Bulls

Belinelli, Bulls hold off Wizards

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Belinelli, Bulls hold off Wizards

A win is a win, the old axiom goes and it certainly applied Saturday night, as the Bulls (16-12) held on to beat the woeful Wizards (4-24), 87-77, at the United Center, snapping a two-game losing streak.

It wasnt a textbook victory by any means and in terms of performances, a superior opponent could have probably overcome the hosts listless effort, but no matter the Bulls simply needed to get off the schneid and sometimes the best cure for what ails a team is facing off with the most inept foe possible, especially when the game ends on a stellar defensive note.

MORE: No contact yet, but Rose returns to practice; set to travel

The veteran backcourt of Kirk Hinrich (10 points, seven assists, six rebounds) and Rip Hamilton (nine points in 14 minutes) the latter returned to the lineup after missing nearly a month due to a torn left plantar fascia, though he exited the contest midway through the period started the game with an aggressive offensive mindset, but the Bulls were countered by a confident Wizards group coming off one of their four wins on the season.

MORE: Hamilton makes his return to Bulls' lineup

Buoyed by a victory the previous evening, the likes of veteran big man Nene, rookie shooting guard Bradley Beal (14 points) and reserve post player Kevin Seraphin (12 points) originally a Bulls draft pick, he was sent to Washington along with Hinrich back in 2010 were effective and efficient scoring threats.

Luol Deng (11 points, six rebounds, four assists), who sprained his right ankle in the hosts Christmas Day loss to Houston, also made his presence felt in the early going, but two quick fouls on Joakim Noah (nine points, 11 rebound, five assists) hurt their cause, further allowing the visiting big men to establish themselves and the Wizards to build a slim cushion. At the conclusion of the first quarter, the Bulls trailed the team with the NBAs worst record, 26-22.

Deng continued his positive early play and was complemented by reserves Taj Gibson and Marco Belinelli (17 points), who replaced Hamilton earlier from his previous role off the bench, but maintained his confidence and appeared to be poised to become a second-unit spark.

Still, it remained a close-knit affair, as Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau seemed to be experimenting with different lineups, given that he finally had a healthier rotation at his disposal.

Gradually, the Bulls gained some separation and propelled by the energetic play of backup point guard Nate Robinson, as well as Noah providing a lift upon his return and Carlos Boozer (15 points, 12 rebounds) being active on the glass, the game bore a closer resemblance to what could have been expected.

But by no means were the Bulls running away with the contest and at the intermission, they held a 45-39 lead, following a jumper by Shelvin Mack, called up from the D-League by Washington recently, at the halftime buzzer.

After the break, a balanced offensive attack resulted in the Bulls building a double-digit lead, as improved defense, Wizards turnovers and a greater sense of urgency were all factors. Hamilton looked to be back to his usual form, while Boozer and Noah found their grooves as scorers, allowing Hinrich to focus on playmaking and defense.

However, that stretch didnt last, as Washington, led by the likes of veteran Emeka Okafor (11 points, 18 rebounds) and starting point guard Garrett Temple, another D-League call-up, helped the visitors severely cut into the deficit, eventually making it a two-point game after an 11-0 run as the third quarter wore on.

But the Bulls recovered from their temporary bout of malaise and behind the combination of Hinrich and Belinelli, they headed into the final stanza with a 70-63 advantage, after Mack hit yet another improbable buzzer-beater to end the period.

Belinelli emerged as the Bulls catalyst at the outset of the fourth quarter, helping the home team maintain their edge, but the Wizards continued to battle and remained within striking distance, as Okafor and Beal made positive impacts for the visitors. The pattern of Washington narrowing the gap and the Bulls subsequently pulling away persisted, as Boozer joined Belinelli as an offensive focal point.

Heading into the games stretch run, the Bulls cushion stayed intact, partially due to the fact that Washington couldnt muster up enough offense to stay in close contact, but it was also notable that Thibodeau opted to go with Jimmy Butler the second-year swingman previously looked like the odd man out of the wing rotation with Hamiltons return over Deng, the leagues minutes-per-game-leader in the clutch, during which the Wizards were scoreless over the final 5:18.

In the end, the devil is in the details and at the conclusion of the 82-game season, the hard-to-watch proceedings will simply go down as a Bulls victory in the standings.

A history of LeBron James' scoring prowess against the Bulls

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USA TODAY

A history of LeBron James' scoring prowess against the Bulls

Yes, we know: LeBron James is a crybaby, he’ll never be Michael Jordan, he’s 3-5 in the NBA Finals and you hate him. All of that is true as long as you believe it, no matter how silly it sounds. Got that out of your system? Great. Because King James is about to become the 7th player in NBA history to reach 30,000 career points. He’s seven away, and seeing as he’s scored in double figures in 836 straight games, we’re fairly confident he’ll reach it tonight against the Spurs.

And wouldn’t you know it? James has done his most scoring damage against the Chicago Bulls. In fact, of his 29,993 points, 1,534 have come against the Bulls. That’s one more than he’s scored against the Bucks (1,533), and just ahead of the damage he’s done against the Pacers (1,452), Hawks (1,431) and Celtics (1,411).

And you’re right: James has played the Bulls 54 times, the same number of times he’s played the Bucks, the most of any opponent. But that scoring average of 28.4 points per game against the Bulls is fourth most against any opponent. Only the Sonics/Thunder (28.5), Jazz (29.4) and Celtics (29.4) have been hurt worse on a per-game average than the Bulls.

That being said, the likes of Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler have held James relatively in check when it comes to scoring explosions. James’ career-high against the Bulls is 41 points (done twice), and only the Rockets, Cavaliers and Clippers have held James below that figure.

Here’s a few tidbits about James against the Bulls:

  • James’ best shooting season against the Bulls came in 2012-13, his MVP season with the Heat. James shot 63.8 percent from the field in four games. His worst shooting performance was 8-for-14 (57.1%).
  • James’ highest scoring season (average) was in 2007-08, when he averaged 35.7 points in four contests. His worst point total was 33, joining other game totals of 34, 37 and 39 points. Ironically he went 1-3 against the Bulls that season. The following year he won his first MVP.
  • James has never relied on his 3-point shot, especially against the Bulls. In fact, the most 3-pointers he’s ever made in a season against the Bulls is the current year (8-for-15) and he still has a game left against Chicago in March. This current season is also the best James has shot from the charity stripe against the Bulls, going 15-for-17 (88 percent).
  • James’ worst scoring season against the Bulls was in 2013-14, his final season in Miami. James scored 17, 21 and 17 points in three games, an average of 18.3 points. That year was the last time James has averaged 27 points per game in a season.
  • But that year wasn’t the worst shooting season James had. That would have been his rookie season, when James shot 38 percent in four games against the Bulls. James shot 41.7 percent from the field that season, the only time in his career he’s ever made less than 47 percent of his shots.

And here are the biggest highlights in James’ scoring career against the Bulls during his 15 regular seasons. Again, this includes nothing from the postseason, where James has also done plenty of damage.

Dec. 20, 2003: James wasted no time putting it on the Bulls. In his debut against Chicago, he scored 32 points on 11 of 22 shooting. Though he missed all five of his 3-point attempts he went 10-for-12 from the free throw line and scored the Cavaliers’ last 14 points in the final 5:07. The Cavs dominated the fourth quarter in a 95-87 win. Ironically James didn’t top 18 points in his other three meetings against the Bulls.

March 5, 2006: James finished off a dominant season against the Bulls in which he averaged 34.8 points. It was one of just two seasons in which he scored 30 or more points in each meeting against the Bulls. On this night he brushed aside a small first half by scoring 27 of his 37 points in the second half. In fact, he scored more than half of Cleveland’s 51 points after halftime as the Cavs outscored the Bulls by 21 points.

Nov. 5, 2008: It’s remarkable to think that James only topped 40 points against the Bulls in two of his 54 meetings, and they both came in the same season. Early in the year he was a force at home, scoring 41 points on 57 percent shooting and making 15 of 16 from the free throw line. He scored 41 while failing to make a 3-pointer (0-for-2) as the Cavs led the entire way. James led the game in scoring in both the first (10), second (8) and third quarters (14), and capped it off with nine in the final frame.

Jan. 2, 2009: A few months later James had his lowest scoring game against the Bulls. He managed just 16 points in 37 minutes, though he took only eight shots and deferred to his teammates. The Cavs shot 51 percent as a team and James had 11 assists.

March 14, 2012: James’ best regular-season scoring performance with the Heat against the Bulls came in January 2012. He scored 35 points in 41 minutes, shooting 12-for-23 and getting to the free throw line 15 times. His most memorable play came late in the first quarter when James took an alley-oop from Dwayne Wade and jumped over John Lucas III for a dunk. James scored nine points in a back-and-forth fourth quarter that saw the Heat prevail, 97-93.

Oct. 31, 2014: James made his triumphant return to the Cavaliers in 2014, but the Bulls remembered him as just as good as he was in a Heat uniform. James scored 36 points in the overtime win, saving his best for the final period: he scored eight points, including the first six that pushed the Cavaliers out to a lead they didn’t surrender.

April 9, 2016: If we’re talking scoring, James’ best true shooting performance came on this day. He was as efficient as ever, scoring 33 points on 13-for-17 shooting, making 4 of 5 3-pointers and hitting 3 of 4 freebies. The 33 points on 17 shots gave him a true shooting percentage of 88.0, the best of his career against the Bulls. Chicago, however, won the game and kept its slim playoff hopes alive. The Cavaliers clinched home court advantage in the Eastern Conference playoffs two days later against the Hawks.

Dec. 21, 2017: James’ most recent game against the Bulls that pushed his total ahead of the Bucks by a lone point. He scored eight points in the final 140 seconds to seal the win for the Cavaliers, finishing with a game-high 23 points on 12-for-23 shooting. He also made all eight free throw attempts and hit a pair of triples. James’ next shot at improving on his Bulls total is on St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago.

NBA Buzz: It's never too early for a mock draft

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: It's never too early for a mock draft

The majority of the NBA universe is speculating about which players will be traded before the Feb. 8 deadline — but we already did that a couple days ago.

So, with the college basketball season past its halfway point, how about an early projection of what the 14 lottery teams might do with their first-round selections?

It's never too early for a mock draft.

1. Sacramento Kings: Marvin Bagley, PF, Duke. The Kings have been whiffing on lottery picks for most of the last decade, but taking Bagley would be a no-brainer. Sacramento is pretty thin up front after the DeMarcus Cousins trade last season, and Bagley looks like a multiple-time All Star with a variety of post moves and shooting range out to the 3-point line.

2. Atlanta Hawks: Deandre Ayton, C, Arizona. The Hawks have completely torn down the roster just a few short years after finishing with the best record in the East. They could use help at every position, but as we saw when the Bulls visited on Jan. 20, the Hawks have absolutely zero rim protection. Enter Ayton, an athletic seven-footer with an NBA-ready frame who should be able to anchor the Atlanta defense for years to come.

3. Orlando Magic: Trae Young, PG, Oklahoma. The Magic are another team in major need of a roster makeover, and after watching Elfrid Payton struggle for four seasons at the most important position in the modern game, isn't it time for an upgrade at the point guard position? Young leads the nation in both scoring and assists with Steph Curry-like shooting range. He would definitely be a big-gate attraction in the Magic Kingdom.

4. Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic, SG/SF, Slovenia. After riding international star Dirk Nowitzki to their only NBA title in 2011, how about bringing in the best player currently competing in Europe? Mark Cuban has never been afraid to take chances with personnel moves, and the highly skilled Doncic could turn out to be the best perimeter player in the draft. At the age of 18, his shooting and passing ability have drawn rave reviews from NBA scouts.

5. Memphis Grizzlies: Michael Porter, SF/PF, Missouri. Porter only played two minutes for the Tigers before leaving his first college game with what turned out to be a season-ending back injury. Still, scouts love his potential to play both forward spots at 6-foot-10, and if Porter decides to apply for the draft, it's hard to see him falling beyond this point.

6. Phoenix Suns: Collin Sexton, PG, Alabama. The Suns used to be drowning in point guards, but after trading Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe in recent years, their starter is now 5-foot-9 Chicago native Tyler Ulis. Sexton has tremendous scoring and ball-handling skills, showing up on the national radar after almost single-handedly beating Minnesota in a Thanksgiving tournament game when Alabama was forced to play with only three players for a good portion of the second half because of injuries and ejections.

7. Boston Celtics: Mohamed Bamba, C, Texas. The Celtics continue to stock up on young talent by virtue of all the great trades made by general manager Danny Ainge in recent years. Boston has just about every position but center covered, and now they get a chance to add a defensive anchor with a 7-foot-9 wingspan. The Celtics are poised for a long run as the beasts of the East.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers: Jaren Jackson Jr., PF, Michigan State. Power forward really isn't the Cavs' biggest position of need, but if LeBron James leaves in free agency, Cleveland could be heading into rebuild mode. Jackson has a soft shooting touch from 3-point range and is quick off his feet as a shot blocker. He could team up with Kevin Love on a new-look Cavs team post-LeBron.

9. Bulls: Mikal Bridges, SG/SF, Villanova. With four starting positions already covered (assuming Robin Lopez remains on the roster), the Bulls would have the luxury to add another shot creator on the wing. Bridges is tall enough to play the small forward spot and has a lightning-quick first step to get to the rim. He also is shooting 44 percent from the 3-point line and 50 percent overall. Adding Bridges to a lineup that features Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn would give the Bulls a young and versatile unit capable of playing with tremendous pace.

10. Charlotte Hornets: Kevin Knox, SF/PF, Kentucky. The Hornets could be ready to push the reset button after watching their veteran-laden team underachieve this season. Charlotte will be looking to trade the big contracts of Nic Batum, Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, which means they could be in need of a versatile frontcourt player with high-end scoring potential.

11. Utah Jazz: Wendell Carter, PF, Duke. With Derrick Favors likely to leave in free agency, the Jazz could definitely use a young power forward with Carter's ability to score inside. Carter has played in Bagley's massive shadow at Duke, but he figures to get more touches and shot attempts in an NBA offense. The Jazz have had pretty good luck drafting power forwards in the past with Karl Malone and Paul Millsap.

12. New York Knicks: Miles Bridges, SF, Michigan State. Bridges surprised a lot of NBA executives with his decision to return to Michigan State for his sophomore season considering he was a likely lottery pick last year. Bridges has become much more than just a spectacular dunker, adding a more consistent 3-point shot to his offensive arsenal. He could be an excellent fit in New York alongside Kristaps Porzingis and Enes Kanter.

13. Detroit Pistons: Hamidou Diallo, SG, Kentucky. Diallo hasn't really stood out on a young Kentucky team, but his physical tools are off the charts. He's a great finisher at the rim but needs more consistency with his outside shot. The Pistons could be in need of a shooting guard with Avery Bradley heading to free agency.

14. Denver Nuggets: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Kentucky. Another talented young athlete who gets kind of lost in a somewhat dysfunctional Kentucky offense. The Nuggets are ready to move on from the Emmanuel Mudiay experiment, though Gilgeous-Alexander offers similar concerns as a raw, underdeveloped prospect.

Around the Association

The big news this week involves the Milwaukee Bucks' decision to fire head coach Jason Kidd, who originally came to Milwaukee because of his longstanding friendship with Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry. Kidd signed a contract extension in 2016 and has a good relationship with All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

So why the change? Clearly, Kidd and his staff have not done the best job of developing the talent on the roster. The Bucks made an early season trade with the Suns to acquire point guard Eric Bledsoe, giving them another shot creator to go along with the Greek Freak. They've also loaded up on long athletes over the years, drafting frontcourt players John Henson, Thon Maker and D.J. Wilson, while also adding point guard Malcolm Brogdon, who was the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year. And the Bucks starting lineup features a third proven scorer in swingman Khris Middleton, with Chicago native Jabari Parker expected back next month after completing his second ACL rehab.

With the Bucks scheduled to move into their new downtown arena next season, ownership is clearly not satisfied with a team hovering around .500 and in danger of missing the playoffs. Assistant coach Joe Prunty will take over for now, but the names of David Fizdale and Monty Williams have already surfaced as leading candidates to replace Kidd.

The San Antonio Spurs have long been held in high regard as the NBA's model organization. But now ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Michael C. Wright are reporting there's a growing disconnect with star forward Kawhi Leonard over the handling of his rehab from a quad injury. Leonard missed the first 27 games of the season because of the injury, and according to the report, he wasn't always on the same page with how the rehab process was done. Leonard is currently sidelined again because of the same injury, and the Spurs aren't sure when he'll be ready to play again.

Spurs general manager R.C. Buford denies there is any problem between the organization and its star player, but it's definitely a situation to watch considering Leonard can opt out of his current contract following the 2018-19 season. If the Bulls decided not be active in this summer's free-agent market, is there a chance they could make a run at one the NBA's top 10 players with a max offer in 2019?

While the Bucks have been one of the league's most disappointing teams this season, the Washington Wizards aren't far behind. Washington currently holds the fifth seed in the East, but that has more to do with the quality of the conference rather than the Wizards' outstanding play. Washington players recently decided to hold a clear-the-air meeting, but things didn't go exactly as planned.

According to the Washington Post, the meeting actually had a negative impact on team morale. John Wall said, "We had our team meeting. A couple guys took it the negative way, and it hurt our team. Instead of taking it a positive way like we did in the past and using it to build our team up, it kind of set us back a little bit."

Wizards leading scorer Bradley Beal added, "Honestly, it was probably — I won't say pointless, but we didn't accomplish what we needed to accomplish in that meeting. We just need to win ballgames. Like I told the guys, it doesn't matter how many meetings we have. We can have a meeting after every game, but if we're not mentally prepared for each game, we're going to lose again."

And that's exactly what happened. In the next game after the meeting, the Wizards got pounded by the Hornets, 133-109. Clearly, there's a lot of work to do before Washington can be considered a legitimate threat in the East.

Speaking of bad team meetings, how about Wojnarowski reporting the embattled Cavs got together before practice on Monday and actually questioned the legitimacy of Kevin Love's illness after he only played three minutes in a blowout loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder? According to the report, Love had to explain to his teammates why he left the arena before the game was over and then missed practice the following day. The Cavs might eventually get their act together before the playoffs, but it sure doesn't look good now.

Quote of the Week

Former Cavs coach David Blatt felt blindsided when he was fired and replaced by Ty Lue midway through the team's 2015-16 championship season. Blatt eventually went back to Europe to resume his coaching career, and he directed one of the teams in a Turkish BSL All-Star Game on Sunday.

When asked about his goals for the game, Blatt offered this classic that resonated on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean: "I hope we don't give up as many points as the Cavaliers gave up last night."

Very funny line after the Cavs were torched for 148 points in that loss to the Thunder, which matched a franchise record. Problem is, Blatt's All-Star squad gave up 151 in losing their game. You know what they say about karma.