Bulls

Bulls conjure up some Magic in Orlando

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Bulls conjure up some Magic in Orlando

Friday, March 4, 2011
Posted: 8:49 PM Updated: 10:05 p.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

ORLANDOTo a man, the Bulls and their coaching staff constantly preach that the teams depth is one of the squads primary strengths, as they believe any player is capable of stepping up on any given evening to carry them to victory. Friday night was Omer Asiks turn, as the rookie center battled Magic All-Star center Dwight Howard effectively, sparking Chicago (42-18) to an 89-81 win over Orlando (39-23) in a defensive-themed performance.

Chicago, perhaps suffering from a hangover in the aftermath of their collapse in Atlanta Wednesday, got off to a rough start at the sparkling-new Amway Center. The interior presence of Howard (20 points, 8-for-8 field-goal shooting, 10 rebounds, four blocked shots) proved to be an effective deterrent to drives to the basket, ball security didnt seem to be a priority and Orlando scored effectively, whether in transition, from the perimeter or Howard asserting his power at the rim, the latter of which caused Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to make an early adjustment, subbing Joakim Noah for the defensive-minded Asik.

The playmaking of Orlando point guard Jameer Nelson (14 points, six assists)who was injured early in the teams last contest, a Bulls win at the United Centerand outside shooting of veteran Jason Richardson (16 points, five rebounds) were catalysts, but while the visitors early offering didnt look pretty, they kept within striking distance of the home team. Orlando, however, didnt exploit Chicagos early missteps, and the scoring of Derrick Rose (24 points, four assists, four rebounds, two steals) and Luol Deng (16 points, six rebounds, three assists) kept the visitors afloat against the trigger-happy hosts and through the opening period, the score was knotted up at 21 apiece.

After the first five minutes of the game, once we settled down, I thought we played real solid defense and the rebounding was great, Thibodeau observed. Our bench came in and played great. The starters, they settled down, after about five minutes. I thought we were really anxious and we were breaking down because of what we were doing.

When the bench came in, they gave us a huge lift. Actually, the second quarter, because they were going so well, I probably held on to the starters a little longer than usual, but they were playing very well and theyve been playing well for a while, so I wanted to keep playing them.

Dengs hot hand persisted through the early second quarter, but it was countered by the unexpected offensive contributions of Orlandos Brandon Bass (16 points), as both starting forwards transitioned into primary scoring options while playing with their respective teams second units, keeping the contest a tightly-knit affair. Upon Carlos Boozers (12 points, nine rebounds) return to the contest, Chicago seized its first lead of the game on a putback by the Alaskan power forward, then subsequently extended it to create some breathing room as part of a 14-0 run by a mostly-reserve lineup to give the visitors a double-digit lead.

Toward the end of the half, Howard was fouled by Noah and then wildly swung an elbow when tangled up with Kyle Korver (10 points, 3-for-4 three-point shooting), resulting in a technical foul with 1:41 remaining in the period, his 16th of the season, which is punishable by a one-game suspension. A late scoring burst by Rose piled on to the Magics woes and the Bulls went into intermission with a 49-35 advantage.

A pair of quick fouls on Noah early in the third quarter put him on the bench with four personals, but with Asik (five points, career-high 13 rebounds, five of which were offensive, two blocks) in his stead, the Bulls maintained their cushion, as neither team was especially efficient offensively, although both Boozer and Nelson had their moments. Orlandos scoring woes persistedthe Magics reliance on three-point shooting betrayed themand with Chicago controlling the glass, the visitors didnt let the home team have an opportunity to get the crowds momentum behind them.

Behind Howard, however, the Magic gradually chipped away and made it a single-digit contest as the periods midway mark passed, sparked by improved defense and timely scoring, particularly two crowd-energizing triples by reserve sharpshooters Ryan Anderson and J.J. Redick, the erstwhile offseason Bulls free-agent target. But Chicago persevered and despite Asik fouling Gilbert Arenas on a three-point attemptthe former All-Star guard hit the entire trio of free throws with 0.5 seconds left in the quarterthe Bulls took a 65-57 lead into the final stanza.

Chicagos reserves kept things going in the visitors favor, but when Asikwho clearly had become Thibodeaus preferred option in defending Howard and thusly played the bulk of thepicked up his fifth foul, the Magic went on a quick run, again threatening to shift the games course. Noah, who struggled mightily to score, came back in, but promptly accrued his fifth, too, forcing Thibodeau to play musical chairs with his two seven-footers.

Still, the Bulls defense and strong offensive rebounding ensured the visitors kept the hosts on their heels and a traditional Rose three-point play in transition once again gave Chicago a double-digit winning margin midway through the period. Asik keyed the Bulls with his savvy defense against Howard, infectious energy on the boards and refusal to be cowed by a big stage before fouling out with 1:37 to go after playing a career-high 31 minutes.

Its really fun to play against the best center in the league. I tried to do just do my job, tried to defend him, Asik told CSNChicago.com afterwards. I just tried to defend and take the rebounds. The team needs me at that position, so I tried to do my job. Thats it.

Omers been playing huge for us lately and I think that hes playing more and more confident every game and he played huge for us tonight, and we needed it. I was in foul trouble and hes been bringing a lot of energy for us off the bench and hes been a huge presence for us at the rim. He played awesome, said Joakim Noah, who was visibly pleasedboth during and after the gameto see his backup excel. Omer is somebodyfirst of all, just watching him play this summer in the World ChampionshipsI knew he was going to be somebody that was going to help us right away and hes somebody, apparently, in Europe whos very known for his play. Im glad that hes with us because hes helping us win ballgames right now.

Added Thibodeau: Omer was great, from his individual post defense to his rebounding, shot-blocking and then offensively, he helps you execute. He sets great screens, keeps the ball moving, gets you extra possessions and he and Taj play extremely well together.

Hes stronger than he looks and hes a range rebounder. He can go and get the ball out of his area. And his shot-blockingnot only his shot-blocking, but his lane intimidationhis ability to go up and not foul, and make guys finish over him. I think its a testament to his work and his drive, he continued. Hes really worked hard and hes improved. In the beginning of the year, those were fouls and now hes learned to hold his hands back. Hes using his chest well, hes jumping straight up and hes a hard guy to score over, and hes got a quick second jump. Hes doing a lot of great things for us.

Korvers marksmanship was also a factor for the guests, as he seemingly came up with dagger-like triples at the most important moments, including one with 1:06 on the clock, giving the Bulls an 86-73 lead.

Praised Thibodeau: I thought Kyle made a lot of good plays for us also. When Kyle comes off a pin-down, he usually gets double-teamed and he makes the right play every time.

For Korver, it was a bit of redemption after airballing a three-pointer that would have sent Wednesdays loss in Atlanta into overtime, especially after witnessing Orlandos impressive comeback win over the Bulls next opponent, Miami, Thursday night.

I just wanted to be aggressive. I wanted to step into my shots and hit them. I definitely felt bad about the other night. I couldnt sleep until like five in the morning after Wednesdays game. It was a tough one, Korver, who hit all three of his three-pointers in the fourth quarter, told CSNChicago.com. Youve got to block it out and be ready to shoot the next one.

The NBA is a game of runs and thats just the way its always been. Obviously we all watched the game last nightand we saw them come back, and we gave one away the other night in Atlanta after the big leadand so, at halftime, we talked about it a lot, he continued. I thought we came out with a better focus in the second half.

The reality is, in the playoffs, you have to win on the road and its games like this that kind of build the confidence that you need to do that later on. If you go into the playoffs and you havent won any big road games, in the back of your mind, that kind of wears on you.

Chimed in Noah: I think we rebounded the ball pretty well tonight and I think that it was a great team effort.

Our bench has been playing great for us. I feel like we just come in waves. Weve just got to keep it up, keep improving and not be satisfied with this win, but this was definitely a huge win. This was my first time winning here!

To be a great team, you have to be able to deal with adversity and weve dealt with a lot of adversity so far this year, he continued. We try not to get too high and we try not to get too low, just try to stay as consistent as possible and just focus on the next task, and thats the Miami Heat.
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.

John Paxson delivered transparency, not Brazilian music

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USA TODAY

John Paxson delivered transparency, not Brazilian music

It’s what every fan base deserves, along with players on a roster where tough conversations must be had to set a course for the present in order to secure a better future.

Transparency.

It’s ugly and while not aesthetically pleasing to the eye, everyone can see what the Bulls are doing for the remainder of the NBA season. For the paying customers who still fill the seats at the United Center, it’s a “cry now so hopefully you laugh later” proposition.

Bulls Executive-Vice President John Paxson addressed the media Tuesday and said what we all knew to be true, what everyone knew what was coming.

He didn’t stand up in front of cameras and tape recorders and ask, “Do you like Brazilian music?”

They’re tanking.

They’re putting a little bit more sugar to go with it but it’s old-fashioned ‘tussin for the next several weeks.

All of this is due to sight unseen—unless you watch college basketball or cue up European basketball highlights.

When you see Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson take two hard dribbles from the top of the key, spin and dunk while being fouled, it makes sense.

When Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton help on a driving guard to cut off a lane, recover to block a 3-point shot and run the floor for a layup in a six-second span, it makes sense.

When Duke’s Marvin Bagley III seals his defender with one arm, catches with his left hand and finishes on the opposite side of the rim with ease, it all makes sense and kudos to the Bulls for not trying to fool a smart public with useless rhetoric.

Every loss counts, of course, but the key thing about the NBA is this: No matter where a team picks, bad franchises make the worst of a good opportunity and good franchises make the best of any situation.

If the Bulls are the latter, it’ll show itself whether they pick fourth or second or sixth. This draft’s best player went 13th, Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz. Lauri Markkanen is in competition for best player after Mitchell and he went seventh.

This was inevitable from the moment the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler on draft night. Although Kris Dunn has turned out to be a revelation and Markkanen could be a superstar, none of the micro wins should take away from the macro vision of this franchise, chief reason why Paxson has reasserted himself in the last year.

Paxson just framed it in the vein of long-term evaluation in announcing Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup, while Jerian Grant will see his playing time cut for Cameron Payne.

“Seeing some of our young guys play consistently, we’ve learned a lot about them,” Paxson said. “The hard thing when you do things like this is you’re asking certain people to sacrifice roles and minutes. And oftentimes, it’s veteran guys. That’s what we’re asking some of our vets to do right now—sacrifice some time on the floor and roles they’ve been very good in. That’s never an easy thing.”

Lopez and Holiday have been good soldiers through this process, especially helping navigate a fragile locker room after the crazy start to the season when Bobby Portis had enough of Nikola Mirotic in a practice and unleashed holy hell on a season that was supposed to be a quiet, boring losing season.

“I know what it’s like to be asked to take a lesser role,” Paxson said. “Players have pride. So it’s hard. I don’t take that lightly at all. It’s just the position we’re in as a young team, 20-37 with a lot of young guys and several who we haven’t really had the chance to see play much this year. For us to make the proper evaluation in terms of who fits us moving forward, this is something we have to do.”

Lopez has had a solid season, with career-highs in scoring and assists. Holiday’s scoring has nearly doubled this season and he’ll garner some attention around the draft in the trade market.

But with the Bulls being eighth of the eight bad teams, they need to get Super Bad (with a nod to James Brown) in the next several weeks. It’s not that the rebuild is steps ahead, it’s that other teams are better at being incompetent than the Bulls—and they’ll also be doing whatever’s necessary to secure a draft position.

At least the Bulls’ competence has come in the form of long-term answers. Certainly at the end of the year, one can lament Zach LaVine saving the Bulls from losses to the Timberwolves and Magic with late-game plays that cements the belief he could be a front-facing player—especially with restricted free agency coming this summer.

If Payne happens to be a useful NBA player in the process, it’s gravy but the Bulls aren’t really expecting it.

Fred Hoiberg has been pumping up Payne publicly by referencing him playing the role of Isaiah Thomas in the playoff preparation last spring, but he hasn’t played NBA level basketball in over a year.

And when he was on the floor, for that ill-fated period after last year’s deadline when Hoiberg was playing 11 guys without a real plan to win, Payne looked overmatched and overwhelmed.

“We want to see him as a point guard, especially when you’re running with the second unit, and the way Fred wants to play, play with pace, defend your position, compete every night and stay within yourself,” Paxson said. “His role is to get us into offense quickly and efficiently and make the right play with the ball.”

Felicio has taken a step back in terms of his development after steady improvement over the last two years, but in the big picture they’re casualties in the NBA’s cost of doing business.

And if you believe it’s anything else besides what you’re seeing, you might believe Paxson is truly asking if you like Brazilian music.

It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

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USA TODAY

It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

And here you thought the Bulls wouldn't be competing for anything down the stretch. Yes, the Bulls will miss the postseason for the second time in three seasons, and the post-Jimmy Butler rebuild is off and running with a Lottery selection (and potentially two) on the horizon.

And now the race for the top spot in the NBA Draft Lottery is on, with 23 to 27 games left in the regular season and a whopping seven teams within 1.5 games of each other for the worst record in the league. The Bulls are currently sitting 8th in the reverse standings at 20-37, 3.0 games behind the league-worst Suns and Hawks. And in what's largely considered a seven-man draft, Fred Hoiberg and the boys have some work to do to improve their chances of moving into the top-5 or top-3 of the draft.

Yes, the Bulls were sellers at the deadline, dealing leading scorer Nikola Mirotic to the Pelicans. And they lost eight of their last 10 games before the All-Star Break while promising extended minutes for players like Paul Zipser, Cristiano Felicio and even Cameron Payne. All those signs point to a franchise with a full and clear understanding that losses right now mean much bigger wins in June. But it's not as easy as it sounds. The Bulls aren't the only team looking to secure losses, and those other teams may have easier paths of doing so. Here's why.

For starters, not all these clumped-together records were built equally. Yes, the wins and losses all count the same at the end of the day, but if we're projecting how each team may finish the Bulls are certainly poised to play better than the teams around them. In fact, the Bulls are still playing .500 basketball (17-17) since their infamous 3-20 start. Unsurprisingly all seven teams ahead of the Bulls have worse records, as do the New York Knicks (11-24 since Dec. 8), who are just two games behind the Bulls, have lost eight straight and are without All-Star Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL). Remember, there are teams chasing the Bulls, too.

The Bulls have a seven-game win streak to their name and won 10 games in December; of the teams with worse records than the Bulls, only the Mavericks have a seven-win month this season.

And let's remember, too, the Bulls have gone 17-17 while missing Zach LaVine in 20 of those, Kris Dunn in 11 others and Lauri Markkanen in three. Those three are all healthy now (LaVine likely won't play in back-to-backs, but the Bulls have just three of those sets left) and while they have an ugly -18.8 net rating in four games, the Bulls are 2-2 with all three on the floor and have losses against the top-seeded Raptors and defending champion Warriors. It's safe to assume Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen will all benefit and improve from playing with one another. And while Nikola Mirotic was a large part of the Bulls' success (they went 14-11 with him in the lineup), the trade has opened up more minutes for Bobby Portis, who's quietly averaging 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds since the Mirotic trade. No, Portis isn't Mirotic, but the dropoff isn't all that significant, especially when considering the defensive end.

What's this all mean? That the Bulls have the best top-end talent of any team in these tank standings, and arguably the most talented overall roster. It sounds laughable, but we're not comparing them to the Rockets and Celtics. Perhaps Orlando's core of Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic (when healthy) comes close, but the Magic also just sold their starting point guard Elfrid Payton for pennies on the dollar. They're clearly in tank mode, and the rest of that roster is a nightmare. Dallas has some nice pieces, but also plenty of shutdown candidates as the season nears its end.

And that's another angle to this. The Bulls really don't have any players who may rest late in the season. Then again, phantom injuries could arise and LaVine might sit down the stretch for precautionary purposes. But Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, the team's elder statesmen at 29 and 28, respectively, aren't exactly tipping the scale between wins and losses. As long as LaVine, Dunn, Markkanen, Portis and Denzel Valentine are seeing 28+ minutes, the Bulls are going to be in good position. Teams like Atlanta and Sacramento are already resting veterans, and Memphis could do the same with Marc Gasol if the Lottery balls depend on it. It's a good thing the Bulls don't have this luxury, as they're leaning on their young talent, but it also means the team isn't going to get much worse.

The biggest hurdle for the Bulls, however, is going to be their remaining schedule. Marvin Bagley fans might want to stop reading. Only four teams in the NBA will face an easier remaining schedule than the Bulls, and none are ahead of them in the race for the top pick. The 76ers, Hornets, Warriors and Heat have easier schedules, and then it's the Bulls, with a remaining SOS of .474. Here's how that compares to the seven teams the Bulls are looking up at in the tank standings:

So the Bulls have an easier schedule than any team in front of them, and the Knicks. And looking at the Bulls' remaining schedule (far right column), it's clear that the three games against the Nets (which includes what should be a fun home-and-home in the season's final week) and two games against the Grizzlies will loom large. It also wouldn't surprise anyone if the Bulls picked up random victories over teams like Boston (March 5), Cleveland (March 17), Milwaukee (March 23) or Houston (March 27). They have a way of playing up to their opponents (see: Minnesota).

When it comes to discussing the league's worst teams, the Bulls might simply be too good. And their schedule might simply be too bad. That's certainly a good problem to have when considering the franchise's rebuild has gone quicker than most expected, even if it means fewer chances to secure a top-3 pick. Then again, the Bulls did fine selecting 7th overall last season in grabbing Markkanen, so perhaps a top-5 pick isn't necessary. It might not even be an option.