The Washington Wizards open 2022 trying to cool the red-hot Chicago Bulls on Saturday in the nation’s capital.
Chicago won its sixth straight game on Friday in the first leg of a back-to-back set, beating the Indiana Pacers 108-106 in Indianapolis. DeMar DeRozan scored a game-high 28 points, five of which came in the game’s final 36.4 seconds.
DeRozan’s 3-pointer as time expired extended the Bulls’ longest winning streak of the season and pushed his own run of consecutive games scoring at least 20 points to 11.
Since Dec. 19 — which marked both DeRozan’s first game back from a three-game absence due to COVID-19 health and safety protocol and the beginning of the Bulls’ win streak — he is averaging 28.5 points per game.
Chicago’s Coby White, who also returned from protocol at the start of the winning streak, matched a season-high with 24 points on Friday. Nikola Vucevic grabbed 16 rebounds to go with 14 points.
The Bulls are not back to full strength after dealing with a rash of absences in December, including Lonzo Ball missing his fourth consecutive game on Friday due to COVID protocol.
However, with Zach LaVine back in the rotation starting with the Dec. 26 game to join DeRozan and White, the Bulls open 2022 tied with the Brooklyn Nets for the Eastern Conference’s best record.
“Credit to our hard work,” DeRozan said postgame. “For the team to hold on, sustain like we’ve been doing, end the year off atop our conference speaks volumes about what type of team we are and what type of team we can be once we’re back to full strength.”
Washington, meanwhile, welcomed Bradley Beal back from protocol in its 110-93 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday, and he responded with game-highs of 29 points and 10 assists.
“He’s our best player, so to have him back is uplifting within itself,” Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. said postgame. “The fact that he’d come back and not miss a beat, it was big for us tonight.”
Beal recorded his third double-double of the season. His team-leading scoring average of 23.5 points per game is down from 31.3 a season ago when he was in the mix for the scoring title, but Thursday’s performance continued a run of four straight games recording at least 26 points. That streak began before his three-game absence due to health and safety protocol.
Washington’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope also returned from protocol on Thursday and scored 12 points in his first appearance since Dec. 18. Kyle Kuzma, who missed two games due to protocol in mid-December, recorded a 25-point, 10-rebound double-double against Cleveland.
He comes into Saturday’s matchup on his first run of back-to-back 20-plus- point games this season.
Like Chicago, Washington has returned some of a heavily depleted roster from protocol but is not completely clear. Montrezl Harrell, the Wizards’ second-leading scorer on the season at 14.5 points per game, entered protocol ahead of Washington’s Dec. 28 loss at Miami and hasn’t played since.
“Everybody the last two seasons really has gone through this to some degree,” Unseld said. “We kind of take some of those experiences and we’re better for it. It’s still not ideal.”
–Field Level Media