Cubs

Bulls fall to Rockets, first back-to-back losses of season

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Bulls fall to Rockets, first back-to-back losses of season

The stage was set, with the return of half of their starting backcourt, but a second-half collapse led to the Bulls dropping the two games in a row for the first time all season, as they fell to the Rockets, 99-93, Monday night at the United Center.

An atypical defensive showing and the inability to take care of the basketball led to the rare occurrence of the team that entered the evening with the leagues best record losing at home, a day after a disappointing blowout defeat at the hands of the Western Conference-best Thunder in Oklahoma City.

In his return to the lineup after missing 14 games due to a right-shoulder injury, Rip Hamilton (six points on 2-for-7 shooting, three assists in 19 minutes) made an immediate impact, providing the Bulls (42-13) with an aggressive perimeter scoring threat, as well as a capable playmaker.

A beneficiary of the veteran shooting guards underrated playmaking was Joakim Noah (15 points, nine rebounds), who got off to a solid start in general, as evidenced by his activity on the boards, strong finishes at the rim and running the floor in transition.

Houston (29-25), however, was clicking on the offensive end, as the veteran inside duo of Luis Scola (18 points, 12 rebounds, six assists) and Marcus Camby (12 points, 11 rebounds) went to work early, as the pair was a force on the glass, rained in jumpers and scored on the interior.

With point guard Goran Dragic (21 points, five assists) also contributing on offense, the Rockets took advantage of the Bulls again playing below their usual standards on defense, putting the hosts behind, 26-22, after a period of play, despite All-Star Luol Deng (24 points, seven rebounds) chipping in with a quietly solid opening quarter.

The always-energetic Taj Gibson came off the bench to spark the Bulls early in the second frame, helping the home team quickly overtake the visitors and seize the lead. The entire Bench Mob gave the Bulls a boostRonnie Brewer, back to being a backup with Hamilton starting, stood out as a passerextending the lead with an all-out defensive effort and sprinkling of transition offense against the Rockets reserves.

Noah continued to thrive on both ends of the floor, finishing with authorityof his first six baskets, five were dunksand providing a defensive presence, both of which aided the Bulls in acquiring a comfortable double-digit advantage.

However, the visitors stormed back toward the end of the first half, as Dragic scored six points in less than 20 secondstwo fast-break layups off Bulls turnovers, then another off an inbounds passto narrow the gap, leaving the hosts with a 51-40 lead at the intermission.

After the break, Deng became the Bulls offensive focal point and delivered as a scorer, but received little help from his teammates throughout the period. For Houston, the opposite was true, as a total team effortgreatly aided by the Bulls ball-security issues, leading to transition baskets on the other end of the courtgot the guests back into the game.

Camby and Scola were instrumental in the comeback, but Dragics scoring and playmaking prowess was key for the Rockets, who also got solid contributions from supporting-cast members, such as starting wings Courtney Lee (13 points) and rookie Chandler Parsons, as well as reserves Chase Budinger (13 points) and recently-signed veteran Earl Boykins.

With the Bulls struggling on both ends of the floor, the visitors surged to take a 71-70 into the fourth quarter.

The Rockets held on to the games momentum early in the final stanza, as Budingers long-range accuracy offset Carlos Boozers (16 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists) mid-range shooting, giving the visitors a double-digit cushion to work with.

Familiar fourth-quarter savior John Lucas III and designated sharpshooter Kyle Korver attempted to spark a run, but the balanced visitors continued to get help from a variety of sources, as Boykins and second-year power forward Patrick Patterson came through with timely scoring to keep Houston in firm control midway through the period.

Turnovers and the inability to capitalize on missed Rockets opportunities still plagued the Bulls as the game entered its stretch run, but even after a Deng jumper cut it to a four-point contest, Lee responded to make it 94-88 with 51 seconds remaining.

A Korver turnover and subsequent foul on the next possession virtually sealed the deal, giving the Bulls back-to-back losses for the first time since falling to Golden State and Portland last February.

Joe Maddon's advice to new Bears head coach Matt Nagy

Joe Maddon's advice to new Bears head coach Matt Nagy

Joe Maddon knows a thing or two about taking a storied Chicago franchise from a rebuilding team to a World Champ.

Bears head coach Matt Nagy hopes to have that in common with the Cubs skipper one day, and it helps that the two share a similar background: Nagy, like Maddon, grew up in Pennsylvania in a town called Manheim, about 80 miles from Maddon's hometown of Hazelton.

It took Maddon only two years to lead the Cubs to the top for the first time in 108 years, but expectations should be tempered for Nagy's Bears. It's more about the process than the results early on. 

And the only way Nagy can help eventually lead the Bears back to another Super Bowl is by doing what Maddon did.

"Just be yourself," Maddon said when asked what his advice is to Nagy. "The one thing that I found when I came to Chicago that I thought my hometown of Hazelton was a microcosm of this city and the people here. Very inviting, open folks, passionate about their sports and Bears football, so I wish you nothing but the best. But all I can say, typically, Pennsylvania: Just be yourself."

Check out Maddon's full comments in the video above.

Just the right fit: Steve Kerr sees the Bulls finally meshing into Fred Hoiberg's system

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USA TODAY

Just the right fit: Steve Kerr sees the Bulls finally meshing into Fred Hoiberg's system

Thirteen days after Fred Hoiberg was hired as the 19th head coach in Bulls history, Steve Kerr and the Warriors were crowned NBA champions. Part of Kerr’s offseason included meeting for lunch with the newest member of the 30-man head coaching fraternity. It was an important sitdown for Hoiberg, getting to speak with both a man who had followed a similar path to his now-current position, and one he was trying to emulate from a stylistic perspective.

“I think the world of Steve. He’s been great to me since I’ve been in the league,” Hoiberg said Wednesday. “He’s just done an unbelievable job and I feel fortunate to be able to talk to him about situations. And I’ve done that through good times and bad.”

Conversation between the two has been far more good than bad these days. Golden State remains the golden standard of the NBA. Wednesday's win over the Bulls was their 14th consecutive on the road, third longest in NBA history. They have the league's best record (37-9), its most efficient offense and fourth most efficient defense. 

They're far and away the favorites to hoist a third Larry O'Brien trophy in June, and even without Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala on Wednesday they pulled away with ease and cruised to a ninth win in their last 10 games. But the Bulls team they beat competed for 48 minutes - just as they've done the last six weeks - and looked far different from the one that suffered a 49-point loss in Oakland in late November.

Hoiberg admitted that the Bulls, like every team in the league, attempts “to pattern their style after this team.” And at times the Bulls looked the part of the up-tempo, step-on-your-throat offensive juggernaut the Warriors have been the last three seasons under Kerr. They scored 40 in the first, and inexplicably put together a 17-0 run spanning the first and second quarters to take a seven-point lead. It wasn't quite as pretty as Golden State's perfection looks, but the Bulls had 15 assists and scored 17 points off Warriors turnovers.

“They go in spurts, they have little streaks and runs, especially at home because they’re a talented team,” Kevin Durant said after the game.

The Warriors were just fine getting into a shooting contest with the Bulls, knowing their core containing three of the world’s best shooters would ultimately outlast their opponent. And it did. In the third quarter the Warriors’ Splash Brothers took over, with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson combining for 22 points on 6-for-10 shooting from deep. Their league-best defense, even without Green, stifled the Bulls, who scored just 11 points in the quarter.

The Bulls, as they've done in this six-week span that's included a 12-8 record, fought down the stretch, inching the deficit down to nine early in the fourth quarter and as close as five in the final minute. But the Warriors closed - same as they always do - and despite a narrow win as far as they're concerned, managed to shoot 50 percent from the field, make 13 3-pointers and hand out 24 assists. Kerr's philosophies, combined with an unprecedented roster in terms of talent, added another tally to its record-breaking win total.

And it's that combination that Kerr believes can propel the Bulls. He admitted being "flattered" that Hoiberg models much of his offense around what the Warriors have done, and said that he's followed Hoiberg since his Iowa State days (when Kerr was an NBA commentator for TNT) and sees the talent not only improving, but meshing with Hoiberg's philosophies in Year 3.

“We’re winning because we have some of the best players in the world. The only way you can truly replicate what we’ve done is to amass a ton of talent,” Kerr said. “Bulls are on the right track. They drafted Markkanen, they got some good players back in the Butler trade, and got some nice young pieces and are playing really well.”

The Jimmy Butler trade return struggled on Wednesday, going 13-for-41, but has proven to be perfect fits with Hoiberg's offense. Dunn will only improve having a creator like LaVine alongside him, and Lauri Markkanen added two more triples to his record-breaking rookie campaign. Nikola Mirotic scored 24 points with four triples, and Bobby Portis stayed efficient with 12 points on 6-for-10 shooting. Even David Nwaba, whose roster spot would have been filled by a second-round pick, played stifling defense on Curry down the stretch and even added eight points in 27 minutes.

The Bulls hit 10 3-pointers, extending their franchise record of double-digit makes to nine straight games. Their offensive rating since Dec. 7 is 12th in the league, just a tick below the Cleveland Cavaliers. Perhaps because of the offensive improvements the defense, too, has shown improvement: they're 16th in the league in efficiency since the 3-20 start. And for what it's worth, they held Golden State to seven fast-break points, more than 14 below their league-leading average.

"We have a group this year that has bought in, especially the past six weeks to getting up the floor and trying to play with pace and get shots up before the defense gets set," Hoiberg said.

So while the Bulls wait for their talent to simmer and improve, they'll go along with and continue to mesh with Hoiberg's philosophies. Golden State's 73-win record won't be in reach, and the Bulls shouldn't wait for two Hall of Famers and four All-Stars in one lineup. But Kerr and the Warriors started somewhere, and while Hoiberg needed to sift through players to find the right fits the last three years, the start of their rebuild is now in focus.

"I think we share a lot of the same vision for the game: spacing and ball movement and everybody touching the ball, feeling part of it. He knows his stuff," Kerr said of Hoiberg. "In this league it takes talent and it takes the right fit and I feel like it’s happening for them now. I know it’s taken a couple of years to get to this point, but in this league fit is everything."