Chicago Bulls escape Memphis with a 118-110 victory — and their two-big pairing could be here to stay

Brandon Dill/Chicago Tribune/TNS

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — If the Chicago Bulls were attempting to back up the promise that the current roster can compete with the best in the NBA, Thursday night was not the most promising start.

Executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas spent most of his afternoon post-trade deadline news conference reiterating that the team can be “competitive” in the Eastern Conference and is “really good.”

But the Bulls struggled to back up that claim a few hours later against the Memphis Grizzlies, a bottom-three team in the Western Conference that has won only 18 games.

The Grizzlies long ago abandoned the concept of competitiveness after a rash of injuries disrupted their season, headlined by the season-ending loss of superstar Ja Morant. Their injury report for the game listed 10 absences, including Desmond Bane, Marcus Smart, Derrick Rose and Luke Kennard. Besides star center Jaren Jackson Jr., the starting lineup was hardly recognizable.

The Bulls managed a 118-110 win but struggled to establish any dominance until late in the fourth quarter, trailing for the majority of the game. They improved to 25-27 and remained in ninth place in the East.

DeMar DeRozan led the way with 30 points and Coby White had 20 points and eight assists. And if one thing is apparent after the second straight win, the Bulls’ two-big lineup could be here to stay.

Coach Billy Donovan debuted a new look Tuesday against the Minnesota Timberwolves, starting Nikola Vučević and Andre Drummond in hopes of thwarting the powerful combination of Karl Anthony-Towns and Rudy Gobert.

The Bulls didn’t open with Drummond and Vučević on the court in Memphis, opting to start Ayo Dosunmu instead. But Drummond entered the game with 4 minutes, 47 seconds left in the first quarter and quickly settled into a spot in the rotation alongside Vučević.

The Bulls utilized the two-big lineup even when the Grizzlies took out Jackson Jr. and Santi Aldama. And they opened the second half with Drummond and Vučević on the court, reflecting an increased comfort in the pairing.

Vučević finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Drummond logged 21 points and 13 rebounds off the bench.

“They’ve got to pick their poison,” Drummond said after Tuesday’s win. “Either you let me beat you up in the paint or he can shoot the 3 or beat you up in the paint. It’s a great duo.”

The pairing of the veteran centers has looked natural, requiring more of an adjustment from the three guards on the court than the big men in the paint. Drummond and Vučević dumped passes off to one another in the post and fed each other on seals throughout the game.

Donovan noted that Vučević is particularly keen on finding the post on the low block after feeling his teammates missed him at times this season.

“Vooch being a big guy, he’s probably the guy that looks into the post more than anybody,” Donovan said. “Sometimes we miss Vooch, we miss Andre in the post. Vooch is not missing anybody in the post. He’s throwing it down there. He’s setting a good example. ‘OK, when I’m down there, dump it in there. You see what I’m doing?’ ”

Drummond said he hadn’t practiced a two-big look with Vučević until Tuesday morning, and even that was brief. But he felt they were able to figure each other out in a live game.

While Drummond acknowledged they still have room to grow, he was eager to earn more minutes alongside Vučević.

“With practice and some real time together, I don’t see why it can’t work,” Drummond said. “Vooch has played with bigs throughout his career, and I played with other bigs throughout my career, too, so it’s not a shock factor. Nothing new.

“It’s just getting that real work in. He’s a smart player, I’m a smart player. I stay out of his way and likewise.”