Bulls capable of highest of highs, lowest of lows


Bulls capable of highest of highs, lowest of lows

MIAMIThe Bulls have had a case of schizophrenia as of late.

Big win against New York at Madison Square Garden, blowout road loss to Atlanta, then the Christmas Day debacle at home to Houston. Back on track with an expected win over the woeful Wizards at home, shocking loss to lowly Charlotte at the United Center.

Then, on their just-completed two-game Florida road trip, they bounced back with a solid win over a competitive Orlando squad, followed by Friday nights inspiring win over the defending-champion Heat. To paraphrase Joakim Noah, this is a team with the ability to beat the best of them, but not above losing to the bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the NBA.

Thats one thing about the league; its so hard. Every team has talent. Its rough to get up for some of the teams that are having a bad season, but its so easy to get up for the guys that are the defending champs, Taj Gibson observed. We just have to turn it around. We understand that were capable of winning a lot of games, but its just a great trip for us. We needed to get away on the road and we got two solid wins, and we need to build on it.

Carlos Boozer concurred: We had a little bit of a lull last week, but since the New Year hit, we all have a conscious effort of trying to play a lot betterrebound, play together, defense, share the ball offensivelyand you guys see in January, were playing a lot betterwe know for us, we want to use this momentum to keep playing well.

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Kirk Hinrich added: This is a big win, big road trip for us. We hadnt been playing as well coming in and its two big wins, and weve just got to keep building to not take any steps back.

They all count the same, but if you can get big wins like this and build on them, and not take steps back, I think they can have big meaning. Im not saying this is it or isnt it, but in any season, I think theres turning points, wins or losses in the season, that can give you momentum.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, in his usual fashion, took all of the emotion out of it. He attributed his teams current two-game winning streak to execution and work ethic.

Our guys, the past couple of games, that balls been hopping. No ones holding on to it, no ones dancing with it and thats what you have to do to win and so, when you get a whole team thats committed to putting everything they have into each and every day, youll improve, he said about the Bulls offensive flow, before turning to the outstanding play of the frontcourt rotation recently. Im pleased that were moving in the right direction, but the challenge is for us to do it each and every day, not only in games, but in practice. We have to understand how important practicing well is and how that leads to improvement, and playing well in games. But our frontline, I think, is playing well very well right now.

Regarding Friday night specifically, Gibson said the teams improved healthhes dealt with nagging ankle issues, Hinrich has had a spate of ailments all season, Noah is coming off a bout with the flu and Luol Deng has played through injuries all seasonhelped matters. However, he also put the onus on the players, citing himself, the recipient of a contract extension at the outset of the season, specifically.

Were just getting healthy right now. Thats the main thing. Weve got a lot of guys that were banged up, injuries. Thibs has stressed that we need to get back on our grind, as far as rebounding the ball, the last two games. We rebounded the ball real well, especially tonight. We really dominated. A lot of close tip-ins, a lot of aggressive, in-traffic, hard-nosed rebounds, he explained. We understand that we have to do our job, especially me. I have to step up, especially with my new contract, and I have to do what I can.

Deng, who made reigning league MVP LeBron James earn all 30 of his points Friday, told CSNChicago.com that the key to the win was the Bulls selflessness.

We were doing so well with executing, dropping the ball inside. I know I didnt shoot well, but I didnt even look to shoot that much. We had to be smart. Weve learned in the past that theyre an over-help team and we could get them inside, he said. Booz was doing great, Taj, Jo. We just kept going with them. Honestly, great team effort and just staying focused with what we were doing. It never got out of hand or anything, stayed focused and got it.

The performance of backup point guard, particularly in the fourth quarter, cant be overlooked. The diminutive scorer poured in 13 key points, but besides his typical instant offense, he took a big charge, got a big steal and was generally a whirling dervish on both ends of the floor.

Just to bring energy, man. Honestly, thats one of my best attributes to the game and to this team, is to fire guys up and play as hard as I can, Robinson said, before the former college football player discussed giving up his body on defense.. Just being in the right spot at the right time. It just shows that weve got each others' back, no matter where we are on the court.

Every game means something and for us, were just trying to play as hard as we can for as long as we can, play together and we did that tonight.

Thibodeau and Noah had different, if similarly appreciative reactions to Robinsons effort.

He was huge, man! Noah exclaimed, discussing one of Robinson's crowd-silencing sequences. "That charge and then the trey ball, it got meI havent been hype like that in a long time.

His more subdued coach chimed in: Nate played very well. He made some shots and we needed it. He competed defensively, he got open on a couple pick-and-roll plays and he knocked some big shots down.

However they want to term the play of Robinson or the entire team, it worked Friday night. Now, if they can put lightning in a bottle and figure out how to muster up that type of consistent effort, regardless of the opponent, on a nightly basis, then all of a sudden, this overlooked Bulls team could develop into the Eastern Conferences best-kept secret.

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


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.