Bulls take advantage of short-handed Thunder as Zach LaVine scores 40Joe Cowleyon March 17, 2021 at 3:14 am

The Bulls have played down to short-handed competition before, specifically the first two games out of the All-Star Break. With a new-look starting group, however, LaVine & Co. made sure that wasn’t going to happen.

Every game doesn’t need to be close.

After all, with 34 regular-season games still left to play, fingernails grow back only so quickly.

That’s why on a night that the Oklahoma City Thunder limped into the United Center severely short-handed, it was about time the home team treated a visitor rudely.

Thanks to Zach LaVine registering his third 40-plus point game of the season, as well as the new-look starting lineup putting the Thunder in a huge first-quarter hole, the Bulls (18-20) won their second straight game, beating coach Billy Donovan’s former team 123-102.

“The guy was unbelievable,’’ Donovan said of LaVine. “He scored 40 points in [31] minutes. … And listen, I don’t want to get into the short-handed stuff because we’ve got to play to a certain standard because you know what? We’re no different than any other team. We’ve been short-handed too. … Everybody is dealing with this, so for me it’s not necessarily who’s playing for a team or not playing, it’s how we’re playing.’’

How they played was making sure the ball moved offensively, but also LaVine and Lauri Markkanen got into a flow early.

“You want to get your two best scorers going and we did that,’’ guard Tomas Satoransky said. “It opens up everything. We were all running really well right from the beginning, and when that happens guys have good games.’’

That they did.

In a nice mix of going with a familiar formula of allowing LaVine to play aggressively but efficiently (15-for-20 from the field), as well as the new look first team that had Thaddeus Young and Satoransky in for Wendell Carter Jr. and Coby White, the Bulls appeared to be poised to end the rematch with the Thunder (17-23) quickly.

Not only was LaVine on fire in that opening stanza, but the entire starting unit was in sync. Just another reminder why Donovan made the change after the loss to Miami, looking to get his team off to quicker starts.

Satoransky and Young made sure to help that process along, as the two combined for nine of the 12 first-quarter assists, getting the Bulls out in front 42-28 after one.

While Donovan didn’t enjoy the bench unit spitting that lead back up in the second, the defense made sure that the Thunder would be put back in a corner for the second half, holding Oklahoma City to just 16 third-quarter points.

The big change? Carter was inserted back into the starting lineup to help combat the size of Moses Brown, and more than did his job.

“Moses Brown had I think six offensive rebounds in the first half,’’ Donovan said. “I wanted to start the same way [in the third] with the same group, but I think just putting Wendell out there against him was a bigger body.’’

If there was a cloud in the win, and a small cloud it was, rookie Patrick Williams scored a career-high 23 on Sunday against the Raptors, and it would have been nice to see the 19-year-old follow that performance up. Instead he scored just two points on 1-for-9 shooting, grabbing only three rebounds.

A collision with the rookie wall?

Tough to say, especially with the entire league in uncharted territory by playing so many games in this second half, let alone this rookie class dealing with it.

“The thing you always worry about with young players is the mental fatigue,’’ Donovan said. “Certainly that’s going to be the biggest challenge in my opinion, just with the loaded-up schedule on the back end. He hasn’t experienced anything like this at all in his life.’’

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