Bulls' fast start drawing attention around the NBA

Bulls' fast start drawing attention around the NBA

When national writers and broadcasters were asked for their preseason predictions, most of them didn’t have the Bulls among their eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference. The reasoning was pretty consistent: A lack of 3-point shooting threats would allow opposing defenses to pack the paint against Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo, making it tough for the Bulls to score against the better teams in the league. Plus, many national observers wondered how much Wade had left in the tank at age 34 and if he would be able to hold up physically throughout the 82-game NBA marathon.

Well, through the first three games of the season, the Bulls are showing detractors just how productive their offense can be, leading the league with an average of 113.7 points a night. With Rondo pushing the pace, the Bulls are getting easy baskets in transition and creating wide-open opportunities for their 3-point shooters by making the extra pass. They’re averaging more than 28 assists a game, compared to 14 turnovers, and they’re also controlling the boards, grabbing an average of 53 rebounds per game.

Granted, they caught the Celtics and Pacers on the second night of back-to-back games, and Brooklyn might just be the worst team in the league. But we should learn a lot more about the Bulls over the next few nights, when they face rematches against Boston and Indiana on the road plus a home date against Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and the Knicks on Friday night. No one should ask the Bulls to apologize for taking advantage of their favorable opening-week schedule, and their style of play should translate against tougher opponents to come.

It’s obvious Fred Hoiberg took the lessons learned from his first season as an NBA head coach and came back with a new approach for Year 2. Hoiberg was much more demanding during training camp, only giving the players a couple days off during October while insisting on proper execution and practice habits. Butler commented Tuesday in Boston about the changes in Hoiberg’s approach and how he probably made a mistake in judging him too quickly last season.

The changes to the roster are even more significant. It became clear last season time had run out on the Bulls’ core group, so Rose was traded to the Knicks for Robin Lopez and Jerian Grant, Mike Dunleavy was dealt to Cleveland to free up cap room to sign Wade, and Noah, Pau Gasol and Aaron Brooks were allowed to leave in free agency. The Bulls drafted a versatile college star in Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, then added accomplished veterans Wade and Rondo in free agency, the two of them combining for four NBA championships and 16 All-Star game appearances in their careers. And just before the season began, the Bulls acquired former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams from Milwaukee for Tony Snell, who had completely fallen out of the rotation. Carter-Williams will miss the next four to six weeks after suffering a left knee bone bruise in the win over Brooklyn but should return in plenty of time to be a valuable contributor this season.

All of the roster changes made the Bulls a younger and more cohesive team. Already, players are talking about the great atmosphere in the locker room and how much fun the guys are having playing with their teammates. Never underestimate the value of team chemistry over the course of a grueling six-month schedule. The Bulls lost too many games to sub-.500 teams a year ago, ultimately keeping them out of the playoffs. The unselfish play we’ve seen so far should help them avoid some of those head-scratching losses and give them the 45-plus wins they’ll need to finish among the top eight teams in the East this season.

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It’s been a fascinating opening week in the NBA, starting with Chicago native Anthony Davis dropping 50 and 45 points in his first two games for the Pelicans. And how about Russell Westbrook’s one-man show in Oklahoma City? The Thunder have won all three games so far, with “Angry Russ” averaging 38.7 points and 11.7 assists. Westbrook & Co. will be in Oakland on Thursday for their first look at long-time Thunder star Kevin Durant in a Warriors’ uniform. Durant says he still considers Westbrook to be a friend and believes they’ll talk through any issues that might exist over the way he left Oklahoma City in free agency, but I’m still looking for Russ to try to put up one of those 50, 15, 15 stat lines against the Warriors. Don’t be surprised if Westbrook becomes the first player to lead the league in scoring and assists since Nate “Tiny” Archibald in 1972-73 for the old Kansas City Kings.

In the East, the defending NBA champion Cavs look as strong as ever with LeBron James taking dead aim at a fifth MVP trophy. J.R. Smith is back in the starting lineup after finally signing a new contract late in training camp, and Dunleavy should provide another capable 3-point shooting threat off the bench. Don’t be surprised if the Cavs also add a veteran backup point guard at some point like James’ former Miami teammate, Mario Chalmers, who’s working his way back from an Achilles' tendon injury last season.

Atlanta lost Al Horford to Boston in free agency and traded point guard Jeff Teague to Indiana, but Mike Budenholzer is one of the best coaches in the league and he’s got the Hawks off to a fast start with Dwight Howard anchoring the middle and Dennis Schroder running the point. Power forward Paul Millsap figures to put up big numbers in a contract year, and the Hawks still have plenty of 3-point shooting in Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore and Tim Hardaway, Jr. It’s probably safe to pencil Atlanta in for another trip to the playoffs.

The Bulls will play against Rose and Noah for the first time Friday night when the Knicks invade the United Center. Noah only averaged 20.5 minutes over the first two games, with Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek choosing to go small with either Kyle O’Quinn or Kristaps Porzingis at center. You have to wonder how long it will take Phil Jackson to regret giving Noah a four-year, $72 million contract over the summer. Rose is averaging 31 minutes and scoring 15 points a game, but only two assists, despite the fact he says he’s now a mature, pass-first point guard.

Toronto and Boston are expected to battle it out for the No. 2 seed in the East behind Cleveland, and after that it figures to be a log jam with the Bulls competing against the likes of Atlanta, Detroit, Indiana, Charlotte, Washington and possibly the Knicks for spots three through eight. But as we’ve learned over the years, injuries and the emergence of young players can dramatically change the fortunes of any team. At this point, the Bulls will try to stack up as many wins as possible while monitoring Wade’s minutes to put themselves in the best possible position for the stretch run.

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

MINNEAPOLIS — That feeling of having your knee buckle out of nowhere, Zach LaVine is all-too familiar with it.

That feeling of being on the sidelines and watching Jimmy Butler’s knee give out, Fred Hoiberg has been there, too.

Different perspectives, and different reactions but Butler’s knee injury produced a sick feeling to many who watched it Friday night. Butler turned to pivot in the Timberwolves’ game against the Houston Rockets and immediately collapsed on the floor, having to be carried off.

LaVine tore his ACL in Detroit over a year ago, while it was revealed Butler suffered a right meniscus injury. But it looked all the same and LaVine understood the uncertainty Butler must’ve been feeling before the MRI revealed it wasn’t an ACL injury.

“It’s scary,” LaVine said following morning shootaround at the Target Center Saturday afternoon. “I wish him the best. You don’t want to see that happen to anybody. Especially a player of his caliber and what he’s done for the team.”

When LaVine injured his ACL, he actually played a few more minutes before being removed and going to the locker room. The time between being evaluated by doctors and them coming back feels like a lifetime.

“It’s scary. You know you hurt yourself, you don’t know how bad,” LaVine said. “You think you’re good, you’re a tough minded person trying to get through it.”

“I saw him on the ground trying to get up, (Rockets guard) Chris Paul made him sit down. Jimmy’s a tough dude. Thoughts and prayers going out to him.”

Butler and LaVine were the centerpieces of the draft day trade involving the Bulls and Timberwolves. With Butler suffering the injury the night before playing his former team a second time, the timing produced a bunch of memories.

In Hoiberg’s first year with the Bulls, Butler went down in a somewhat similar manner in Denver, a non-contact injury. It looked just as bad, and Butler was taken off the floor in a wheelchair.

Thankfully it was a right knee strain that cost him several weeks but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Considering the minutes he’s played over the last few years, Hoiberg was asked if Butler pushes himself too hard to be on the floor.

“Jimmy he wants to be out there,” Hoiberg said. “I remember the first year in Denver, he went down with what looked to be a serious injury. Thankfully he was back on the floor after 15-16 games.”

Actually, Butler missed 11 consecutive games before coming back for a nationally-televised game against the Rockets, playing 34 minutes in a Bulls win and missing the next three games for recovery.

“We really worried when he went down but it wasn’t something that ended his season,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy’s a worker. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. It’s a huge reason for the type of player he is, that work ethic to make him one of the elite players in the league.”

With Bulls-Timberwolves looming, Jimmy Butler is diagnosed with meniscus injury


With Bulls-Timberwolves looming, Jimmy Butler is diagnosed with meniscus injury

Jimmy Butler won't be facing the Bulls a second time this season.

Butler suffered a non-contact knee injury on Friday night in Houston. The initial X-ray only revealed he didn't have any broken bones, but the MRI had to wait until Saturday.

The Timberwolves announced that the MRI revealed a meniscus injury in Butler's right knee. There is not yet word on how long the All-Star guard will be out of action, but if it wasn't already assumed that he wouldn't play against the Bulls, it's now certain.

Avoiding the ACL tear means avoiding the worse case scenario, but this is likely still going to cause Butler to miss a significant amount of time with about a quarter of the regular season remaining. An update from Shams Charania of The Vertical said Butler could return for the postseason.

The Bulls take on the Timberwolves on Saturday night. Butler dropped 38 points at the United Center in his return to Chicago exactly two weeks ago, but the Bulls won 114-113.

Butler posted on Instagram a reaction to the injury.

Saturday's game will be the returns of Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn to Minnesota after they went the other direction in the Butler trade on draft night last June.