a mirage?
“Coming out of the All-Star break, the teams that we played, the way we played and especially the last four home games, that really was not us at all in the regular season,” coach Billy Donovan said after Game 2. “ It was disappointing the way we played. I felt we were better.”
Wednesday’s game wasn’t just big for the Bulls because they won. It was how they won that opened a lot of eyes around the league.
After an 18-point lead dwindled to three near the end of the third quarter, Caruso fed Vučević for a slam and DeRozan hit a 17-footer and added a pair of free throws to end the quarter with an 87-80 advantage. Vučević opened the fourth with a 3, DeRozan followed with a pair of midrange pull-up jumpers and Vučević hit a turnaround fadeaway to get the lead back to 16.
“That’s what you’ve got to be able to do,” Donovan said. “I do think maybe playing against some of these high-level teams at the end of the year has maybe hardened us, helped us grow, helped us get better, helped us have that kind of mentality that we’ve got to move on to the next play.
“At times this year when we played against good teams, when it started to go a little bit the other direction, we didn’t have enough in us to get going in our direction. We have to be able to do that, especially in the playoffs.”
DeRozan said the team spoke at halftime about “not coming out lackadaisical.”
“We had a lot of games this year where we came out in the third quarter and kind of laid an egg,” he said. “This time around, we just tried to understand the moment.”
Donovan is putting a heavy load on his five starters, knowing the season is on the line and it’s no time to find out if his bench players can step up with extended minutes. That means more Caruso and less Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White.
Caruso not only put on the clamps defensively, but also had 10 assists and only one turnover, which came with 3.7 seconds remaining. DeRozan’s driving layup gave the Bulls a five-point lead with 18 seconds left and basically sealed the outcome.
Caruso admitted the team was “in a hole” at the end of the regular season, thinking about the playoffs instead of the task at hand.
“We got our spirit back and we talked to each other about the opportunity we have in front of us,” he said.
Caruso repeated an oft-used line that “you probably shouldn’t play” if you can’t get up for the playoffs.
But the real question wasn’t whether the Bulls could get up for the playoffs but whether they had it in them to reverse course and beat a team that dominated them in the regular season, winning all four games. Sunday’s loss was ugly, but the Bulls fought back and showed they weren’t going to lie down.
They started Game 2 with a 9-0 run, the opposite of the nine-point hole they put themselves in to start Game 1. Five players hit 3s in the opening quarter, and the Bulls hit 48% of their 3-point attempts ( 12 of 25) for the game.
In a season that has been a series of ups and downs, they finally got their mojo back at the right time. One game doesn’t make a series, and the Bulls still have a lot to prove before they can make everyone forget the way they ended their season.
And of course it was DeRozan leading the way. He joked afterward that he “snuck in” to Fiserv Forum after his Game 1 performance to practice his shooting.
“The lights were already on,” he said. “They just went off when I left.”
The lights are still on in this Bulls season, against all odds. And now it’s really going to get interesting.