Even though Ryan Kelly has been back for just three games, Duke showed the team's chemistry is in top form with the rout of North Carolina.
Chris Dall / The Chronicle
Even though Ryan Kelly has been back for just three games, Duke showed the team's chemistry is in top form with the rout of North Carolina.

CHAPEL HILL—When Ryan Kelly returned to the Duke lineup last Saturday against Miami, there was no doubt that his talent had returned to the floor—his 36-point performance dispelled any question of his health holding him back.

But Kelly’s stellar individual effort was not in itself a sign of revitalized chemistry for the No. 3 Blue Devils (27-4, 14-4 in the ACC), who played North Carolina Saturday night in their third game since Kelly’s return.

“[Prior to Kelly’s injury,] I don’t think we had the best team in the country,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We had a good team, but we had the best chemistry in those 15 games. They really enjoyed playing with one another. They made each other better. And we’re trying to develop that again. It doesn’t just happen.”

Saturday night in Chapel Hill, though, it was clear that the process of regaining chemistry was well underway. The Blue Devils’ smooth, balanced team play and poised demeanor helped Duke to dismantle North Carolina in nearly every facet of the game. The Blue Devils came away with a dominant 69-53 victory despite a hostile road environment and the Tar Heels’ six-game win streak with a new-look lineup.

Prior to that win streak, North Carolina (22-9, 12-6) had even given Duke all it could handle at Cameron Indoor Stadium. But head coach Roy Williams and his team looked hopeless against the Blue Devils’ team-oriented attack in the regular season finale.

Read more about this year's matchup between Duke and North Carolina

“We’re re-energized,” senior Seth Curry said after the game. “We’re having a lot more fun out there with our whole team.”

Chemistry helped Duke to seamlessly integrate a new starter into the lineup, with Rasheed Sulaimon ceding both his starting position and most of his minutes to Tyler Thornton for defensive purposes. Sulaimon played only 15 minutes in the contest, including just two after halftime. Thornton contributed just three points in his 28 minutes of play, but held North Carolina’s second-leading scorer Reggie Bullock to just eight points and an 0-for-4 performance from beyond the arc.

Meanwhile, the Blue Devil offense did not miss a beat despite missing Sulaimon’s 11.7 points per game for much of the contest. In a further test of Duke’s balance, Kelly took just four shots and scored eight points as the scoring load shifted to Curry and Mason Plumlee.

“If a team decides to key in on Ryan, I’ll have more one-on-ones,” Plumlee said. “If they key in on Seth, there will be more pick-and-rolls.”

But in a further sign of the team’s unity, Plumlee and Kelly left the early spotlight to Curry, as Bullock struggled mightily to defend the smaller Duke guard. Bullock’s 6-foot-7 frame and defensive versatility have caused problems in the past for many of the ACC’s scoring guards—Curry included—but early in the game, the Duke senior was able to exploit his quickness advantage.

“I was just playing terrible defense in the first half,” Bullock said. “I was playing too far off of him. He was pulling up. He was getting in the lane, finishing. We were getting mixed up on switching the screens, and he was connecting on them. He definitely won.”

And even more chemistry allowed the Blue Devils to move away from the hot hand in the name of better strategy as the game progressed. In the second half, Curry and the backcourt began looking less for their own shots and more to pound the ball inside to the 6-foot-10 Plumlee, who possessed a substantial size advantage over James Michael McAdoo in the post. Plumlee’s methodical assault in the post, which resulted in Duke’s first 10 points of the second half, helped keep the Tar Heels at arm’s length even as the Blue Devils’ hot outside shooting inevitably cooled slightly.

But perhaps the most tell-tale sign of Duke’s successful chemistry was the demoralized atmosphere among the North Carolina players after the game. Despite a 13-2 North Carolina run that occurred in the middle of the second half, Duke never allowed the Tar Heels to recover or regain any rhythm.

Bullock and fellow wing P.J. Hairston, who shot just 1-for-6 from beyond the arc, both appeared emotionally defeated after the game, and head coach Roy Williams emphasized the need to give his team some time to recover following the rout.

“We have to give them some time because mentally it's been a tough stretch for a young team. We have to give them a little bit of time," Williams said. "I told my team six games ago that let's play these last six games, let's really play these last six games. I think we did for five of them, but not today."

The Blue Devils, meanwhile, were just starting to get their legs back under them with their rejuvenated roster.

“You’re always going to be better when you’re having fun, no matter what,” Plumlee said, beaming, outside the Duke locker room. “If I’m having fun doing homework, the grade is going to be better.”

The teams the Blue Devils will face next week in the ACC Tournament will need to hope the they don’t have too much fun.