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Bulls defeat the Pacers 120-112 in OT

By Jamal Collier
Chicago Tribune/TNS

Chicago Bulls center Wendell Carter Jr. returned to the starting lineup Monday night against the Indiana Pacers, coming back sooner than expected after missing 11 games with a severe bruise on his right quadriceps.

Carter provided a boost at the start of the game - finishing with 11 points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes - and Zach LaVine and Thad Young took over to finish, leading the Bulls to a 120-112 overtime victory. LaVine scored 30 points, including some difficult clutch shots late, and Young added 13 points and 11 rebounds off the bench.

The win snapped a 10-game losing streak against the Pacers and was the Bulls’ first victory in Indianapolis since 2016.

Carter looked strong in his first game back, and his presence helped the Bulls contain Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis, who finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds but was 7 of 19 from the field.

Although Carter practiced Sunday, coach Billy Donovan said his conditioning might need some catching up after such an extended absence. So while he did not place Carter on a strict minutes restriction before the game, the Bulls are likely to monitor his minutes as he eases back into the rotation.

“It’s not like he’s had a big buildup, so (I) don’t see him playing extended minutes,” Donovan said before the game. “It’s something we’ll have to work toward. We’ll see how he does, how he responds. I imagine some of the conditioning will be a little bit of a challenge just because, with that thigh injury, he hasn’t been able to maintain the level of cardiovascular conditioning we would have liked.”

Carter’s return came sooner than initially anticipated. He had been sidelined since suffering the injury in practice Jan. 20 after getting the worse end of a collision with Denzel Valentine. The team’s initial timeline planned for Carter to be evaluated after four weeks, knowing it could take longer to work his way back because his mobility would be limited with a leg injury.

Even while he works his way back to full strength, however, he should provide a boost for the depleted Bulls frontcourt.

The Bulls went 4-7 in Carter’s absence. Without him or forward Lauri Markkanen available, their lineups have been much smaller in the past month.

In 14 games before the injury, Carter averaged 12.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists. He was starting to settle in defensively, and Donovan felt like Carter was starting to get more comfortable in the offense, including freeing up shooters with his excellent screen setting (5.0 screen assists per game; tied for fourth in the NBA).

“I’m not thinking that Wendell was going to end up being where he was before he got injured,” Donovan said. “This is probably going to take him some time. He looked fine (Sunday) moving and cutting and playing. There were no issues there. But I do think it’s going to take him some time to get his rhythm, his timing, his conditioning back. Hopefully that’ll happen sooner rather than later.”