Bulls

Bulls have slight edge in Game 6

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Bulls have slight edge in Game 6

It's no longer a stretch to think the Bulls can win Game 6 and go on to win this series even with Taj Gibson less than 100 percent and no Joakim Noah. Coach Tom Thibodeau wants to keep up guessing with Noah by calling him a game time decision, and Noah has indicated he's hopeful to return, but my sources say we won't be seeing Noah on the court again in this series.

Gibson said at Thursday's shoot around that he is definitely going to play. Now the question is whether his conviction is stronger than his sprained right ankle. Playing through pain and being productive through pain are two different things.

Still, there are five key factors in my mind that will determine who will win this Game 6. When I tally up the advantages, the Bulls come out ahead, but only slightly.

1. Luol Deng

Luol Deng has seen the light. Deng played with much more energy and aggressiveness in Game 5, freeing himself a bit from the shadow that has been Andre Iguodala's defense. Iguodala has been stuck to Deng like glue for much of this series. The two had been tied with 41 total points through the first four games, so the matchup has been a wash. But Game 5 changed things and Deng outscored Iguodala 19-11 by hitting four 3-pointers and shooting 10-19 from the field. Maybe Iguodala's sore anchilles tendon is slowing him down, or Deng has finally found a second gear. Whatever the reason, I'll trust that Deng, facing elimination again, can muster the same type of performance on Thursday.

Advantage: Bulls

2. Center court

Despite Coach Tom Thibodeau's 'game time decision' declaration on Joakim Noah, I don't expect to see the Bulls big man back on the court for Thursday's game, or the rest of the series for that matter. The Bulls will have to go without him again, which wasn't a problem in Game 5 given the play by Omar Asik and Taj Gibson. The problem is Gibson may be slowed down by that bum ankle and the Sixers' Spencer Hawes seems to be angry over the physical play from Tuesday night--Hawes got a gash across his face courtesy of Gibson and seems pretty miffed about it. He may be looking for revenge and wanting to redeem himself after scoring just 11 points in Game 5 after three straight 20-point performances. Only because of Asik's inconsistency and Gibson's compromised ankle will I give the edge to Philadelphia here.

Advantage: Sixers

3. Rip Hamilton

The fact that Rip Hamilton has played in more playoff games and has had more playoff success than anyone on the court in this series should give the Bulls a significant advantage, but instead, Rip looks completely lost and has been sitting on the bench during critical points in the game. He's averaging 11.8 points in just under 27 minutes while shooting 40 percent. The Bulls need more from him if they're going to win this series and be competitive in the second round. But it's not all Hamilton's fault, Philadelphia is playing great defense on him. Credit Jrue Holliday for sticking with Rip while he's running and cutting like crazy. There are also a timing issue between Rip and CJ Watson--Watson seems to deliver the ball a bit too late for the quick Hamilton. It's maddening how the Bulls haven't been able to figure this out and correct it. Instead, Thibodeau chooses to sit Hamilton for long stretches. To me this is the "X factor" of the series. I'll go out on a limb and say Hamilton will find a way to be more productive to help this team win. I'm putting faith in Thibodeau that he will use Rip the right way as well. I'm taking a deep breath on this one.

Advantage: Bulls

4. Charity Stripe

The trips to the free throw line have been a huge advantage for the Sixers. Philadelphia has a whopping 134-90 edge in free-throw attempts, good for a 45-point advantage. The disparity is no fluke. You can blame the referees all you want, and they deserve some flak, but the bottom line is the Sixers haven earned it. They've been more active and aggressive and the referees are rewarding them for it. Not only are the Sixers getting more free throws, but they are making more, shooting 75 percent from the line compared to 62 percent for Chicago. Free points will always give you an advantage over your opponent. I don't know if we can expect a fairly officiated game on Thursday, and if Marc Davis is on the crew, then I will definitely say no. Either way, trips to the line have been a major issue in this series and I don't think it's a trend that's going to change.

Advantage: Sixers
5. Mentality

The Bulls stopped the Sixers momentum with a victory in Game 5, but it did more than prolong the series--it cast doubt. The Bulls got in their opponent's head. Philadelphia is a young squad that isn't quite seasoned in handling big time pressure. Instead of being relaxed on their home court, the Sixers may treat Game 6 like it's a Game 7, making the rims at the Wells Fargo Center just a little bit smaller. Even their coach Doug Collins is thinking in a "don't lose way" instead of a going to "close it out way", saying after the loss Tuesday night, "I just don't want to come back to Chicago for a Game 7." Collins even told his team the cautionary tale of Rip Hamilton's '03 Pistons coming back from a 3-1 deficit to beat Orlando in the first round. Sounds like they're a team that is more concerned about losing than they are confident about knocking off the top seed. Don't get me wrong, the Bulls have plenty of pressure on them, having to win on the road just to get a chance to play one more game. A loss would be not only embarrassing for the Bulls but render the entire 2012 campaign a complete failure. But the Bulls are always up for a challenge and they proved that in Game 5. They don't want to go out like this and they will fight to stay alive. I like the Bulls resolve much more than what I've seen from Philadelphia so far.

Advantage: Bulls

Bulls Talk Podcast: Will Kris Dunn build off career night?

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Will Kris Dunn build off career night?

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill, and Kevin Anderson react to a breakout game from Kris Dunn against the Hornets Friday night. They’ll discuss his development and how it impacts rookie Lauri Markkanen. Plus just how long will both the Wolves and Bulls be judged on the Jimmy Butler trade? Is Dwight Howard a hall of famer? And a new era in Philly with Simmons and Embiid. That and more on this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast.

Observations from Bulls-Hornets: Kris Dunn, a sigh of relief and hack-a-who?

Observations from Bulls-Hornets: Kris Dunn, a sigh of relief and hack-a-who?

Kris Dunn did it: You can’t play that position without an edge, without some form of “basketball killer” in you. Kris Dunn showed at the very least, he has that in his DNA in his best game as a Bull with a career-high 22 points, seven assists and five rebounds.

Leave it to Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg to point out a forgotten stat: one turnover in 26 minutes.

“That’s the biggest thing I’m proud of,” Dunn said. “Everyone knows I’ve had a lot of careless turnovers in the season. It’s one thing I’ll take credit for.”

Dunn scored 13 with six assists in the fourth quarter alone as the Bulls outscored the Hornets 40-28 for the comeback victory. More than anything, it was his competitive spirit and aggressiveness that stood out. Kemba Walker stood across the way and gave Dunn—and the Bulls—every bit of 47 points.

“He tested my conditioning, for sure,” Dunn admitted. “He’s a great player. He’s been in the league for so long. It was good to go out there and compete with him.”

It could’ve went a different way had Walker not been bothered by Lauri Markkanen’s challenge at the rim, blowing a layup that would’ve given the Hornets the lead back with seconds remaining but he missed it and the narrative changed at least for a night.

And when teams are talking about learning experiences, it’s good to have them in a win every now and again. Markkanen’s challenge at the rim followed by his closing free throws right after, along with a quietly effective 16 points and seven rebounds, proved huge on this night.

Dunn finally having a confidence booster was imperative.

Dunn scored but it wasn’t an easy 20 or a smooth 20. It was an attacking 20, a necessary 20. He did hit some elbow jumpers, especially in the fourth as the defense laid off him.

But his biggest basket was a slithering drive to the rim for a layup with 2:24 left, because he attacked and was under control.

“That’s huge growth for Kris,” Hoiberg said. “He made the right play darn near every time he had the ball in his hands. Rose up with confidence, knocked down huge shots. Defensively got them going, got steals.”

What a relief: Nobody wanted to say it, but it bore out on the floor, the sheer desperation the Bulls played with.

Coming in with a five-game losing streak and headed out west to for four games in the next week, they were staring in the face of a possible double-digit losing streak to end November.

Confidence was sparse after three bad losses, and it’s a dangerous time for a team that will struggle to win games all season.

The United Center crowd got into it, particularly late when the Bulls began climbing back into contention to start the fourth quarter. The fans wanted this win too, even with the eyes being on a larger prize coming in mid-2018.

The relief was written all over Hoiberg’s usually-stress ridden face and he even cracked a couple jokes that weren’t aimed in his direction, as self-deprecation is normally his escape of choice.

“It is important but I asked the guys: is it hard to play with that type of effort? When you play with that type of energy and effort and swagger, it’s fun,” Hoiberg said. “When you play low energy and hang your head, it’s a drag. It’s hard to play at this level with that mentality.”

Starting change: Justin Holiday returned after his quick leave with his wife delivering a baby girl recently and his game-high 27 points showed he missed the Bulls as much as they missed his shooting, hitting four triples and going 10 for 15 from the field.

“Guys were serious about getting their jobs done,” Holiday said. “It was a lot of energy, a lot of energy, competitiveness. That’s how we have to play every night for our team to do well.”

Denzel Valentine, although he didn’t want to say it, wants to be a starter. Hoiberg chose Quincy Pondexter over him recently and then made the change Friday to insert Valentine for more scoring.

Valentine scored 18 with six assists and five rebounds in 32 minutes of run—and with those two starting as scoring options, the Bulls surpassed that seven-point first-quarter mark really early and scored 26 overall.

He hit a big triple in the fourth with 2:49 left to give the Bulls a 110-109 lead on a set play the Bulls actually executed between Valentine, Dunn as a setup man and Robin Lopez as a screen to pop Valentine open.

If he continues to hit 3-pointers at a 40 percent clip, especially with the way the Bulls have struggled to start games, he’ll have the right to feel he belongs in the first five.

“It’s definitely more confidence,” Valentine said. “You feel you’re an NBA starter, you get to go in and feel it out for a second and bring some energy to start the game.”

He didn’t mince words about starting, with a little honesty saying, “I think it’s huge being a starter.”

When asked if he felt validated by his performance and the result being a high-scoring win, it was just as telling.

“I think I deserve…I think I deserved a starting role,” Valentine said. “At the same time it’s different combinations, different people that need to be on the floor at certain times, so if he feels like I don’t need to start, I won’t start. But I feel very comfortable starting as well.”

Hack-a-Dwight: It could be Hack-a-Dwight, hack-a-Drummond, hack-a-Wilt or Shaq or Charles Shackleford.

The Bulls went to it and Howard went two of four from the line but it took a little rhythm from the Hornets and probably slowed Kemba Walker down just enough before he got cooking in the last 90 seconds and almost pulled a win out of his keister.

But…

I hate it. Get it out of the game completely.