The Chicago Bulls didn’t have any advantage on their side when they arrived in Denver — not the odds, not the altitude, not their recent momentum.
The Bulls entered with a two-game losing streak after giving up a potential play-in tiebreaker to the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, and they risked a drop to 12th in the Eastern Conference with another loss.
Their offensive rating had plummeted since January as they dropped repeated clutch games and struggled to string together wins. And after a strong start to the season against the top teams, the Bulls hadn’t beaten a team above .500 since Jan. 6.
But they didn’t need Wednesday’s 117-96 win over the Western Conference-leading Nuggets to make sense. They just needed it to spark something — life, enthusiasm, belief — back into a season plagued by inconsistency.
When Zach LaVine vaulted in the air with his arm ratcheted backward for a ferocious hammer dunk in the third quarter, he seemed to crush the ball through the rim with a fervent message: This season isn’t over just yet.
LaVine served as the focal piece for the offense, dropping his head and carving his way to the rim at will. The game highlighted LaVine’s ability to attack gaps and force his way through defenders. He finished with 29 points and four assists.
Denver’s zone defense created yawning openings for Patrick Williams and Nikola Vučević to pull apart. Both players moved along the baseline and around the paint to receive dump-off passes for high-efficiency shots, while Williams added to his best performance of the season by attacking from the perimeter. Vučević finished with 25 points and 15 rebounds, and Williams scored 18 points off the bench.
After going 2-for-14 from 3-point range in the first half, the Bulls cleaned up their long-range shooting in the second half, shooting 4-for-5 behind the arc in the third quarter and 2-for-5 in the fourth. This forced the Nuggets to stretch their zone, opening lanes to the basket for LaVine and Williams to slash to the rim.
The Nuggets spent most of the game in a zone to challenge the Bulls to shoot 3-pointers while packing the paint. The Bulls couldn’t make them pay for it in the first half, and even with the second-half improvement, the Nuggets outscored the Bulls 45-24 behind the arc. However, the Bulls leveled that disparity by outscoring Denver 66-38 in the paint.
The Nuggets had an eight-game home winning streak before Wednesday as they sat atop the West by a wide margin and jockeyed with the Milwaukee Bucks for the best record in the league.
But with only 16 games left in the season, the Bulls are aware these are the challenges they have to overcome to clinch a spot in the postseason.
“We ain’t got no choice at this point,” LaVine said. “We exhausted all our mistakes and throwaway games.”
Where they stand
The Bulls remain 11th in the East after the win at 30-36, a game behind the Washington Wizards for the final play-in spot and a game ahead of the Pacers.
What comes next
The Bulls conclude their road trip Saturday against the Houston Rockets, then return home to face the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday.