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BOSTON — In the makeshift pressroom for the visiting team at TD Garden, where Boston Celtics Dancers once stored their belongings before the COVID-19 pandemic put in-game entertainment on pause, a trio of Chicago-area beat reporters and an Associated Press writer awaited Chicago Bulls guard DeMar DeRozan.
We were hardly the welcoming committee deserved of a two-time All-NBA player and $82 million offseason acquisition who just casually scored 37 points in a comeback victory for the league's best team by record.
A short while after his coach and a rookie second-round draft pick lauded his seamless contributions to their 6-1 start, long enough for Chicago's media contingent to sort their travel plans and a public relations employee to change into more comfortable attire for the late-night flight to Philadelphia, DeRozan strolled through the smattering of mostly empty chairs, his black-and-red flannel covering a light gray sweatshirt.
DeRozan has been here before in this scene befitting the NBA's most underrated star.
"I knew from coming here that everybody on the team had that chip on their shoulder and wasn't going to lay down for no reason," DeRozan said on a night his 15-for-20 shooting helped the Bulls erase a 19-point second-half deficit in a 128-114 road victory. "That was the reason why I came. The conversation I had with the front office, I felt it. I sensed it. I understood it, and as a competitor, that's something I wanted to be a part of. The guys had that same type of mindset, so to me it didn't just seem like words. Everybody's willing to put it into action, understanding that nothing's going to be perfect, but everybody wants to win."
The Bulls are a team built in DeRozan's image. The three-year, $82 million contract he received in a sign-and-trade deal with the San Antonio Spurs was widely panned, if only because there were not many, if any, other teams lining up with similar offers for a four-time All-Star whose ceiling is somewhere sub-superstar.
DeRozan has formed a partnership with a trio of similarly disparaged talents on a team nobody believed could win the East: Zach LaVine, a 26-year-old one-time All-Star who has yet to appear in the playoffs; Nikola Vucevic, a two-time All-Star who toiled most of his 10-year career on the mediocre Orlando Magic; and Lonzo Ball, the recent No. 2 overall pick who finds himself on a third team since 2019. They are tasked with restoring glory to a once-great franchise that has been lottery-bound for each of the past four seasons.
We spend far more time discussing what they cannot be — superstars capable of carrying a champion — than what they are — a collection of quality players who could exceed expectations if they fit together.
DeRozan is a corner of that puzzle, a reliable piece from which to build. The Toronto Raptors constructed a 59-win team on a foundation of DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, who, like LaVine, spent his first seven seasons finding an All-Star footing on sub-.500 teams. DeRozan begot Kawhi Leonard, the final piece to Toronto's championship puzzle. To watch someone else finish what you started is an awkward NBA space to occupy.
Yet, DeRozan humbly spent the past three seasons as the steward of the NBA's most precipitous rebuild. The San Antonio Spurs' small-market success story followed Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to Leonard, who burned the last remaining bridge from the dynasty. In stepped DeRozan, who did not ask for the responsibility of leading a ragtag group of mid-to-late first-round draft picks, but he accepted it.
DeRozan did what he does best in San Antonio. He got in where he fit in. Without Lowry at his side, DeRozan was tasked with creating for the young Spurs, and he transformed into an elite-level facilitator, all the while scoring with remarkable efficiency for a mid-range master unwilling to shoot from beyond the arc.
"He's a basketball player. That's the thing. He's just a basketball player," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "He can pass it. He's got really good vision. He can post. He can play in the pick and roll. He plays in the mid-range. ... He's just a player. He's one of those guys, if he's in any kind of system, you throw him in, and he's going to thrive, because he'll figure out where and how to get to his spots and what he needs to do."
There are limitations to DeRozan's impact. His 3-point shooting is one. Defense is another. He is not a perfect basketball player, and the Bulls are not a perfect team, but they are both good, and we should be just as quick to note how their strengths translate to victories as we are when their weaknesses do not.
"As far as signing here," DeRozan said, "that was one thing that they emphasized — just come be myself. The comfort, the happiness, the joy that you see me bring to the court is just me being myself."
Take DeRozan's Monday night in Boston. In a sprint without even a slight breeze of resistance, he came out scorching, scoring 19 points in the game's first 15 minutes to stake Chicago to a 44-35 lead and carry LaVine through a rocky 1-for-8 start. Celtics wing Jaylen Brown responded with his own barrage — 26 points over a 15-minute stretch that flipped the score in his favor, 87-69, midway through the third quarter.
Donovan turned to his defense, employing Tony Bradley, Derrick Jones Jr., Alex Caruso and second-round upstart Ayo Dosunmu around LaVine, who caught fire, scoring 14 points on a 31-11 Bulls run. DeRozan watched from the bench, "sharing whatever experience I can to keep us together," before returning to score 10 more points over the last half of the fourth quarter, erasing Boston's last lead in Chicago's decisive win.
"He's great for our team," Donovan added of DeRozan. "I think he's great for Zach. I could tell Zach was pressing a little bit when shots weren't falling. I thought a couple times he was too aggressive and had some opportunities to pass it to some guys, but having a guy like DeMar out there who just plays with a pace, a tempo and a poise — you can never take him out of what he's doing. I think he's a guy who has experienced a lot individually, the way his career has gone, and he's also experienced a lot of winning."
Stars the caliber of DeRozan and LaVine can clash when neither can carry a contender on his own, or they can feed off each other, selling unselfishness to a team willing to buy it. The Celtics refused to pay that asking price on Tuesday, as Marcus Smart spent his postgame press conference calling on Brown and Jayson Tatum to come out of isolation. DeRozan has seen enough to know how best to better the Bulls.
"We're just continuing to learn each other," he said of LaVine ."It's definitely fun playing with him. He's an incredible, incredible basketball player, but even more as a human being. It's fun to be out there. Whatever I can do to help alleviate any type of thing for him and for my team, I'm definitely going to do that."
DeRozan even attempted four 3-pointers (and made three of them) in Tuesday's win, the third time in Chicago's first seven games he has tried so many. He shot four 3-pointers only four times all of last season — also in his first eight games, reason to preach patience with any final determination on his fit in Chicago. But the early returns are encouraging, largely because DeRozan has brought with him stability to the Bulls.
"When you watch these guys on film — his time in Toronto and San Antonio — you try to see what he likes, what he doesn't like, those kinds of things," said Donovan, "but unfortunately a lot of times people don't see what kind of person he is. He's a great guy, a team guy. He's an incredibly unselfish, really humble, good guy. I love working with him. I put Zach and Vooch in the same category. Just good, good guys."
With that, Donovan, himself humbled by last season's 31-win campaign, stood and left TD Garden's tiny pressroom, making room for his underrated star, bags packed for Philadelphia with the NBA's best record.
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