CHICAGO — The Chicago Bulls were back home at the United Center on Friday night, and for a moment it seemed as though nothing had changed.
The retro sounds of the Alan Parsons Project filled the stadium during player introductions, just as it has for the last three decades. Benny the Bull was doing his familiar popcorn-spilling shtick, the Luvabulls were back Luvabulling and everyone from courtside to the top of the 300 level was ready to get back to old times again.
Of course, this was not the same Bulls team from the last regular-season game with a full house on the West Side, in March 2020 before the season was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic. Only Zach LaVine and Coby White remain from that 2019-20 team, and with White on the injured list and not expected to return until November, that left LaVine as the last man standing.
Before the opening tip, LaVine took the mic at center court and welcomed Bulls fans back to the UC.
“We’ve got a team that’s going to make you guys proud,” LaVine said. “Let’s get this thing going.”
And then the Bulls got going and going and going ... cruising to a 128-112 win against the New Orleans Pelicans and improving to 2-0.
When veteran DeMar DeRozan took a feed from Lonzo Ball and executed a two-handed slam with 5 minutes, 32 seconds left in the opening quarter, the packed house was on its feet and rocking.
Nikola Vučević's first 3-pointer with less than two minutes in the first quarter brought out an imaginary pistol shot by the Bulls center and the first chants of “Vooch.” Alex Caruso’s spin-o-rama, reverse layup with three minutes left in the half led to “M-V-P” chants for the former Los Angeles Lakers cult idol, a salute to his gritty play and not a mocking of his talent.
The Bulls were off and running, showing fans the up-tempo offense that coach Billy Donovan had promised but one that obviously was missing in the season opener. They built a 28-17 lead in the opening quarter, including show-stopping dunks from DeRozan and Javonte Green, and went into the half shooting 52%.
The anticipation over this season had been building for months, thanks to an impressive roster overhaul by Artūras Karnišovas, and Wednesday’s opening-night win in Detroit was like an appetizer that came out cold but did the trick just the same.
“I think our guys are excited,” Donovan said the day before the home opener. “It’s great to have fans back in. It was a totally different experience, being in the bubble in Orlando (in 2020) and last year for us, we went to some places that were 30 or 50% full, but for the most part it was pretty much empty. And our place, outside of the last couple of home games, we had nobody there.
“I always felt like coming here into the United Center, it was always one of the more difficult environments to play in the NBA. It’s very, very loud, and great, great fan support and they get into the game. So getting a chance to play at home is great, but we also have got to give them something to cheer about, right?”
The Bulls did that, toying at times early on with an overmatched Pelicans team that was without star Zion Williamson. LaVine didn’t hit a shot until sinking a 3-pointer with just less than six minutes left in the half and then made a reverse layup, another basket in the paint and another 3-pointer to give him 10 points in two minutes, upping the Bulls’ lead to 51-37.
LaVine wound up scoring 20 points in the final six minutes of the second quarter and finished with a game-high 32, just as he carried the offense in the opener. That’s the beauty of this new Bulls team: LaVine can let his supporting cast carry the load for long stretches, then take over a game.
It was reminiscent of another Bulls star from another era, though perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit. Ball had a triple-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, while DeRozan scored 26 points.
No matter. For many in the crowd, the home opener was a night for catching up with old friends.
Official scorer Bob Rosenberg returned for his 56th year after missing the end of last season following a car accident that damaged his back. Rosenberg has been here since the start of the franchise in 1966, when Guy Rodgers led the Bulls to a 119-116 win over the San Francisco Warriors at the old International Amphitheatre. Equipment manager John Ligmanowski couldn’t remember how long he had been there but guessed “40-something years.” He actually began his career at the old Chicago Stadium in 1983, arriving a year before Jordan changed the franchise — and the NBA — forever.
There also were some new wrinkles in the new UC norm, such as the video boards showing off fans wearing their face coverings and declaring “It’s cool to wear masks,” as though it were a public service announcement instead of entertainment.
Unfortunately, far fewer than half of the fans wore masks inside during the game. The exception seemed to be in the front row, where a majority of fans followed the mandate in the higher-priced seats that were closer to the action and easier to show on TV.
The Bulls also saluted the WNBA champion Chicago Sky 3 1/2 minutes in the second quarter, and the Sky received a long standing ovation from fans as they stood and acknowledged cheers from their luxury box. LaVine said last week that the Sky’s title “gives us some big shoes to fill,” adding that Candace Parker and the “entire team put the city on their backs.”
It’s way too soon to suggest this Bulls team could replicate the Sky’s success, but on a festive night at the United Center, it was OK to dream big.