Bulls

Bulls fall in dramatic rematch with Heat

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Bulls fall in dramatic rematch with Heat

MIAMI Prior to his teams first rematch with the Heat (15-5) since the Eastern Conference Finals, Bulls (17-5) head coach Tom Thibodeau proclaimed, Last year was last year. This year is this year. This is the most important game to us because its the next game.

While that might be technically true, Sundays 97-93 final score, in favor of Miami, provided no solace to Chicago, who hoped for revenge and instead received the same outcome theyve had to remember since May.

Thats the way it is, a glum Thibodeau plainly stated afterwards. Derrick was Derrick, attacking. A hard-fought game, in position to win at the end. We didnt get it done.

Rose (34 points on 11-for-28 shooting, 12-for-14 from the free-throw line, six rebounds, six assists) may have been pressing too hard in the early going in an attempt to change what looked like a sluggish start offensively.

Already short-handed, two early fouls on Rose didnt bode well for the Bulls, something Thibodeau likely realized, as he mercifully reinserted Rose in place of an overmatched John Lucas III, playing the backup point guard role with C.J. Watson sidelined.

An aerial display shortly ensued for the Heat, as LeBron James (35 points, 11 rebounds, five assists) went high above the rim for a couple of crowd-pleasing finishes, as part of a spurt to give the home team some breathing room.

Chris Bosh (24 points, 12 rebounds) played a large part in Miami jumping out to their early edge, but the Bulls quickly closed the gap, by virtue of Rose making an impact via aggressive drives upon his return, as well as Joakim Noah (11 points, 11 rebounds, three blocked shots) playing strong inside and the subtle, yet effective stylings of Rip Hamilton (11 points on 4-for-16 shooting), a game-time decision.

Having weathered the mid-afternoon storm on a less than sunny South Florida day, the visitors trailed, 24-22, at the conclusion of the opening period.

Were a team where we dont let up. Even though were down, were still going to play hard, said Rose. We still have a lot of confidence in ourselves when were down.

Foul trouble and surprisingly, defensive lapses continued to bedevil the Bulls, as both starting power forward Carlos Boozer (10 points, nine rebounds) and understudy Taj Gibson were each saddled with a pair of fouls, adding fuel to the fire that came in the form of a 9-2 Miami run to start the second quarter.

Thibodeau, who had previously alluded to being interested in playing zone defense, actually went to the tactic in an effort to limit the Heats potent driving ability, best exemplified by diminutive rookie reserve point guard Norris Cole and All-Star shooting guard Dwyane Wade (15 points on 4-for-16 shooting), who dished out six first-half assists.

Sandwiched around a a big baseline flush by Gibson were two treys from reserve sharpshooter Kyle Korver, who was previously mired in a slump, to slice into the double-digit deficit and get the Bulls within striking distance of their hosts.

Though the guests to a raucous American Airlines Arena had missed several easy bunnies around the rim, they had furthered decreased the amount of separation to go into the break trailing, 56-51.

Chicago continued to chip away at Miamis lead after the intermission, although a Heat flurry, featuring Wade punishing the rim in transition twice in a row after consecutive Bulls offensive miscues, briefly dulled the visitors momentum.

You turn the ball over against them, live ball, noted Thibodeau. Theyre going to be in the open floor and theyre going to make you pay.

It remained a close-knit affair, however, as the combination of Rose, utilizing his deadly floater, and Noahs confidence and high activity on the offensive end, were countered by the duo of James and Wade.

Despite the Bulls nipping at the Heats heels for the entire period a key for Chicago was Gibson subbing for Boozer upon the starter obtaining his fourth foul, as the third-year backups ability to guard perimeter players, even elite ones like James, was of great benefit they couldnt even things up, as blown opportunities to convert took their toll in a game where easy chances were hard to come by. A James jumper at the third-quarter buzzer gave Miami a 76-71 advantage heading into the final stanza.

James beat the buzzer yet again early in the fourth quarter, knocking down an impossibly deep triple at the end of the shot clock, drawing Thibodeaus ire and leading to a timeout. But the Bulls regrouped and eventually tied the contest at 84 apiece, following a tough Rose the point guards blend of scoring and playmaking had carried his team driving and spinning layup.

The whole game, we had opportunities to get over the hump, but we couldnt get over the hump. We never put them back on their heels, so when we made a run, they made a run. When they made a run, we made a run. If you know anything about the NBA, its all about a game of runs. We had the opportunityit was 84-84they came down and hit two shots in a row. It happens, explained Hamilton. Games like this happen. Its the NBA. Its a roller-coaster ride. Youre going to have your ups, youre going to have your downs, so you just pretty much have to have an even keel with it. A game like this, that happened tonight, from a fans standpoint, people have probably seen it time after time after time.

They would get no closer. As the game entered its stretch run, tensions ran high Noah and Wade received double technicals for a near-skirmish, broken up by Noahs fellow ex-Florida Gator, Heat power forward Udonis Haslem but Miami handled the emotions of the made-for-TV matchup better, as Wade delivered in the clutch to fuel a 7-0 run and James, like in last springs Eastern Conference Finals, was assigned to defend the smaller Rose.

Still, the Bulls refused to die and Boozer, saddled with five fouls, finished in the lane with 1:16 remaining (after repeated squandered missed shots at the rim), followed by Rose converting a three-point play in transition to make it 94-93 with 49.1 seconds left.

Weve been down in those situations in the fourth quarter a lot, Rose observed. We know that we can come back, but we never want to put ourselves in that position.

After James failed to finish a tough layup with contact, Rose pushed it coast-to-coast and was eventually fouled with 22.7 seconds on the clock, but the normally-unflappable star missed both free throws. Amazingly, after James was fouled with 17.6 seconds to go disqualifying Noah he too, missed a pair of attempts from the charity stripe and after the scramble on the rebound, an inadvertent whistle with 16.8 seconds to play resulted in a jump ball at midcourt.

James and Gibson were designated for the jump ball and the Heat recovered it, leading to point guard Mario Chalmers splitting a pair of foul shots with 13.6 seconds remaining. After yet another hectic sequence, the Bulls corralled the rebound and then called a timeout with 9.9 seconds left in the game.

On the final possession, Rose was forced to throw up a tough shot in the lane that was off the mark, Bosh ended up with the carom and was fouled, leading to the final margin.

The way the game unfolded, they kept getting up six points, eight, 10, wed tie it up. It happened over and over. I thought we had good resolve, kept fighting. Things didnt go our way at the end, said Thibodeau. Every game, whether you win or lose, I think its important to understand why. Hopefully you learn, move forward, strive for improvement and when we leave here, weve got to be thinking about Washington. Its a quick turnaround.

Added Hamilton: We had many opportunities, but like we always say, It doesnt come down to the last possession. They missed two, we missed two, so it was a lot of little things. It was kind of a freak game, but we expect it. I think they expected it, too. It was a hard-fought game from both teams and they got a win.

Not just against this team, but any team really, the last couple of minutes are big. They had opportunities, we had opportunities and we thought we had a chance, but the ball didnt go our way and thats the NBA for you, he continued. You try to win every game, every time step on the floor, regardless of who you play. They want to win and we want to win. They got the win tonight.

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.