Amid fuss over starting five, Bulls bench finding its groove


Amid fuss over starting five, Bulls bench finding its groove

Of all the shuffling to find the right mix and energy for the starting five, the Bulls have seemingly stumbled upon an identity and consistency with their bench.

Perhaps unknowingly, moving Nikola Mirotic to the bench in favor of Taj Gibson to play with Doug McDermott and Joakim Noah has turned the second unit into a ball moving, sharpshooting group that can raise holy hell on opponents.

And suddenly it seems both groups are finding a comfort level with each other, though one can say the bench is a few steps ahead of forming an identity than the starters.

Noah starts as a hub offensively, with cutters and movers all around. It’s led to decisive actions from McDermott and Mirotic either to the basket or on the perimeter. Being quick, yet not in a hurry or out of control has paid plenty of dividends for the group.

McDermott hit four triples in the Bulls’ 98-85 win over the Memphis Grizzlies, most of them coming in the fourth quarter when Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler were resting and the Bulls were fighting their season-long trend of giving up decent-sized leads.

Mirotic nailed five triples in the Bulls’ 115-96 win over the Philadelphia 76ers Monday, a game that saw the Bulls trailing at halftime before waking up.

Noah, perhaps still the emotional leader of this entire bunch, had a tangible impact in Saturday’s 98-94 win over the New Orleans Pelicans with 10 points, nine rebounds, two assists and four blocks.

[MORE BULLS: Rose, Butler lead Bulls to efficient win over Grizzlies]

If one thinks about it, all likely believed they’d be starters going into the season, with big minutes and even bigger effects. But they've seemed to settle into their roles now, which can be easily accepted under the guise of winning.

“You know what, it is a very unselfish team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “When guys are accepting of change and roles, they may not always like it but they're accepting of it, they don't complain about it and it's important. If you change something based on what you see, it's easier on the coach when guys accept it.”

Noah can cover McDermott and Mirotic’s deficiencies on defense, so long as they put forth effort to provide some resistance to offensive players, and the Bulls are a top-three rebounding team whenever Noah is on the floor, so they can close possessions better.

Mirotic and McDermott’s presence makes it easier for him to be a playmaker on offense without clogging up the driving lanes, because at the least, he’s active and not just an afterthought.

“Yeah, that and I think offensively it just gives us another spacer out there with you,” Hoiberg said. “Jo and Taj had pretty good chemistry as far as the high-low stuff, but this opens up the paint a little bit, it gets Doug more dribble-handoff type actions. You've got a true floor spacer out there with Niko. With the way the two five-man groups are playing, I think it's a little bit better fit.”

Mirotic didn’t take his demotion as one and has been more decisive in shooting — perhaps by the osmosis of watching McDermott launch whenever he’s open.

“He was great,” said Hoiberg of the conversation he had with Mirotic. “He said whatever feels best for the team, I talked to him about the different role that he was going to have.”

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

McDermott has benefitted from Hoiberg’s system more than anyone, knowing he has the freedom to launch triples at virtually any time so long as it’s a good shot, and playing with Butler and Rose leaves defenses stressed out and stretched thin, when he’s on.

Aside from a scoreless game against the Clippers, McDermott has been consistent in recent memory, scoring in double figures in six of the last eight games and for the season, he’s shooting 44 percent from 3, good for eighth in the league.

Safe to say, it’s necessary.

“I just feel so much more confident. Last year I was kind of scared out there,” McDermott said. “It starts with the defensive end, I’m starting to understand things more. And I don’t think about stuff on offense much either. I really want the ball. I feel like I can make it the majority of time.”

And they need this group to play with continuity while the starters catches up.

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

MINNEAPOLIS—The applause was thunderous on the welcome back for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, two Timberwolves draft picks sent away when the chance to acquire Jimmy Butler came along.

But some of the air was taken out the Target Center due to the absence of Jimmy Butler, who’ll miss the next several weeks after deciding to have surgery on his right meniscus following an injury Friday night.

So while there was no rematch of the thrilling contest the two teams had in Chicago, some things were very much the same.

Lauri Markkanen’s struggles continued.

LaVine showed more flashes of his complete game and Dunn had a couple moments of his own.

And on the other side, Tom Thibodeau kept his starters in the game with victory secured and his team up 20 points in the Timberwolves’ 122-104 win over the Bulls Saturday night.

The Timberwolves broke the game open in the fourth quarter with some key shot-making from veteran Jamal Crawford, as he was one point short of the Timberwolves having four 20-point scorers on the night.

Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combined for 70 points in their first game of many without Butler.

LaVine was a main reason the Bulls stayed afloat in the first 36 minutes, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game back in front of the Minneapolis crowd he spent his first few years playing for.

Going head-up with his former teammate Wiggins for a stretch, the two seemed to relish their practice matchups. Wiggins was doing a lot of pure scoring while LaVine seemed to enjoy probing the defense and making plays for teammates, taking more of a ballhandling role as opposed to floating around the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

“He’s doing a much better job not settling for tough shots,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s attacking the basket much better than he was. You can just see him getting his legs, getting more comfortable. It was good to see him as a playmaker, he was terrific.”

Perhaps the Bulls are unlocking something with LaVine, getting him the ball in different places and on the move, where he made some nifty passes in traffic, exercising patience and maturity.

“I liked it. Hopefully we get a little bit more of it,” LaVine said. “But it’s working. Should’ve stuck to it.”

They didn’t, as the Bulls didn’t look as organized as they have previously. Dunn looked extremely motivated and aggressive but it seemed to work against him at times as Teague took advantage of Dunn being too quick for his own good. So hyped up, Dunn blew a breakaway dunk in the first half, but luckily Nwaba was right behind him for a putback.

That type of energy was expected for Dunn and LaVine, maybe even moreso for Dunn considering his underwhelming rookie year where he didn’t get much chance to play as a top-five pick.

Dunn finished with 10 points on four of 12 shooting while Cameron Payne scored 11  in 19 minutes, but the decision making from both point guards left plenty to be desired—which is to be expected given the lack of veterans on the floor.

Their starting unit again struggled as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez again sat as the evaluation of the younger players continued.

Cristiano Felicio had a better outing than his foul-plagued game against Philadelphia, scoring 11 points but had his hands full on the other end. David Nwaba impressed for the second straight game as a starter, getting in the open floor to force the action, scoring 14 with nine rebounds in 34 minutes.

“The second quarter, I thought, was one of our better quarters of the year,” Hoiberg said. “As bad as we played in the first quarter, I thought we were down 20. We just didn’t sustain it. Against a great team like that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Nwaba, along with Bobby Portis, was a big reason why the Timberwolves couldn’t run away from the Bulls until well into the fourth quarter, even after taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sending Hoiberg scrambling for early timeouts.

“You can expect it because you haven’t played with that group before,” LaVine said. “We’re gonna get that chemistry down. We (only) had a couple practices with that lineup.”

Whether it’s the lineup change or just the rookie blues, the year has clearly caught up with Markkanen, who only made one field goal in 32 minutes.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Markkanen has gone one-for-eight in each game coming from the All-Star break and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

MINNEAPOLIS — That feeling of having your knee buckle out of nowhere, Zach LaVine is all-too familiar with it.

That feeling of being on the sidelines and watching Jimmy Butler’s knee give out, Fred Hoiberg has been there, too.

Different perspectives, and different reactions but Butler’s knee injury produced a sick feeling to many who watched it Friday night. Butler turned to pivot in the Timberwolves’ game against the Houston Rockets and immediately collapsed on the floor, having to be carried off.

LaVine tore his ACL in Detroit over a year ago, while it was revealed Butler suffered a right meniscus injury. But it looked all the same and LaVine understood the uncertainty Butler must’ve been feeling before the MRI revealed it wasn’t an ACL injury.

“It’s scary,” LaVine said following morning shootaround at the Target Center Saturday afternoon. “I wish him the best. You don’t want to see that happen to anybody. Especially a player of his caliber and what he’s done for the team.”

When LaVine injured his ACL, he actually played a few more minutes before being removed and going to the locker room. The time between being evaluated by doctors and them coming back feels like a lifetime.

“It’s scary. You know you hurt yourself, you don’t know how bad,” LaVine said. “You think you’re good, you’re a tough minded person trying to get through it.”

“I saw him on the ground trying to get up, (Rockets guard) Chris Paul made him sit down. Jimmy’s a tough dude. Thoughts and prayers going out to him.”

Butler and LaVine were the centerpieces of the draft day trade involving the Bulls and Timberwolves. With Butler suffering the injury the night before playing his former team a second time, the timing produced a bunch of memories.

In Hoiberg’s first year with the Bulls, Butler went down in a somewhat similar manner in Denver, a non-contact injury. It looked just as bad, and Butler was taken off the floor in a wheelchair.

Thankfully it was a right knee strain that cost him several weeks but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Considering the minutes he’s played over the last few years, Hoiberg was asked if Butler pushes himself too hard to be on the floor.

“Jimmy he wants to be out there,” Hoiberg said. “I remember the first year in Denver, he went down with what looked to be a serious injury. Thankfully he was back on the floor after 15-16 games.”

Actually, Butler missed 11 consecutive games before coming back for a nationally-televised game against the Rockets, playing 34 minutes in a Bulls win and missing the next three games for recovery.

“We really worried when he went down but it wasn’t something that ended his season,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy’s a worker. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. It’s a huge reason for the type of player he is, that work ethic to make him one of the elite players in the league.”