Bulls

Boozer, Bulls shock defending-champion Heat

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Boozer, Bulls shock defending-champion Heat

MIAMI No Derrick Rose, no problem.

If the Heat (22-9) didnt learn last season that the Bulls (18-13) didnt fear them without their franchise player in the lineup, they certainly learned Friday night, as the Bulls trademark blend of defense and role players rising to the occasion not to mention Carlos Boozer having his best game against Miami, where he resides in the offseason, in a Bulls uniform helped them hold off the defending champions, 96-89, at American Airlines Arena.

A quick start by Boozer (27 points, 12 rebounds) and the Bulls quieted the raucous home crowd, as scrappy defense, timely plays and selfless offense combated the hosts firepower to take an early lead.

Reigning MVP LeBron James (30 points, six rebounds) came out of the gates aggressively, however, ensuring that things didnt get out of hand, though a timeout to halt the visitors momentum was utilized by Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra.

Miami subsequently got its transition game going and with a 9-0 run, mainly propelled by All-Star Dwyane Wade (22 points), the tables were quickly turned, as the Heats up-tempo approach led to easy scoring opportunities.

The Bulls didnt wilt, however, and with Taj Gibson (nine rebounds) coming off the bench to give them a lift, they ended the opening period on a 10-0 run to hold a 26-22 advantage after a quarter of play, following a putback layup by Boozer, who continued to produce through the entire frame, just before the buzzer.

The hosts quickly regained control of the game in the second quarter, as Chris Bosh (14 points), complemented by the Heats deep bench while Ray Allen is headlining, reserve, second-year point guard Norris Cole made more of an impact went to work. Although Boozer was reinserted into the contest and immediately continued doing damage, Miami built a slim cushion.

But the Bulls gradually cut into the deficit as the period waned on, getting contributions from energetic reserves Nate Robinson (13 points) and Jimmy Butler (eight points, five rebounds) fearless scoring from the former, while the latters defensive versatility and athleticism matched up well with the Heats small-ball lineup; Butler sacrificed his offense to focus on guarding fellow Marquette product Wade, as All-Star Luol Deng against James and quietly chipped away at the hosts.

At the intermission, following a last-second shot by Butler, the Bulls led, 49-48, much to the dismay of the home crowd.

After the break, Boozer and Joakim Noah (13 points, 12 rebounds) who took a while to get going after missing Wednesdays win in Orlando with flu-like symptoms helped the Bulls maintain their edge, via their strong interior play. They got help from the veteran backcourt of Kirk Hinrich (10 points, eight assists) and Rip Hamilton, which provided the visitors, with a lift after a mostly dormant first half.

The Bulls acquired some breathing room as the third quarter went on and while James brought the house down after a fast break alley-oop from Wade with 3:29 left in the period, the Bulls soldiered on, even flirting with extending their lead to double digits. Behind the continued solid play of the inside tandem of Noah and Boozer, the visitors headed into the final stanza ahead, 75-66.

Early in the fourth quarter, what appeared to be a potential turning point in the game occurred when Noah, already seen as a villain in Miami and a host of other NBA cities aside from Chicago, collared James around the neck without malice and he helped him up and after an official review, was called for a flagrant foul with 10:16 remaining.

James scored nine straight Heat points to bring Miami to within three, but Robinson responded with a terrific individual sequence a tough floater on one end, then an amazing athletic display for a steal on defense, followed by drawing a foul and knocking down a pair of free throws to give the Bulls some separation.

Robinsons exploits continued, as he and Boozer hit the deck in pursuit of loose balls, followed by another solo run by the diminutive scorer he took a charge on Ray Allen on defense, then knocked down a triple prompting a Heat timeout, as the Bulls built a double-digit lead.

As the game headed into the stretch run, timely plays on the defensive end by the likes of Butler, as well as clutch foul shooting, allowed the Bulls to hold off their hosts, who simply couldnt buy a bucket late. And while an Allen three-pointer with 1:44 remaining made it a 91-85 game, in the visitors favor, followed by James drawing a clear-path foul on Hinrich though he split the pair of free throws and the Heat couldnt capitalize on the subsequent possession a Boozer layup after a Butler offensive rebound salted the game away in the final minute, promoting the Heat loyalists to head for the exits early.

Just as we all predicted, two rookies stole the show in L.A.

Just as we all predicted, two rookies stole the show in L.A.

There's not often hype surrounding a game between two of the NBA's worst teams, but Tuesday's Bulls-Lakers matchup was intriguing to many because it offered a chance to see a pair of top rookies compete. 

Oh, but you didn't think we meant Lonzo Ball and Lauri Markkanen, did you?

Nah, it was two different, less-touted first-year players that ended up stealing the spotlight at the Staples Center. 

Kyle Kuzma and Antonio Blakeney may not be household names, but they sure played like they were in the Bulls' 103-94 loss. 

Kuzma, the Lakers rook drafted 27th overall, has been a spark for Luke Walton's squad all season long. Boasting a terrific scoring arsenal, the Utah product carried the load for the Lakers' offense in the first half, dropping 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting. He finished the game as L.A.'s leading scorer with 22 in 40 minutes. But if you still need a more in-depth scouting report on Kuzma, just let Lonzo break it down:  

More importantly for Bulls fans, though, was the play of their undrafted guard who's signed to a two-way deal. 

Blakeney, the unofficial Summer League MVP, came off the bench on Tuesday and immediately left his mark on the game. The 21-year-old out of LSU posted 15 in the first half, finishing through contact as well as connecting on outside jumpers. 

Blakeney's shooting isn't reliable quite yet, but his energy has clearly influenced Hoiberg's rotation. The guard went from playing one NBA minute in the Bulls' first 11 games to playing 75 in the last four. Given that his two-way deal allows him to only spend 45 days with the team, it'll be fascinating to see how creative Gar Forman and John Paxson will get with his contract if this type of production continues. 

In a season that's obviously going to have its share of rough moments, an offseason flyer hitting is a huge plus for the rebuild. 

As for the recognized rookies, Lonzo's shooting woes persisted and Markkanen had maybe his worst offensive performance of his young Bulls career. Combined, they finished 7-for-30 with 21 points. Not ideal. 

Zach LaVine cleared for contact practice

Zach LaVine cleared for contact practice

The Zach LaVine comeback is one step closer as the shooting guard was cleared for contact practice after checking with his doctors in California. 

LaVine will go through a step by step process over the next few weeks and the Bulls will gauge his progress to see when the best time for his return will be. 

But, given the nine-month process from his ACL injury he suffered in February, he's right on track and there doesn't appear to be any setbacks. 

"There’s no real timeframe, I guess," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said at practice Monday. "It’s really going to be on how he feels. We’ll try to do a little more every day with him. We did a little bit, got him some light contact today just to get the process started.

"He’ll be able to play a little two-on-two with not a lot of practice time these next 10 days. But we’ll throw him out there and continue to try to get him feeling better. There’s going to be a mental hurdle that he’s going to have to clear as well. I know he’s excited. His teammates are excited and the coaches are obviously excited as well."

LaVine's recovery has gone as planned since his arrival in Chicago from the Jimmy Butler trade on draft night. Targeting a mid-December return seems realistic but of course, the Bulls will take every precaution to make sure he's healthy for the long term, both for LaVine and the franchise, as he's a restricted free agent this summer--and they have no plans on letting him walk. 

LaVine told NBC Sports Chicago recently that he wants to get on the floor immediately but the Bulls know they'll have to protect him from himself in the meantime. 

"He’s going to have to string together a lot of really good days, and he knows that," Hoiberg said. "He understands that. The important thing is he’s right on track from where it was said after the injury. He’s been doing a great job with his rehab. He’s on time. He’s doing everything that’s asked of him. His strength numbers are where they’re supposed to be. I’m confident he’s going to keep making progress. But we’ll absolutely monitor it daily and hopefully it’ll just continue to get better."

The Bulls aren't sure if they'll send LaVine to the G-League but it's certain they have plans on not only how to use him when he steps on the floor but also a regimen they've stuck to, to ensure there are no real setbacks. 

Hoiberg has been salivating over having a true scorer at that position since trading for him, and LaVine has been eager since his arrival to prove to the Bulls and fans that he is a franchise player. 

Prudence in the moment of progression, though, appears to be the approach taken by both sides.