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Three Things to Watch: Bulls visit Raptors in season opener

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Three Things to Watch: Bulls visit Raptors in season opener

Here are Three Things to Watch in the Bulls' season opener against the Toronto Raptors tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live.

1. Pace and Space

The Bulls offense had a distinctly different feel to it this preseason than in years past. Yes, the lack of Jimmy Butler certainly had something to do with that. But it’s evident that Fred Hoiberg is getting closer to coaching the brand of basketball he’s most comfortable with. The proof is primarily in the 3-point shooting. To put it lightly, the Bulls have been chucking from deep.

Here are some of the raw numbers. The Bulls averaged 32.8 3-pointers per game in the preseason, which ranked fifth in the NBA. And it wasn’t just one or two players taking outside looks. The Bulls had seven players attempt 3.4 triples or more per game. They ranged from point guard (Grant) to shooting guard (Valentine) to small forward (Zipser and Holiday) to power forward (Mirotic, Portis and Markkanen). These long-distance shots are coming from all over.

That could be a reason that the Bulls’ pace was way up from last year’s regular season. Now, pace (how many possessions a team averages per game) doesn’t necessarily mean a team is running fast breaks and hoisting shots at the earliest opportunity. But what it does mean for the Bulls is they’re getting quick open looks from beyond the arc. Their pace in the preseason ranked 12th in the NBA, but at 105.2 possessions it was much quicker than a year ago (97.72). It’s still preseason, so all paces are up around the league, but you can tell this Bulls offense looks different.

2. The Holiday Season

You’ll probably be sick of “holiday” puns by the end of the month, but it’s Opening Night so let us slide by just this time. There was optimism when the Bulls signed Justin Holiday that the 28-year-old could be a rotation player and a fill-in while Zach LaVine recovered from ACL surgery. Never an efficient offensive player, the Knicks were much better defensively with him on the floor last season, and on a Bulls team losing Butler there was a need for a wing defender.

And if the preseason proved anything it’s that Holiday is going to be more than a rotation player. That’s not saying all that much on a Bulls roster void of premier talent, but Holiday is likely the Bulls’ best healthy player at this point. He was stellar in the preseason, averaging 17.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals. He shot 57 percent from beyond the arc and averaged a team-high 29.3 minutes. Holiday simply looked the part.

Expect Holiday to lead the Bulls in field goal attempts most nights, and expect him to defend the opposition’s best player (DeMar DeRozan tonight). Again, this isn’t to say he’s necessarily a building block for the future or is going to make fans forget about Jimmy G. Buckets. But it’s nice to know the Bulls seemed to have hit on a free agent this offseason. Holiday enters the regular season with plenty of confidence.

3. Looking for progress

Unless he explodes in a good way, it’ll be too early to tell this year whether Lauri Markkanen is a piece of the future. He’s 20 years old and needs to put on muscle and learn the NBA before we decide what he’ll be. The same can’t be said for the other Bulls’ first-round picks.

Valentine is just in his second season, but he’ll also be 24 years old in less than a month. Drafting a college senior in the first round means he needs to be ready to play right away. Thus far, that hasn’t been the case. Valentine had an up-and-down preseason: He made 46.2 percent of his 3-pointers, but he only took 16 2-pointers in 112 minutes, showing a lack of diversity to his game. The speed just isn’t there. Perhaps Kris Dunn’s injury will allow him to facilitate some. Defensively, he still needs to show improvement. This will be a big year for the second-year guard. Now is his time to show he can be part of the rebuild.

Lastly, Jerian Grant wasn’t a Bulls first-round pick but when you deal Derrick Rose (albeit the non-MVP version) you need to have something to show for it. Grant looked the part in preseason and probably would have won the job over Dunn even if Dunn didn’t dislocate his finger. But Grant, as a combo guard, could be part of the team’s future as a reserve that gives Hoiberg options in the backcourt going forward. He was good in the preseason and will get his chance to shine in a starting role. What he does with it will be something to watch for, and he gets a big test tonight against Kyle Lowry.

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

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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

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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.