Aaron Perez and Daniel Diaz were in their seats at the United Center long before the Chicago Bulls took the court for their first preseason game. Like many fans, the friends were eager to check out the hyped additions of Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan, but most of all, with COVID-19-related crowd restrictions no longer in effect, they were ready to hear some noise.
“It makes the city feel complete,” said Perez, who is from Riverside. “It’s going to be great for the players to see that their fans are really supporting them.”
Though the arena’s rib-shaking sound system might have outdone the roughly half-capacity crowd — hey, it’s the preseason — the Bulls gave the fans plenty to cheer in their 131-95 defeat of the Cleveland Cavaliers, with freaky dunks, lightning transition play and snappish defense that led to 13 steals and 11 blocks, well above the Bulls’ averages last season.
“I’m proud of the way that the (Bulls front office) put this team together,” said season ticket holder Shawn Price, who was attending with her uncle Gregory Pierce. “We have more tough players, we have smarter players, we have some high-flying guys, so I think it’s going to be a great team and a great season.”
Coach Billy Donovan has said he’s looking for speed from the new-look Bulls, aiming to launch an up-tempo attack from the defensive end.
“The more we’re taking the ball out of the basket, the harder it’s going to be for us to run,” he said before the game. “What we’ve got to do is be really, really good on misses, and that starts with our defense.”
The game against the Cavs brought that hopeful vision to life. In a stretch late in the first half, starters Ball, DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević teamed with newcomer Alex Caruso to expand the lead to 21 with quick, suffocating defense and fast break after fast break.
“That started on defense,” said Ball, who finished with three steals and two blocks to go with eight points and five assists. “We started getting to the ball more, getting those deflections. … Most of the points we got were in transition. We weren’t even running any half-court sets. Anytime we can do that, it works in our favor.”
LaVine, who finished with 25 points in 24 minutes, including back-to-back highlight dunks, said the team’s new weapons and quick style of play should ease his scoring burden.
“It’s just getting easier shots,” he said. “We’re playing free basketball right now, getting up and down the floor. For me to be able to play off the ball, get cuts, get easy spot-ups, it’s something I haven’t had in a while.”
LaVine and DeRozan praised Ball’s passing. The point guard in turn spoke highly of his new teammates’ unselfishness and intelligence.
“We have a lot of talent,” he said. “There’s only one basketball out there, and we understand that. It’s all about getting the best shot. I think everybody gets that, one through 15, and we showed that tonight.”
Chicago native Ayo Dosunmu, a rookie guard drafted in the second round out of Illinois, made a late impression by scoring eight points in the second half, including two on a breakaway dunk.
The Bulls will face a different test Friday when the New Orleans Pelicans come to town, but the true trial begins Oct. 20, when they open the season on the road against the Detroit Pistons. Despite the exhilarating start, DeRozan cautioned that the road ahead will become more difficult.
“It’s big, but we’ve got a hell of a long way to go,” he said. “We can’t be satisfied with this. We can’t take nothing for granted.
“It’s going to be tough. There’s going to be days when things go great, (but) it’s all about when things go bad, how we bounce back and get through those things.”