DeMar DeRozan is never going to be mistaken for a defensive stopper.
Even in his younger days, there were very few instances where a coach would turn to the small forward and tell him, “Go ahead and lock ’em down.”
What DeRozan is, however, is crafty.
Milwaukee found that out on Wednesday, as DeRozan drew two huge offensive fouls against Bobby Portis and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and then just to make sure that the Bucks knew that he wasn’t playing on that end of the floor, the smaller DeRozan offered up a block on Brook Lopez … all 7-foot-1 of him.
So while 18 points by the Bulls veteran in that third quarter was just another masterpiece to add to the collection, the dirty work DeRozan did on the defensive end will be the difference between this team being a pretender or contender come the spring.
“We’ve had some down moments,” DeRozan told reporters after the win. “Dropping games we felt we should’ve won … close games. Getting our butt whooped at home. We went through so many emotions already just 20 games in a season. Sometimes, that’s beneficial. You gotta soak in that hurt and generate that over to being competitors. And I think that’s where we’re at right now.”
Where they’re also at is responding to the challenge that coach Billy Donovan unapologetically dropped at the feet of his three veteran leaders.
In the wake of an embarrassing home loss to Orlando last week, it was Donovan who called out DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic, and Zach LaVine, challenging them to not only improve their defense, but start and finish games with energy and urgency.
At least so far, as the Bulls have now put together back-to-back wins against the Eastern Conference’s elite in Boston and Milwaukee.
“Losing the games we lost, we’ve been holding each other accountable,” DeRozan said. “Everybody has been speaking up in film sessions, practice. We’ve been on each other. We’ve been picking it up. I think we’re showing how bad we want it instead of just talking about it. That’s just a testament to guys wanting to compete.”
And that’s been on display on the defensive end, with the Bulls suddenly making life much more difficult for opposing teams.
The Bulls turned the Celtics over 15 times, and then turned up the defensive heat another notch against Milwaukee, turning them over 19 times, but also registering 12 blocks. They even made life difficult for the division rivals at the three-point line, keeping Milwaukee in check with a 12-for-38 (31.6%) night.
“This is proof that we can beat anyone and play with anyone in the league,” guard Coby White said. “It’s upon ourselves to be locked in ready to play.”
That will be tested.
Last season, the No. 1 knock on the Bulls was they handled all the teams they were supposed to beat, but against the elite rosters they not only lost, but bowed down and lost badly. This season, they are suddenly taking big swings at the better teams – already beating Miami, Boston twice and now the Bucks – but have low-energy moments against the likes of the Magic and Spurs.
The stop in Milwaukee was the first in a six-game road trip that will see the Bulls travel to Oklahoma City, Utah, Phoenix, Golden State and Sacramento.
The hope is that the defense that’s been on display the last two games also makes the trip.
“We have to have the same mindset each and every game,” LaVine said. “Hopefully we can start taking these wins and stacking it up.”