Bulls

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.

Three Things to Watch: Bulls look for sixth straight win against Sixers and 'The Process'

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Three Things to Watch: Bulls look for sixth straight win against Sixers and 'The Process'

1. Six straight? The Bulls are on fire. After winning just three times during their first 23 games of the season, the Bulls have won five in a row. That's been thanks to the strong play of Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis, the two guys on either end of that infamous preseason punch. The Bulls have been the victors in every game Mirotic has played this season (he returned to action to start the win streak), and the forward has been electric, averaging 20 points a game while shooting 53.8 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range. Meanwhile, Portis has posted a pair of huge scoring games during the win streak — 23 against the Boston Celtics and a career-high 27 against the Milwaukee Bucks last Friday — and he hauled in 12 rebounds last game for his third double-double of the season. The Bulls have already defeated a pair of teams in the Eastern Conference playoff picture during this streak. Can they make it six in a row against the Sixers?

2. No Embiid, but Sixers are still a challenge. Philly will be without its best player Monday, with Joel Embiid ruled out of the first game of a back-to-back for the Sixers. Embiid has been awesome this season, averaging 24.1 points per game, one of the top 15 scoring averages in the league, and he's also hauling in 11 rebounds a game. Without him on the floor, the Bulls figure to have a much easier time locking down their sixth straight win. But Embiid isn't the only weapon on this squad. Ben Simmons has been great, too, and the guard is approaching Westbrook-like numbers, nearly averaging a triple-double on the season with 17.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game. JJ Redick is averaging 17 points a game, and Robert Covington is averaging 15.1 points a game. So there's no Embiid, but watch out for these Sixers, who are hoping to finally see "The Process" come to fruition.

3. Dunn is fun. Mirotic and Portis are getting a lot of attention for their efforts during the Bulls' win streak, but be sure to throw some love Kris Dunn's way. The Bulls' point guard is averaging 15.8 points a game, 7.8 assists a game and 4.8 rebounds a game during this hot stretch. His numbers are vastly improved this season with significantly more playing time after a poor rookie campaign in Minnesota. Dunn's shooting 43.4 percent from the field this season after shooting 37.7 percent a year ago. And he's shooting 36.4 percent from 3-point range this season after shooting 28.8 percent from behind the arc last year.

Bobby Portis' big fourth carries the Bulls to five in a row

Bobby Portis' big fourth carries the Bulls to five in a row

The Bulls didn’t own any face cards and certainly don’t carry anything like a big joker in the form of Giannis Antetokounmpo or even a small joker like Khris Middleton, a budding All-Star.

But sometimes Jacks can walk across a table, and Bobby Portis strutted all through the BMO Harris Bradley Center Friday night for his best game as a pro.

He flexed, he preened and for the second straight fourth quarter, he gave the Bulls the ultimate pick-me-up in the form of 13 of his career-high 27 points as they continued their improbable run with a 115-109 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

If you’re counting, it makes the Bulls the first team to have a five-game winning streak immediately following a double-digit losing streak as that 10-game march to the bottom of the Eastern Conference’s ocean feels like worlds ago.

Friday’s win proved to be perhaps the toughest during this streak, against a team that wants to be the future of the East and employs the future’s most devastating prospect in Antetokounmpo.

But Portis showed why 25 teams were interested in his services while he served his eight-game suspension nearly two months ago, and also why the Bulls had no desire to move him.

“I thought Bobby was the difference in getting that game turned around,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We did not come out sharp.”

The Bulls trailed by 10 in the opening minutes when Portis entered and within five minutes, the deficit was erased and the Bulls owned a 28-22 surplus. There wasn’t much breathing room in the fourth quarter before Portis went to work on the offensive glass—and on Antetokounmpo in the post.

“We’re very confident, we’re all playing on one accord, playing for each other,” Portis said. “I feel like our unity is at an all-time high.”

“Everybody knows their role. We’ve had a whole new team, starting the season off with everything, it takes time. Everybody knows their independent roles and it’s been big for us.”

And Portis’ role has evolved into being a go-to guy and a source of confidence that was missing when the Bulls were losing 10 straight while having their energy and fervor questioned.

“It’s been fun up until this point, playing the game I love,” Portis said. “I think it’s my first time winning five straight games since I’ve been in the league.”

Portis was only slightly off, as the Bulls won six straight games in Portis’ rookie year of 2015-16, also Hoiberg’s maiden run with the franchise.

But now Portis and even Hoiberg look like seasoned veterans, comfortable in their own skin, attacking the night and circumstances to turn matters into a win-win.

Every time the sluggish Bucks seemed to get it together, Portis had an answer, with a putback or an elbow jumper, or drawing enough attention to clear the lane for a Kris Dunn layup.

“It’s what it’s all about, responding when you’re challenged,” Hoiberg said. “We knew it would be a physical, tough game against a blue-collar team. Just a really good, gritty win. I saw a lot of growth in our guys.”

If there’s anyone who represents the level of gritty on the Bulls roster, David Nwaba would win that without much protest. So it’s no surprise Hoiberg sicced the undersized Nwaba on Antetokounmpo to start the second half in place of Denzel Valentine.

Giving up at least seven inches to Antetokounmpo, he took the task with pride and knowing it’s the best way he’ll stick on this team or any team in the NBA is by doggedly taking the toughest covers and making their lives miserable.

“He’s a tough guard, an All-Star and a great player,” Nwaba said. “I did the best I could, I try to be aggressive as much as possible.”

Antetokounmpo only took two shots in the fourth quarter while finishing a point below his average with 29 points and 16 rebounds. Nwaba and the Bulls kept the Bucks out of the paint in the fourth quarter and had them playing from behind through most of it.

“We thought David was the only guy that had a chance of even slowing him down a little bit,” Hoiberg said. “You’re not gonna shut him down but David, I thought, made him work for everything he got in that second half.”

Middleton matched Antetokounmpo with 29 points but the Bucks’ bench couldn’t match the Bulls’, with Portis and Nwaba pacing things. Nikola Mirotic continued his personal streak, scoring 22 points with eight rebounds as he started again in place of Lauri Markkanen, who didn’t make the trip due to his back spasms.

Robin Lopez scored 18 with eight rebounds—including six on the offensive end that kept the Bucks from getting out on the break and unleashing Antetokounmpo in the open floor.

“I have really good confidence in myself. I struggled in the beginning,” Mirotic said.

The old Mirotic would’ve been useless for the rest of the game, pump-faking himself into oblivion. But he admitted he’s heard the calls from the media and fans to ditch the pump-fake, to play definitively.

“I tell myself, ‘Don’t worry Niko, just play it simple’,” Mirotic said. “If the shot isn’t falling, try to make the extra pass.”

The extra pass wasn’t necessary in the second half, especially when he hit a triple with 2:42 left to give the Bulls a 109-104 lead, three of his 16 second half points. When he made a tough catch for a layup and foul, the first person yelling in joy and hitting him with a chest bump was Portis.

“Wow, it’s been crazy to be honest,” Mirotic said. “We did play last year a little bit together but it’s not the same now. We both step up and I think we learn how to play with each other. We need to give credit to Fred for that. From my side, I’m just wishing that we continue what is best for the team.”

Mirotic was asked for any more predictions and he replied with a quick smile.

"Six-and-(zero)," he said, with the Philadelphia 76ers coming to Chicago Monday.

Someone alert Joel Embiid, this could be fun.