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The Buck stops here: Bulls 'D' steps up for win

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The Buck stops here: Bulls 'D' steps up for win

Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2010
Posted Dec. 28, 9:27 PM Updated 12:13 AM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

For once, the fourth quarter wasnt the Bulls worst period of the game. Neither was the first.

Chicago (20-10) bookended a strong start and equally stout finish Tuesday evening, to knock off visiting Milwaukee (12-18), 90-77, at the United Center. It wasnt a picture-perfect performance, but in the end, the Bulls didnt permit an injury-riddled Bucks squad to challenge them down the stretch.

48 minutes thats hard, man, to play a whole NBA game like that, said Derrick Rose afterwards. I think thats what were fighting for right now, to get up to that caliber with the other teams thats great in the NBA, like the Lakers, the Bostons, just trying to get up to their level.

Preparedness to begin the game, a familiar lamentation of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, wasnt an issue against the Bucks, as Chicago scored the games first nine points.

Defended by Milwaukee center Andrew Bogut (16 rebounds, four blocked shots), Carlos Boozer (24 points, nine rebounds) was the teams early focal point, as he mixed improved explosiveness with range on his jumper.

Rose (18 points, 12 assists, six rebounds) was also assertive from the outset, displaying increased defensive awareness the All-Star point guard has addressed some of his deficiencies on that end of the floor to facilitate open-court offense, as well as the return of his 3-point stroke on his first attempt.

The early Chicago onslaught, combined with Milwaukees offensive woes the visitors hit only one of their first 11 shots was enough for Bucks head coach Scott Skiles to call a timeout midway through the opening period for adjustment purposes.

Milwaukee bounced back from its early ineptitude and rapidly closed on the Bulls, as a balanced scoring effort and solid rebounding countered the home teams hot shooting along with Boozer, Luol Deng (24 points, five rebounds) also was an effective scorer even as they had continued solid ball movement to get all five starters on the board.

With its shooting again picking up toward the end of the quarter and improved defensive and rebounding approaches Chicago held a 27-15 advantage after the first period.

With both squads second units on the floor to start the second quarter, the Bulls simply strived to maintain their relatively comfortable winning margin until Thibodeau filtered his regulars back into the contest.

Milwaukee, however, buoyed by powerful backup swingman Corey Maggette (15 points), a Chicago native, chipped away at its deficit to negate the efforts of Bulls reserves C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer.

Maggette and fellow wing John Salmons (18 points), a former Bull, both attacked the rim with regularity, usually drawing a foul in the process and keeping the Bucks in close contact, while Keyon Dooling (11 points, six assists) Milwaukees only available point guard, as regular starter Brandon Jennings is injured and diminutive backup Earl Boykins served a one-game suspension for contact with an official in the teams previous outing scorched the nets from the perimeter. With turnovers and suddenly poor marksmanship key contributing factors, Chicagos downhill spiral persisted, Milwaukee surged ahead before intermission, 45-44.

Although it didnt immediately translate into a drastic difference, Chicagos improved play and intensity at the outset of the third quarter transferred the games momentum and lead back into the Bulls hands, by virtue of Roses offensive assertiveness. That initial team-wide intensity, however, waned as time went on, giving way to uncontested Bucks jaunts to the basket, second-chance opportunities and a figurative lid on the rim for the home team in the friendly confines of the United Center.

Despite Milwaukees subpar shooting percentage, the Bulls inefficiency allowed the visitors to make it a close-knit affair, subduing the home fans. An overabundance of quick perimeter jumpers without the inside-out emphasis Thibodeau preaches was the central theme of the period until late when Deng, in particular, began working for more high-quality looks but at the end of three quarters, Chicago led by a scant five-point margin, 67-62.

Luol does a lot of things for our team and sometimes they go unnoticed. His defense has been terrific all year. Even when he wasnt shooting well, I thought he was playing well, said Thibodeau of his small forwards bounce-back effort after two subpar shooting nights in the Bulls previous pair of outings. Tonight, I thought he had his energy back offensively, hes moving without the ball, he did some off the dribble, some catch-and-shoot, some in the post he scores a lot of different ways but his overall play throughout the year has been terrific.

Added Deng: It felt great. The last two games, I didnt shoot the ball great, but I felt like I was still aggressive. I just try to bring something different to the team. Theres going to be nights where I shoot like that; its not the last time. My whole mindset is as long as we win at the end of the game, just bring something to the team every time.

I really didnt do anything different. I had good looks I knocked them down my mid-range game was good and I was slashing, but I really didnt do anything different. I think as the season goes on, Im just going to learn how to play off Carlos more. Im really very familiar with Derricks game when to let Derrick be Derrick, when to cut but were still getting used to Carlos. Hes a great guy to have on the team and it takes a lot of pressure off our hands, so its just getting used to playing off him.

Chimed in Rose: As a point guard, youve got to know what plays to call just to get him going and thats what we tried to do early. He was making a lot of great shots going to the hole a lot of great layups and hes got like three or four or five calls that he can get the shot that he wants.

I look at Thibs sometimes, but other than that, I go with the flow. I know if I come down and I know that Lu is not getting enough touches 33, three-down, three-flat just to get him going.

In the final stanza the period in which the Bulls have had significant issues over their past three contests Chicago couldnt sustain its focus on either end, although Deng provided a consistent scoring threat.

Despite lacking much of a flow on the offensive end, the Bulls were able to sustain their slim cushion over the visitors, who remained cold from the field, although their surprisingly large advantage on the glass persisted, as Bogut and forwards Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (12 points, 10 rebounds) and Ersan Ilyasova (10 points, seven rebounds) dominated the backboards.

They were terrific defensively and the way they rebounded the ball. That was a hard-fought game. It was hard to get the ball into the paint. We had to move the ball side to side, set good screens. Theyre a tough team, tough competitors, said Thibodeau. When we got the ball moving and our players moving, it was more effective for usyou cant hold onto the ball against them. You cant dance with the ball against them. The ball has to move. As the game went on, I thought we got better at it.

Cohesiveness and efficiency on the offensive end miraculously reappeared for Chicago with reinsertion of Rose into the contest. The third-year floor generals playmaking ability permitted the likes of Boozer and sharpshooter Kyle Korver to get relatively unimpeded opportunities, transforming the Bulls tenuous lead into a double-digit advantage with the games stretch run approaching.

The home team didnt look back, with Chicago hustle plays, purpose-filled offensive possessions and defensive intensity defining Milwaukees ultimate demise to close the game out in an appropriate manner. The visitors final attempts to make a run were futile, as the Bulls cruised to an eventual triumph.

A win is a win in this league, especially when youre playing against a team like that where they dont have all their players and theyre just trying to prove a point by playing hard. Thats what they did tonight, but we put it away in the fourth quarter, said Rose. Weve just got to play hard throughout the whole game. We cant have periods of time where were not scoring the ball and our defense is lacking. Our defense should stay the same throughout the whole game and offensively, if were not doing what were supposed to do, weve got to have go-to plays.

Added Thibodeau: I liked our defense, but we had a lot of things in our favor tonight. They were playing back-to-back, Boykins suspended

Its ironic that Thibodeau, a proponent of never making excuses for defeat, would come up with reasons for the Bucks to have lost. But when youre winning gutting out wins and cruising atop your division, motivation has to come from somewhere.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

Keeping the game simple is often a tough task for rookies entering the NBA, but it seems Lauri Markkanen has been a quick learner in that aspect.

Through two games he’s probably the lone bright spot, especially after the Bulls’ cringe-inducing 87-77 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in their home opener at the United Center.

Jumper not falling? Okay, go to the basket.

“It wasn’t falling so I tried to get to the rim a couple times,” Markkanen said. “At the end, I was like let’s do it and I connected on a 3-pointer, I felt more open just because I was at the rim. I think that helped.”

He was asked what the difference was in the second game of his career compared to the first.

“I mean the crowd was chanting for us (tonight),” Markkanen said, referring to Thursday in Toronto.

He wasn’t attempting to display any dry wit but applying common sense seems to work for him, even though he’s been thrust into a situation after an incident that doesn’t make any sense.

With Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic out for the foreseeable future, playing a game-high 37 minutes will be more common than anomaly.

“Whatever your minutes are, you gotta play them to the best of your ability,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s being allowed to play through some mistakes right now. He’s gonna play heavy minutes every night.”

He only shot five of 14 but achieved his first double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds after a 17-point, eight-rebound debut against the Raptors Thursday.

No, someone didn’t open a door for a draft to come into the United Center on that three-pointer that went wide left, but it didn’t stop him from being assertive and continuing to look for his shot.

There was plenty of muck, easy to see on the stat sheet. The 38 percent shooting overall, the lack of penetration, the 29 percent shooting from 3-point range and 20 turnovers.

It’s not hard to imagine what Markkanen will look like with competent and effective NBA players around him, along with a true facilitating point guard that will find him in this offense.

“Markkanen is a wonderful player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s aggressive, he’s smart and obviously, he can shoot the ball. He’s just going to get better and better as he figures things out.”

He received a crash course, facing the likes of Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay Saturday night. On one instance, Gay drove baseline and made Markkanen buckle with a 3-point play.

Aldridge had 24 shots in 32 minutes as a new focal point with Kawhi Leonard out with injury.

So he’s not getting treated with kid gloves, nor is he backing down from the assignments.

“He didn’t shoot the ball well but he battled,” Hoiberg said. “He had a tough assignment with Pau, who’s gonna be in the Hall of Fame one day. Good experience. He guarded Aldridge, Rudy Gay some. He battled, he fought them.”

Even with the airball, had the moment that gives the Bulls fans hope, when he drove on Gasol, spun and hooked a lefty layup while being fouled by the veteran in the first half—giving the United Center faithful something to have faith in for a moment.

“Sometimes you get labeled as a shooter. That’s the label Lauri had,” Hoiberg said. “But he really is a complete basketball player. He’s versatile, he can put in on the deck. He slides his feet very well for a guy that’s seven feet tall, someone his age. Yeah, he’s learning on the fly. He’s gonna have ups and downs, as young as he is. He’s gonna have some struggles at times. But he’s played pretty darn well for everything he’s been through, understanding two days ago he’s gonna be in the starting lineup.”

And for all the bad air around the Bulls right now, from the on-court product to the off-court drama that seems to follow them around like Pigpen, it would be even worse if Markkanen’s first two games had him looking like a corpse, or someone who would be a couple years away from reasonably contributing to an NBA team.

“He’s good, he’s very good,” Gasol said. “I like him. I like his game.”

Miscues, miscommunications and missed shots: Bulls offense struggling all around

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USA TODAY

Miscues, miscommunications and missed shots: Bulls offense struggling all around

Denzel Valentine corralled a rebound and casually dribbled up the right side of the floor, unaware of the final 5 seconds ticking off the clock in the third quarter. The second-year shooting guard moved toward the basket as the buzzer sounded, only realizing his gaffe as the red lights behind the backboard lit up. It was that kind of night for the Bulls offense, and one that highlighted carelessness, a lack of talent and obvious growing pains as the rebuild begins.

Fred Hoiberg’s group finished with more turnovers (20) than assists (18), shot 38 percent from the field and were doubled up on points in the paint in an ugly 87-77 loss to the Spurs on Saturday night. Adding to the issues were only nine free-throw attempts and 28 percent shooting from deep on a night where the Bulls played well enough defensively to earn a win.

But they couldn’t take advantage of a Spurs team playing without Kawhi Leonard. The ball stopped for long periods of time in the halfcourt, the fast break was non-existent and miscommunications were frequent, even when they didn’t result in one of those 20 turnovers.

“We had 20 turnovers that led to 23 points…that’s what kills you,” Hoiberg said. “A team goes on a run and they get easy ones, pick-sixes, you’re all of a sudden in a big hole. And obviously did not shoot the ball well today.”

The struggles came from across the board. Only Cris Felicio was turnover-less of the nine Bulls who played. The backcourt tandem of Jerian Grant and Justin Holiday combined for 11 of 32 shooting. Rookie Lauri Markkanen showed flashes with eight first-half points, but finished 5 of 14 and committed three ugly turnovers. Robin Lopez made the first 3-pointer of his career 630 games in, but a 29-year-old leading the way for a young rebuilding group could be deemed bittersweet at best.

It capped off a whirlwind first week for the Bulls, who dealt on the fly with the fallout of the altercation between Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis. Losing Mirotic and Portis hurt from a talent standpoint, but it also threw a wrench into Hoiberg’s rotation and scheme. It thrust 20-year-old Markkanen into the starting lineup; Paul Zipser has shifted to playing more power forward (while also starting at small forward); Lopez is being asked to score more than ever, and at times be the primary option.

“With everything we’ve had going on the past week, with playing guys different positions that they haven’t played yet,” Hoiberg said, “we’re still trying to figure out exactly how we’re going to go out there and play. We’re getting stuck at times because guys are in the wrong spots.”

The Bulls opened Saturday night with a solid first quarter, scoring 21 points, assisting on nine of 12 baskets and committing just three turnovers.

The final three quarters couldn’t have been more different. The second unit again struggled like it did in allowing the Raptors a 20-2 second-quarter run on Tuesday. Even without Leonard the Spurs’ defensive length cut off passing and driving lanes, forcing the Bulls to dribble down the shot clock and turn to isolation basketball or contested 3-pointers.

The Spurs couldn’t pull away thanks to an inspired defensive effort by the Bulls, but the offensive stalling rendered it moot; the Bulls took 28 3-pointers and 37 shots in the paint, an ugly ratio when considering the nine free-throw attempts. The bench shot 7-for-19, but most of that came in garbage time.

“One thing we definitely need to work on is attacking the basket,” Lopez said. “I think there are times where we all get a little jumper-happy on the perimeter. I think we need to have a good balance.

We need to be aware of that. We’re a team that doesn’t have a lot of room for error so any time we concede the ball like that, we don’t get up a shot attempt, tat’s going to really hurt us.”

Kris Dunn may be closer than expected to returning to the lineup after dislocating his finger in the preseason. It would give the Bulls help on that dismayed second unit, knocking Kay Felder (3 turnovers in 15 minutes) out of the rotation. Once Mirotic and Portis return in November, Hoiberg will have more flexibility with his rotations as well as some insurance if frontcourt foul trouble arrives.

None are go-to scorers, and not even Zach LaVine's 19.8 points per game last season will save the Bulls once he's healthy. Season-long struggles like Saturday night are on the way for a young team searching for pieces of the future. That's expected, and in the long term it benefits them as more Lottery balls roll toward Chicago.

But in a season in which success will be judged not on wins and losses but improvement from game-to-game, but the Bulls have set the bar low in the season's first week.