Bulls

Bulls opener includes quick blitz, miscues and an impressive Markkanen debut

Bulls opener includes quick blitz, miscues and an impressive Markkanen debut

Observations from the Bulls’ season opener, a 117-101 loss to the Toronto Raptors Thursday at Air Canada Centre.

It happens quickly: An encouraging first quarter and all its good vibes went away in a matter of 90 seconds to start the second, when a two-point deficit turned into 10 as the Bulls’ second unit failed to continue some positive habits established in the first quarter.

The slim margin for error is actually less than that, considering the Bulls don’t have enough firepower to compete or a player who’ll create his own shots for long stretches.

It was early but the Raptors’ 20-2 run ended the game even though there was more than 34 minutes left. The score was 45-25 and everybody in Air Canada Centre knew it was just about over.

“That was the key stretch of the game. They got downhill, they picked us up (defensively). We didn’t respond well to that,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “They got in the paint, spread us out and hit shots.”

Clearly their roster was already depleted in the wake of the Bobby Portis-Nikola Mirotic incident, so Hoiberg had to dig even deeper into his bench than he’d like.

“Obviously we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare and figure out what we were gonna do with lineups because we haven’t played those lineups the entire preseason,” Hoiberg said.

First look: You can tell Lauri Markkanen will struggle a bit with his strength, as he’s just 20 years old in his first NBA action. On a couple occasions, he drove the ball hard to the basket right into the mammoth Jonas Valanciunas, and put up quality attempts.

“I have a lot to improve but if I had any nerves for the first game, those are out now,” Markkanen said. “I let the game come to me. I’m not forcing anything.”

The stat line looked good for someone in his position, scoring 17 with eight rebounds in 33 minutes but the spirit of how he played was the most encouraging thing.

“That’s what we like about him, he has no fear,” Hoiberg said. “I thought he was really good, to go out and put up 17 and 8 in his first game, he had a couple shots he normally is gonna make. So yeah, he was real good.”

He also gets aggressive on defense to block shots on the weak side, leading to harder rim runs and a 3-point play in the third quarter where his long stride got him from the top of the key for a layup without a dribble.

It was a stretch where he scored a quick eight in the third, and he reiterated he’s a confident player and his first game did nothing to dim that belief.

“He was great, I loved how aggressive he was,” Robin Lopez said. “He put himself into good spots out there on defense and offense.”

Playing hard/hard lessons: Even though they were down 20 multiple times, the Bulls didn’t completely fold. Part of it was DeMar DeRozan going just 11 on two of nine shooting, but the Bulls consistently played hard—one of the few things Hoiberg can hang his hat on as a coach.

“Obviously something we talked about a lot is playing through adversity, playing through the tough times,” said Hoiberg, noting the Bulls had a few chances to cut the Raptors lead to 12 in the second half.

Denzel Valentine was four of seven from 3 but was also a minus-19 in his 25 minutes of run, a feat matched only by Cristiano Felicio, who played 16 minutes.

“I was proud of the guys in the second half,” Hoiberg said. “I thought (Kay) Felder gave us a big lift off the bench with his pace, with his speed.”

Felder wasn’t shy in his 15 minutes, getting up nine shots and hitting two, but had six assists as he was the only Bull to get in the lane with any regularity. Considering one of the things the Bulls lack of shot creation, finding ways to compromise the defense will be critical if they are to stay close for long stretches.

But with that comes the risk of turnovers—which is something the Bulls will likely struggle with anyways. Coughing it up 19 times for 27 points is an example of “thin margin for error”.

“You turn the ball over 19 times, you give up eight offensive rebounds to one guy, it’s gonna be a long night,” Hoiberg said, referring to Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas, who had 23 points and 15 boards.

The long line: The 3-point line was supposed to be the great equalizer on some nights for the Bulls, considering they want to get up shots early and often in this offense.

But C.J. Miles took the Bulls playbook and used it against them, scoring 22 points in 20 minutes, hitting six of nine from 3-point range. Overall the Raptors, a team that was middle of the pack at best in that department last season, come into this year with an added emphasis.

It showed, as they hit 13 of 29 compared to the Bulls making 11 of 33. Justin Holiday was off, hitting just four of 12 and was five of 16 overall.

“You put a big key on Miles, making him bounce the ball. He hit some tough shots,” Hoiberg said. “That’s who he is, that’s what he does. They hit shots, they got it in the paint and spread it out.”

Bulls in the playoffs: Nikola Mirotic can't miss and the Pelicans are up 3-0

nikolamirotic.png
USA TODAY

Bulls in the playoffs: Nikola Mirotic can't miss and the Pelicans are up 3-0

When the Bulls traded Nikola Mirotic to the Pelicans on Feb. 1, the consensus belief was that the deal was a win-win for both sides.

That still may be true, but the way Mirotic has played the last two weeks has made invaluable to the Pelicans, who hold a commanding 3-0 lead on the Blazers following Thursday night's blowout win.

Mirotic was back at it again, scoring a playoff career-high 30 points on 12 of 15 shooting, making 4 of 6 3-poiners, and added eight rebounds, three steals and a block. Oh, and he did all this in 30 minutes.

Mirotic has been great in three games against the third-seeded Blazers, averaging 21.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 2.3 blocks while shooting a ridiculous .585/.478/1.000.

But it's really been a two-week tear for Mirotic during the Pelicans' eight-game winning streak going back to the final 10 days of the regular season.

In those eight games Mirotic has averaged 24.0 points, 10.9 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.4 steals and has shot 57 percent from the field.

The Bulls are happy to have the 22nd overall pick in June's draft, but at this rate would they rather have Mirotic still in the fold? He seems to have turned the corner. Remarkable stuff. At the very least, it's easy to root for him.

Rajon Rondo, Pelicans: #PlayoffRondo, who we featured two days ago, was also back at it in Game 3, going for 16 points on 7 of 12 shooting, five rebounds and 11 more assists. He now has a league-high 37 assists in three games against the Blazers and has played excellent defense on that dangerous Blazers backcourt. He's also shooting 50 percent from the field. This is incredible stuff.

Marco Belinelli, Sixers: More remarkable stuff from a player who was an afterthought until about a month ago. Belinelli, who played 52 games with the Hawks before his release, has exploded in the postseason with Philadelphia. He scored 21 points on 7 of 13 shooting and hit four more 3-pointers, giving him 10 in the series. The Sixers are up 2-1 thanks in large part to Belinelli's 20.7 points and 1.7 steals. He remains a key cog off the bench.

NBA Draft Tracker: A third Holiday brother in the NBA

aaron_holiday.jpg
USA TODAY

NBA Draft Tracker: A third Holiday brother in the NBA

Next season there will be three Holiday brothers playing in the NBA. Justin is currently a starter for the Bulls, while Jrue is doing big things for the Pelicans in their opening round playoff series against Portland.

Aaron Holiday is a 6-foot-1 point guard coming off a big junior season at UCLA. He was on the court for an incredible 37.7 minutes out of 40 for head coach Steve Alford, averaging 20.3 ppg, 5.8 assists and 3.7 rebounds. Holiday shot .461 from the field and an impressive .429 from three point range.

What Holiday lacks in height, he makes up for with athleticism and competitiveness. The Bruins were overmatched many nights in a strong Pac-12 Conference, but Holiday was able to lead them to an NCAA tournament appearance with his scoring ability and defensive intensity. His ability to drive by an initial defender and get into the lane set up scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. Holiday’s quickness and long range shooting ability should serve him well as he heads to the professional level.

Where does Holiday fit for the Bulls? It seems pretty unlikely the Bulls will draft a point guard this summer, given the fact John Paxson told reporters in his end of the season news conference that Kris Dunn would be the starter at that position with Cameron Payne as the backup. The Bulls also have Jerian Grant under contract for next season and Ryan Arcidiacono could be back on a two-way deal.

Given the fact the NBA has become a point guard driven league, Holiday has a good chance to hear his name called among the top 20 picks. Washington could be a landing spot at 15 since the Wizards have been trying unsuccessfully over the last few seasons to find a consistent backup for John Wall.

It’s very unusual for three brothers to make it to the NBA. The Jones (Caldwell, Charles, Major and Wil), Russells (Campy, Frank and Walker), Barrys (Brent, Jon and Drew) and Plumlees (Mason, Miles and Marshall) are included on the short list of siblings to accomplish that feat.

Next season we’ll be able to add the Holidays to that list, and don’t be surprised if Aaron winds up having a long and productive career like his older brothers.