Bulls give insight into defensive dominance


Bulls give insight into defensive dominance

Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011
Posted: 11:45 AM

By Aggrey Sam

Holding opponents to a league-best 42.3 field-goal percentage and a third-best 92.1 points per game, the Bulls defense has drawn rave reviews from observers. Its easy to credit first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau for the teams focus on defense, but what makes Chicagos prowess on that end of the floor even more remarkable is not only do the Bulls have a new coaching staff and only five holdovers from last season, but the roster isnt exactly full of standout individual defenders.

The playerswith veterans Kurt Thomas, Keith Bogans and Brian Scalabrine being ahead of the learning curve due to their past history with Thibodeauhave had to learn an entirely new system. Theyve embraced the defensive discipline Thibodeau preaches and although the teams offense has stalled at times, the Bulls are winning games with their defensive effort. Nobody on the roster claims that its been easy, but with such emphasis on defense since training campand which continues, even past the halfway point of the seasongutting out so-called ugly wins based on defense isnt considered a bad thing in the least.

Coach Thibs came in right away and said, Listen, were going to be a defensive team first, explained Carlos Boozer. I know weve been struggling on offense the last few weeks, but our defense has been there every night. Were not giving up a whole lot of points. Thats the reason why were winningbecause our defense is only giving up about 80 points a game.

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It was misleading a little bit because we came out of the gate scoring, he continued. You guys were going nuts about our offense, but now, as teams start seeing you a second and third timethey do their homework, too. Were going to work on our offense, but the great thing about it is weve bought into his system. We believe in his system. Its not his system anymore. Its our system. We believe in our system.

To a man, the entire team concurs with Boozers buy-in theory. Even though most players on the team arent the defensive-stopper type, the fact that the squads overall defensive awareness is high can make up for one player not being able to shut down his man on a given night.

I think everybody has improved in some way defensively and I think you can tell by the numbers were putting up, reserve swingman Ronnie Brewer told CSNChicago.com. To be a good defensive team, its all about trust. I think were learning to trust each other. If you go out there and make a hustle play or run at somebody at the 3-point line, you know somebodys going to slide over, take a charge or make them make a second pass and its all about the second, third and fourth efforts. Were making those plays.

Thibs gets on us because we let little plays get by here and there, but at the end of the day, we still play as hard as we possibly can. Sometimes its not always pretty, but Ill take a win any night. Thats what weve been doing. Were winning games and were continuing to get better every night.

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Bogans, who played for Houston when Thibodeau was a Rockets assistant, was more blunt about it.

In this league, its impossible to guard people one-on-one, I dont care who you are. Without the help or help defenders, you wont be able to guard anybody, so as long as we know the help conceptyoure there to help your teammate and the next guy helps the next guywe can cover up a lot. Thats the main thing, he told CSNChicago.com.

Thibodeaus system wasnt an easy adjustment for everybody at first. However, the players who came from different defensive backgrounds accepted it quickly, even if it didnt necessarily play to their strengths.

I think me and C.J. Watson had a problem adjusting at first because thats what we thrived on, thats where we made our living, playing in the passing lanes, having active hands, Brewer said. Now, youve got to be a little more defensively sound, I guess more conscious of the decisions we make. I think it's working out for us. I think were playing better team defense, but at the same time, he still gives us freedom to make plays.

Sharpshooter Kyle Korver, a teammate of Boozer and Brewer with the Jazz, explained further.

Its a way different system. Opposite. In Utah, we forced middle. Here, we force baseline. We didnt do a lot of rotating in Utah. Coach Sloan really preached about taking care of your own man. Here, its a true team defense, Korver said. We work on it every day. We work on defense more than any team Ive ever been on, just as far as preparation, watching film, close-out drills. We dont do a lot of playing in practice. We do a lot of drill work and I think thats really carried over.

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Luol Deng, the player perhaps thriving most in Thibodeaus scheme, shared that the teams work ethic has been at its high point during his seven-year tenure as a Bull.

Since training camp, the way we practice has been the hardest and most consistent since Ive been here. Its just showing up in how were playing, said Deng. We keep saying, even before practice, Just do what youre supposed to do. If Im supposed to help and my guy back cuts, Im expecting somebody else to pick him up. It makes it so easy, just the trust is way better.

With the way we play defense, you can have a guy thats not known for his defense and guys will cover up, and you wont even know. Were in a position to help each other, he continued. If youre going to beat us, youre going to beat us with contested shots. We really try to take the paint away and take those easy baskets away, he continued. Were committed to our defense, especially in the fourth quarter. Theres times where we give up leads and stuff, but in the end, it comes back to our defense, not necessarily our offense. In the fourth quarter, when the game gets close, we lock up and turn our antennas up.

Deng, who his teammate Boozer believes should receive recognition for on one of the leagues all-defensive teams at seasons end, has fully accepted his role as a player Thibodeau utilizes on opposing teams primary scorers, from bigger shooting guards to face-up power forwards (he matched up with Dirk Nowitzki in the Bulls recent win over Dallas) and of course, his natural position of small forward, where some of the NBAs top scorers (such as Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony) play.

I really work hard on defense and Im really committed to it. Whenever someones hot, I go over to Coach and try to take that responsibility, said Deng. But in terms of recognition, as long as my coaching staff and my teammates are happy with the job Im doing, I really dont care.

That team-first mentalityon both ends of the courtis evident with this Bulls team and their aspirations.

We want to be one of those top-tier teams that continues to work and get better, and always improving, whether its offensively or defensively, Brewer told CSNChicago.com. I think Thibodeau is on us more defensively to get better and its every dayevery practice, every film session, even on off dayswere working to try to get better.

Added Boozer: We work on defense the first hour of practice. The last 45 minutes, we shoot a little bit. Before you all the media get there, its all defense. Thats the reason we keep getting better and the great thing about it, were not even peaking yet because hes Boozer points to injured center Joakim Noahs locker not even back yet, and hes our best defender! Wait until our anchor comes back! To meand I think Thibs will echo this to youwe can only get better at defense. Were one of those teams, that all were going to do is keep improving, especially when we get that monster Noah back.

Hes a monster and were doing all this without him. Imagine when we get Jo back. Hes our anchor, so no matter what happens, hes back there to block shots, make people adjust their shots. When youre missing a shot-blocker like Joakim Noahhe could be leading the league in blocked shots if he was still playing, he continued enthusiastically. I just cant wait to get him back.

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.

Bobby Portis apologizes to teammates as Bulls continue to deal with all-around complicated situation


Bobby Portis apologizes to teammates as Bulls continue to deal with all-around complicated situation

The mending hasn’t yet begun for the Bulls, but perhaps a good sign in moving forward from the Bobby Portis punch that delivered a concussion and broken facial bones to Nikola Mirotic is that it isn’t being ignored.

Fred Hoiberg is being tight-lipped about where matters stand, but he did at least say Portis returned to practice and apologized to the team Friday afternoon. Hoiberg wouldn’t reveal the contents of Portis’ apology and Portis didn’t address the media, but it’s clear things aren’t business-as-usual at the Advocate Center.

“Bobby was back at practice. It was good to have him back in here,” Hoiberg said. “Obviously, everybody’s looking forward to having Niko back in here, as well, hopefully soon.”

When asked about Portis’ spirit, Hoiberg deflected and preferred to talk about what adjustments the team will have to make in the immediate future, especially with rookie Lauri Markkanen having to go against Spurs power forward LaMarcus Aldridge in the home opener Saturday night.

“That’s the biggest thing we have to do as far as preparing until we get our guys back, is throwing different lineups out there and hopefully getting better with our execution,” Hoiberg said.

Justin Holiday admitted that things aren’t normal, saying the actual games to start the season won’t serve as a welcome distraction because this isn’t something that can just be treated trivially.

He wouldn’t venture into getting into his teammates’ head, saying “Bobby came into today like Bobby. We’re not quite sure what he’s thinking mentally. We can’t assume that.”

But one thing that can’t be assumed is a sweeping under or pretending.

“I mean I don’t necessarily think this is a situation for us to get past,” Holiday said. “I think it’s a situation that obviously (needs) to be brought to the forefront. It’s a situation that needs to be taken care of for those two to be able to come together and be brothers again. I don’t think we’re trying to get past it.”

Holiday has been a leader during this early time, so his words and definitive tone were noticeable.

“They say sometimes you need time to heal,” Holiday said. “Again, we have to think about both situations in this. One guy is trying to get back healthy. And again, I don’t know. I wish I did. I wish we could just fix this the right way, but that’s not the case.”

It’s complicated all around, with no real precedent.

For Hoiberg, his handling has two faces. Since Portis is able to practice but has to sit out seven more games on a team-mandated suspension, he has to walk the line of incorporating Portis in daily drills and activities but also has to prepare a team that wasn’t prepared for two power forwards being out for an extended period.

That was on display Thursday as Quincy Pondexter likely played that position for the first time in his career, and it’s highly unlikely Paul Zipser practiced there at all with the depth the Bulls had until now.

“We have to get our guys ready to play positions that they haven’t played,” Hoiberg said. “We’re getting them in here early. We’re getting a group in to work on our execution. Quincy not only hasn’t played in two and a half years but I don’t know if he has ever played the 4.

“You just have to do the best with what you have.”

Emotional return to the court for Quincy Pondexter after missing two seasons: 'The journey is worth it'


Emotional return to the court for Quincy Pondexter after missing two seasons: 'The journey is worth it'

Quincy Pondexter’s trade to Chicago makes him a newcomer. His birth certificate makes him a veteran. But it’s his story that makes him worth listening to.

Even in the eye of team chaos, Pondexter’s debut with the Bulls had such a special meaning that when he entered the game to start the second quarter, he thought he would come to tears.

Having been out of basketball the last two years after knee surgeries went bad, Pondexter came close to dying in a New York hospital in January when his organs began to fail after a MRSA infection.

Catching MRSA can often lead to death.

“It wasn’t looking good,” Pondexter said. “It was tough. I prayed. My family was there close to me. Being able to play basketball again in less than a year is crazy. It’s all God. This journey has been amazing.”

His journey took him from being in New Orleans, where his knee troubles started, to being an addition to the Bulls in a trade months ago when the Bulls picked up cash and a second-round pick from the Pelicans.

Pondexter joined high school teammate and close friend Robin Lopez on a team needing some leadership, and due to the punch Bobby Portis threw to Nikola Mirotic Tuesday afternoon, it put Pondexter in position to get on the floor as a backup power forward behind rookie Lauri Markkanen.

If the Bulls were smart, they’d probably put Pondexter in a room to talk to his teammates about his struggles, especially the two teammates who may have to share the same floor in several weeks.

“The competitive nature of our team has been really terrific and we wouldn't want to trade that for anything,” Pondexter said. “It hurts those two guys aren't here right now. But we love them and we love what they brought to this team.

“I think my age on my ID solidifies me as one of the veterans. When you do things the right way, that's what it means to be a veteran. Show up first, last one there. That's what it means to be a veteran. Establishing myself there and doing things that are right, the guys have followed and listened and embraced me and I love it.”

No word on whether Pondexter got teary-eyed when he got a breakaway steal and dunk for his first points since the 2015 playoffs, when the Pelicans were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the eventual champion Warriors.

“I know I’m going to get emotional on the court later on and probably tear up,” Pondexter said after the morning shootaround. “I told Robin that a thousand times. People don’t know what you’ve been through. There are a lot of times they’re not there besides your close family and friends. I appreciate them carrying me through this whole process.”

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg can relate to Pondexter, with Hoiberg’s heart ailment cutting his career short. When the Bulls coach speaks about the frailty of the game and how precious things are in the NBA, Pondexter is living, breathing proof.

“I’m really really happy for Quincy. For a time there, his life was in danger with his infection. I know he’s really excited to get his career going again,” Hoiberg said. “I never got that opportunity to get back out there. I tell these guys to cherish it ever day. You never know when it can end. All of a sudden. For Quincy to get this chance, it’s awesome.”

Pondexter, with the straightest of faces, called basketball his “obsession” and he felt happy to get back on the floor, if even for a few minutes.

“I love it to death. It’s my life,” Pondexter said. “Basketball is what got me through it---my family and basketball. It was like, ‘How can I make this story even better? Do I quit?’ No. I watched so many inspirational movies, 'Hacksaw Ridge.' They get you through tough times because you say, ‘That’s going to be me.’ I’m going to be able to inspire someone down the road. That’s really helped me.”

A hamstring injury slowed Pondexter in training camp, which would explain his lack of explosive lift in the season opener.

No one was really sure if the Bulls would hold onto him for the season, but it’s clear he holds value beyond the box score. When he finished his media session, Lopez turned to Pondexter and said, “Now you’re stuck with me”, putting his arm around his teammate.

“Being able to play after two and a half years, it feels like hundreds of surgeries, getting traded to this organization. It's been a lot,” Pondexter said. “I wouldn't trade any of that for this moment right now and how I feel in my heart. I can't wait to get on this floor and play with my teammates and try to do something special. The journey is worth it.”