Bulls feel ‘different energy’ in United Center in home opener

After stepping to center court to welcome nearly 21,000 frenzied Chicago Bulls fans back to the United Center for the team’s 2021-22 regular-season opener on Friday night, Zach LaVine made a promise.

“We got a team to make you guys proud,” he said.

Certainly, they lived up to the billing in the ensuing 128-112 undressing of the New Orleans Pelicans. The Bulls lived on the fastbreak for all four quarters of the contest, producing highlight-reel dunks, alley-oops and and-1 finishes while building a lead that swelled to as many as 30 points.

With everything from raucous roars off of made baskets, to furious sign-waving at opposing free-throw shooters, to “MVP” chants for LaVine and Alex Caruso, the fans returned the favor.

“(It was) great to have the fans back and play in front of a packed house at the UC,” LaVine said postgame. “It's something that we haven't had in a long time.”

The Bulls, in fact, hadn’t housed more than 20,000 fans for a game since March 6, 2020 — a 108-102 loss to the Indiana Pacers in which the hosts trotted out a starting five of Tomáš Satoranský, Denzel Valentine, Shaq Harrison, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. The result moved that team’s record to 21-42.

On Friday, the starting lineup featured Lonzo Ball, LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Williams and Nikola Vučević. The rout moved the team to 2-0 for the first time since 2016-17, and marked its first home-opener victory since that same season.

Needless to say, the vibe has changed.

“It's just a different energy around the team right now,” LaVine continued. “It's fun to go out there in front of the fans and put on a show.”

LaVine, who knows first-hand how un-fun this franchise’s rebuilding years were, went on to say that “this is the most excited I’ve been playing basketball.”

“We've just got a totally different energy with the team,” he said. “We expect to play this way.”

Billy Donovan, who for the first time in his Bulls tenure absorbed a full and invigorated United Center crowd, was just happy to be on the home side.

“I always felt like it was hard coming in here (to the United Center) playing (as an opponent). It was always a really, really difficult place to play in. So I was happy I was the home team,” Donovan said. “It was a great atmosphere, it was a great environment, the fans are loud. And, listen, if we can play well, you end up making it a very, very exciting building to play in.”

It’s not just the lopsided scoreboards that can cultivate that environment, but also the Bulls’ breakneck style.

On Friday, the Bulls scored 24 fastbreak points, handed out 32 assists and cleared 50 percent shooting from the field and 3-point range. Highlights aplenty shook the arena — a gravity-defying Javonte Green putback, a touch-lob alley-oop from Lonzo Ball to Alex Caruso, to name just two — but there was also a permeating theme of unselfish play.

“We know we’re a lot faster than most teams in the NBA,” said Ball, who, in his second game as a Bull, finished off a 17-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple-double with zero turnovers. “So when we get it and get to get out on the break the few times that we do, we’ve got to convert the best way we can.”

“We have to run,” Donovan added. “We’ve got a really, really good, instinctive passing team… The faster we play in broken-floor situations, they just play instinctively, which is what we’ve got to do.”

They did so to perfection on Friday, to the merriment of those in attendance.

The Bulls haven’t finished a season with an above-.500 record at home since 2016-17. If they can flip that trend in 2021-22, and do it with the formula they used on Friday, it will mean more mad nights on Madison — in a good way.

“Playing in front of all the fans,” Ball added without hesitation when asked his favorite part of being a Bull so far. “The energy here is amazing. They came out in preseason so we had a good feeling they were going to come out tonight. And they did.”

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