CHICAGO — When Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan returned to the locker room on Thursday night — having just willed the Bulls to a 135-130 overtime victory over the LA Clippers with a season-high 50 points — his teammate, Zach LaVine, sat and waited to present him with the game ball.
However, as DeRozan went to retrieve his prize, the rest of the team went into a frenzy, mobbing him and dousing him with water bottles in celebration of another clutch performance.
DeRozan scored 17 points in the fourth quarter and added 10 more in overtime to lead the Bulls to a 16-point second half comeback over the Clippers. It was his second career 50-point game and first since Jan. 1, 2018.
“The win is more meaningful,” DeRozan said after the game. “I wanted to win this game badly. You see how tight the [playoff] race is. Every single game is extremely important and we have no more room to be dropping any more games. That’s just my mentality.”
A win Thursday looked unlikely for the Bulls as the fourth quarter winded down. They trailed by three points with 7.2 seconds remaining when DeRozan got fouled by Clippers guard Terrance Mann away from the play on an inbounds pass, setting him up for a free throw that made it a two-point game.
The Bulls put the ball in DeRozan’s hands again for the final play and he got fouled by Paul George on a 3-point attempt. He knocked down the first two free throws but missed the third, sending the game into overtime.
DeRozan finished 17 of 26 from the field, 2 of 2 from 3 and 14 of 15 from the free throw line on Thursday with six assists and five rebounds.
“DeMar is unbelievable. After the game he said ‘sorry for missing the free throw,'” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “We wouldn’t have been in OT if it wasn’t for the things he did.”
The Bulls certainly needed DeRozan’s performance to lead them to victory and to keep pace in a crowded Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Chicago is just 7-11 since the All-Star break, but has won three of the past four games to stop its free fall in the standings. The Bulls are currently No. 5 in the conference, a 1/2 game ahead of the Raptors for the No. 6 seed and three games ahead of the Cavaliers to avoid the play-in tournament.
The Bulls’ next three games — Miami, Milwaukee and Boston — are against teams ahead of them in the conference.
“No matter who we play now, it’s going to be this type of physicality, atmosphere, aggression, being desperate to win, competing,” DeRozan said. “You’re going to get everybody’s best blow. You can’t run from anything. As a competitor, I always want to play the best of the best.”
DeRozan is in the middle of a career year in his first season in Chicago, but his production in March had slipped compared to the rest of the season. He had been averaging 25.8 points on 53.5% true-shooting this month entering Thursday’s game, a 10 point drop in both categories compared to his 34.2 points on 63% true-shooting in February.
DeRozan became the sixth player in Bulls history to score 50 points in a game, and first since LaVine did so in April 2021.
DeRozan also capped off one of the most prolific individual scoring months in NBA history. There were nine 50-point games in March, as many as there were from October to February this season combined, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.
“That guy for us is special,” Donovan said. “He really is. I give him a lot of credit… the fact that he can mentally focus in and lock in on what he wants to get done and how he plays. Even just seeing him at the end of regulation, miss that free throw, he was bothered.
“Some of those guys they’re wired in a way that they have an unbelievable level of focus and concentration. And whether things slow down for them or their concentration is heightened, it’s pretty amazing to see him do.”