Bulls

Boogie and Brow missed chances, help on the way: Observations from Bulls' OT loss to Pelicans

Boogie and Brow missed chances, help on the way: Observations from Bulls' OT loss to Pelicans

The Bulls could've and should've pulled out a win at home against the New Orleans Pelicans but instead fell to 2-6 with a 96-90 overtime loss Saturday night. Here's the biggest observations from that game.

We have stars, you don’t: Sometimes it’s as simple as having DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis doing things that cannot be matched by the opponent. It was more than just the stats—although Davis’ 27-point and 16-rebound performance was as impressive as it was understated—but Davis made the right plays at the most opportune times to seal the win.

He blocked a Justin Holiday jumper and then threw it off him while falling out of bounds to retain possession in overtime, the play of the game considering the stakes.

He also defended Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen and prevented Markkanen from having clean looks, although Markkanen had two big fourth-quarter 3-pointers to keep the Bulls close when the Pelicans were threatening to pull away.

Markkanen was two of 11 from three and five of 16 overall, in large part due to Davis’ length and attention to detail.

“Our motto is, if we don’t score, they don’t score,” Davis said. “We came up with some big possessions, guys made some big shots and big plays. We wanted to make sure we defended.”

Cousins’ night wasn’t as smooth but he was dominant in terms of his presence, scoring 25 with 11 rebounds, although he hit just six of his 20 shots. He routinely bullied the Bulls and got to the foul line 13 times, as both he and Davis played over 40 minutes.

“I struggled early on,” Cousins said. “That being said, you gotta go out there and find the ways to have an impact on the game. That’s what I tried to do, and we pulled out an ugly, gritty win.”

The effort was there, the execution was not: Nothing epitomized the Bulls’ night better than the close misses Robin Lopez had at the rim, two contested bunnies he should’ve finished but didn’t after a pass from Jerian Grant.

He was battling with Davis and Cousins all night, and usually takes advantage of easy chances near the basket.  With nine seconds left and the game tied, it could’ve won the game for the Bulls.

But he had tough luck and the extra five minutes proved enough for the Pelicans to take control.

“It’s frustrating. It feels bad tonight. They know we had a great effort. I’ll be better. I’ll be better next game,” Lopez said. “He made a good play. I missed two shots. (Grant) made such a fantastic play.”

Here’s the play.

Although the Bulls took 42 3-point shots and shot just 26 percent from long range, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was happy with the effort, commending the team in his opening statement to the media following the loss.

“I’m proud of our guys for going out there and competing again when the ball wasn’t going in the hoop, giving ourselves a chance,” he said. “A great chance to win it there again missing a couple at the rim, but they continued to go out there and battle.”

“We’re going to have nights like this on the offensive end, but if we can battle like that defensively, we’re going to have a chance most nights.”

It’s a far cry from their last performance at home against Oklahoma City, where Hoiberg bemoaned the lack of effort in a blowout loss. Cousins complimented the Bulls and their play, having seen them twice in the preseason and once in the regular season.

“I feel like they’re a better team than their record shows,” he said. “They’re probably top-three hardest playing teams in the league at this point. To have a record like that and still come out and play with the tenaciousness and edge that they do, it’s a credit to them.”

Turning a corner/stepping back: Denzel Valentine had a second straight strong performance after Friday night’s showing against Orlando, scoring a season-high 16 points and hitting four of seven from 3-point range.

He was the only efficient scorer the Bulls had and Hoiberg said they ran their offense through Valentine in the fourth quarter, although the Pelicans outscored the Bulls 26-19.

“I like making big time plays, especially when my team is depending on me,” Valentine said. “So whenever my number is called, I just step up to the plate and deliver. I thought we should’ve won.”

Had the Bulls taken better care of the ball, they would’ve given themselves a better chance at a second straight win. But that old bugaboo reappeared, as Kris Dunn committed four turnovers in nearly 17 minutes.

His aggressiveness is in sharp contrast to Grant, as he presses the envelope at every opportunity. But finding the balance will be a season long challenge, as he’s had at least four turnovers in each of his four games this season.

Taking hold of that starting spot doesn’t seem as assured as it did when he was making big plays and showing emotion in Miami, spurring a quality effort on the road.

Hoiberg made note of Dunn’s giveaways, referencing players trying to make passes in tight spaces where a safer play could better apply.

“We need to do better with that, of taking care of that,” Hoiberg said.

Grant put together one of his better statistical performances as a Bull, with 14 points, nine assists and eight rebounds in 36 minutes. He made a critical steal on Cousins in the final minute, leading to Lopez’ missed layup.

He could’ve been the hero Saturday night.

Bobby’s back: It’s been eight games, which means Bobby Portis will return to the Bulls active lineup Tuesday in Toronto after his suspension from punching Nikola Mirotic.

Portis has to leave the arena two hours before every game so he hasn’t been around to watch the games in person, but he’s been practicing through his suspension. And no, he won't start, meaning Markkanen's place at power forward is secure.

“He’s been practicing and that’ll all be discussed here in the next couple days, what we’ll do in the Toronto game,” Hoiberg said. “The biggest thing is try to go out with the guys we have available. We’ll get that figured out in the next few days. He’s working extremely hard. When everything happened we had to put together makeshift lineups, so those guys were getting most of the reps in practices.”

Mirotic is doing more physical activity, going from riding a stationary bike to doing pool work over the past week but he’s still several weeks away from even beginning to think of stepping on the floor.

And then again, there’s that trade request from Mirotic that hasn’t been rescinded.

So even when it’s over, it’s not really over.

John Paxson delivered transparency, not Brazilian music

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USA TODAY

John Paxson delivered transparency, not Brazilian music

It’s what every fan base deserves, along with players on a roster where tough conversations must be had to set a course for the present in order to secure a better future.

Transparency.

It’s ugly and while not aesthetically pleasing to the eye, everyone can see what the Bulls are doing for the remainder of the NBA season. For the paying customers who still fill the seats at the United Center, it’s a “cry now so hopefully you laugh later” proposition.

Bulls Executive-Vice President John Paxson addressed the media Tuesday and said what we all knew to be true, what everyone knew what was coming.

He didn’t stand up in front of cameras and tape recorders and ask, “Do you like Brazilian music?”

They’re tanking.

They’re putting a little bit more sugar to go with it but it’s old-fashioned ‘tussin for the next several weeks.

All of this is due to sight unseen—unless you watch college basketball or cue up European basketball highlights.

When you see Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson take two hard dribbles from the top of the key, spin and dunk while being fouled, it makes sense.

When Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton help on a driving guard to cut off a lane, recover to block a 3-point shot and run the floor for a layup in a six-second span, it makes sense.

When Duke’s Marvin Bagley III seals his defender with one arm, catches with his left hand and finishes on the opposite side of the rim with ease, it all makes sense and kudos to the Bulls for not trying to fool a smart public with useless rhetoric.

Every loss counts, of course, but the key thing about the NBA is this: No matter where a team picks, bad franchises make the worst of a good opportunity and good franchises make the best of any situation.

If the Bulls are the latter, it’ll show itself whether they pick fourth or second or sixth. This draft’s best player went 13th, Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz. Lauri Markkanen is in competition for best player after Mitchell and he went seventh.

This was inevitable from the moment the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler on draft night. Although Kris Dunn has turned out to be a revelation and Markkanen could be a superstar, none of the micro wins should take away from the macro vision of this franchise, chief reason why Paxson has reasserted himself in the last year.

Paxson just framed it in the vein of long-term evaluation in announcing Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup, while Jerian Grant will see his playing time cut for Cameron Payne.

“Seeing some of our young guys play consistently, we’ve learned a lot about them,” Paxson said. “The hard thing when you do things like this is you’re asking certain people to sacrifice roles and minutes. And oftentimes, it’s veteran guys. That’s what we’re asking some of our vets to do right now—sacrifice some time on the floor and roles they’ve been very good in. That’s never an easy thing.”

Lopez and Holiday have been good soldiers through this process, especially helping navigate a fragile locker room after the crazy start to the season when Bobby Portis had enough of Nikola Mirotic in a practice and unleashed holy hell on a season that was supposed to be a quiet, boring losing season.

“I know what it’s like to be asked to take a lesser role,” Paxson said. “Players have pride. So it’s hard. I don’t take that lightly at all. It’s just the position we’re in as a young team, 20-37 with a lot of young guys and several who we haven’t really had the chance to see play much this year. For us to make the proper evaluation in terms of who fits us moving forward, this is something we have to do.”

Lopez has had a solid season, with career-highs in scoring and assists. Holiday’s scoring has nearly doubled this season and he’ll garner some attention around the draft in the trade market.

But with the Bulls being eighth of the eight bad teams, they need to get Super Bad (with a nod to James Brown) in the next several weeks. It’s not that the rebuild is steps ahead, it’s that other teams are better at being incompetent than the Bulls—and they’ll also be doing whatever’s necessary to secure a draft position.

At least the Bulls’ competence has come in the form of long-term answers. Certainly at the end of the year, one can lament Zach LaVine saving the Bulls from losses to the Timberwolves and Magic with late-game plays that cements the belief he could be a front-facing player—especially with restricted free agency coming this summer.

If Payne happens to be a useful NBA player in the process, it’s gravy but the Bulls aren’t really expecting it.

Fred Hoiberg has been pumping up Payne publicly by referencing him playing the role of Isaiah Thomas in the playoff preparation last spring, but he hasn’t played NBA level basketball in over a year.

And when he was on the floor, for that ill-fated period after last year’s deadline when Hoiberg was playing 11 guys without a real plan to win, Payne looked overmatched and overwhelmed.

“We want to see him as a point guard, especially when you’re running with the second unit, and the way Fred wants to play, play with pace, defend your position, compete every night and stay within yourself,” Paxson said. “His role is to get us into offense quickly and efficiently and make the right play with the ball.”

Felicio has taken a step back in terms of his development after steady improvement over the last two years, but in the big picture they’re casualties in the NBA’s cost of doing business.

And if you believe it’s anything else besides what you’re seeing, you might believe Paxson is truly asking if you like Brazilian music.

It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

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It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

And here you thought the Bulls wouldn't be competing for anything down the stretch. Yes, the Bulls will miss the postseason for the second time in three seasons, and the post-Jimmy Butler rebuild is off and running with a Lottery selection (and potentially two) on the horizon.

And now the race for the top spot in the NBA Draft Lottery is on, with 23 to 27 games left in the regular season and a whopping seven teams within 1.5 games of each other for the worst record in the league. The Bulls are currently sitting 8th in the reverse standings at 20-37, 3.0 games behind the league-worst Suns and Hawks. And in what's largely considered a seven-man draft, Fred Hoiberg and the boys have some work to do to improve their chances of moving into the top-5 or top-3 of the draft.

Yes, the Bulls were sellers at the deadline, dealing leading scorer Nikola Mirotic to the Pelicans. And they lost eight of their last 10 games before the All-Star Break while promising extended minutes for players like Paul Zipser, Cristiano Felicio and even Cameron Payne. All those signs point to a franchise with a full and clear understanding that losses right now mean much bigger wins in June. But it's not as easy as it sounds. The Bulls aren't the only team looking to secure losses, and those other teams may have easier paths of doing so. Here's why.

For starters, not all these clumped-together records were built equally. Yes, the wins and losses all count the same at the end of the day, but if we're projecting how each team may finish the Bulls are certainly poised to play better than the teams around them. In fact, the Bulls are still playing .500 basketball (17-17) since their infamous 3-20 start. Unsurprisingly all seven teams ahead of the Bulls have worse records, as do the New York Knicks (11-24 since Dec. 8), who are just two games behind the Bulls, have lost eight straight and are without All-Star Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL). Remember, there are teams chasing the Bulls, too.

The Bulls have a seven-game win streak to their name and won 10 games in December; of the teams with worse records than the Bulls, only the Mavericks have a seven-win month this season.

And let's remember, too, the Bulls have gone 17-17 while missing Zach LaVine in 20 of those, Kris Dunn in 11 others and Lauri Markkanen in three. Those three are all healthy now (LaVine likely won't play in back-to-backs, but the Bulls have just three of those sets left) and while they have an ugly -18.8 net rating in four games, the Bulls are 2-2 with all three on the floor and have losses against the top-seeded Raptors and defending champion Warriors. It's safe to assume Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen will all benefit and improve from playing with one another. And while Nikola Mirotic was a large part of the Bulls' success (they went 14-11 with him in the lineup), the trade has opened up more minutes for Bobby Portis, who's quietly averaging 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds since the Mirotic trade. No, Portis isn't Mirotic, but the dropoff isn't all that significant, especially when considering the defensive end.

What's this all mean? That the Bulls have the best top-end talent of any team in these tank standings, and arguably the most talented overall roster. It sounds laughable, but we're not comparing them to the Rockets and Celtics. Perhaps Orlando's core of Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic (when healthy) comes close, but the Magic also just sold their starting point guard Elfrid Payton for pennies on the dollar. They're clearly in tank mode, and the rest of that roster is a nightmare. Dallas has some nice pieces, but also plenty of shutdown candidates as the season nears its end.

And that's another angle to this. The Bulls really don't have any players who may rest late in the season. Then again, phantom injuries could arise and LaVine might sit down the stretch for precautionary purposes. But Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, the team's elder statesmen at 29 and 28, respectively, aren't exactly tipping the scale between wins and losses. As long as LaVine, Dunn, Markkanen, Portis and Denzel Valentine are seeing 28+ minutes, the Bulls are going to be in good position. Teams like Atlanta and Sacramento are already resting veterans, and Memphis could do the same with Marc Gasol if the Lottery balls depend on it. It's a good thing the Bulls don't have this luxury, as they're leaning on their young talent, but it also means the team isn't going to get much worse.

The biggest hurdle for the Bulls, however, is going to be their remaining schedule. Marvin Bagley fans might want to stop reading. Only four teams in the NBA will face an easier remaining schedule than the Bulls, and none are ahead of them in the race for the top pick. The 76ers, Hornets, Warriors and Heat have easier schedules, and then it's the Bulls, with a remaining SOS of .474. Here's how that compares to the seven teams the Bulls are looking up at in the tank standings:

So the Bulls have an easier schedule than any team in front of them, and the Knicks. And looking at the Bulls' remaining schedule (far right column), it's clear that the three games against the Nets (which includes what should be a fun home-and-home in the season's final week) and two games against the Grizzlies will loom large. It also wouldn't surprise anyone if the Bulls picked up random victories over teams like Boston (March 5), Cleveland (March 17), Milwaukee (March 23) or Houston (March 27). They have a way of playing up to their opponents (see: Minnesota).

When it comes to discussing the league's worst teams, the Bulls might simply be too good. And their schedule might simply be too bad. That's certainly a good problem to have when considering the franchise's rebuild has gone quicker than most expected, even if it means fewer chances to secure a top-3 pick. Then again, the Bulls did fine selecting 7th overall last season in grabbing Markkanen, so perhaps a top-5 pick isn't necessary. It might not even be an option.