Bulls

Bulls grind out preseason-opening win against Pacers

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Bulls grind out preseason-opening win against Pacers

INDIANAPOLIS--It was if the Bulls and Pacers decided to use their preseason opener to resume the fierce battle they waged in April, when the two teams faced off in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. The play was physical, ragged and intense, Carlos Boozer struggled throughout the contest, Chicago's defense was dominant, the second unit gave the team a major boost and the Bulls methodically came back from a large deficit to eventually leave the unfriendly confines of Conseco Fieldhouse with a 95-86 victory Friday night.

"To me, your first game, you've got to establish who you are. What our identity is not going to be based on what happened last year. We have to re-establish who we are this year, so this is the first step," Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said afterwards. "There's a lot of things we've got to clean up, obviously.

"Defensively, I thought our defense was horrid in the first quarter and then the last three quarters, I thought it was better, but it's still not anywhere near where it needs to be. I thought we gave up a ton of second shots, so that has to be cleaned up," the reigning NBA Coach of the Year continued about his team, which committed turnovers on the evening. "I always say, 'You have to eliminate the ways in which you beat yourself,' and it starts with those turnovers."

Concurred Derrick Rose: "Turnovers. We can deal with missed shots; that's going to happen in the game. But turnovers, that's something that we've definitely got to change and that starts with me. A perfect game to me is no turnovers. I don't care about any other stat, other than turnovers."

A sloppy start, compounded by Rose (16 points, 10-of-10 from the free-throw line, six turnovers) picking up two fouls in the first two minutes of the contest, didn't bode well for the Bulls. Playing catch-up from the outset against the Central Division rival Pacers, a mix of unforced turnovers and untimely fouls didn't help the situation.

"The first five minutes of the game, I didn't like the tone at all, on either end," said Thibodeau. "It was real easy for them."

Although the Bulls faced a double-digit deficit, backup point guard C.J. Watson (15 points) was a bright spot, filling in for Rose with ten first-quarter points to keep the visitors afloat. However, the rugged inside presence of Pacers power forward Tyler Hansbrough and a strong overall team showing allowed the home team to take a 33-22 advantage into the second stanza.

After Watson picked up his own second foul late in the opening period, Thibodeau reinserted Rose, who mostly played orchestrator for his teammates, guiding them back into close contact with the Pacers behind stalwart defense from the reserve post duo of Taj Gibson (12 points, nine rebounds, two blocked shots) and Omer Asik. By the midway point of the quarter, the Bulls had knotted up the count at 37 apiece, following rookie Jimmy Butler (eight points, 3-for-3 from the field) hitting the third of his first three NBA shot attempts.

"I was nervous at first, but those guys told me to calm down and do what I've been doing for however many years and that's play basketball. They wanted me to be successful and they said I did all right," said the beaming NBA novice after the game.

"Everything about the game surprised me," he continued. "You can get away with stuff in college by being more athletic or your length. At this level, everybody can do everything, so it was definitely a learning experience out there.

"That first jumper, off the glass--I didn't call it, so I don't know--but after that, I think my nerves started to calm and after my first defensive trip, I was like, 'Maybe I do belong here.'"

His teammates and coaches took notice.

"He's great, man. He's a great addition to our team, with him being so young and understanding the game. He has a lot of confidence--quiet confidence--but when he's out there, he's always doing something good. He can defend, plays smart--especially to be a rookie--and I think he's going to be one of the pieces Coach is going to use a lot," said Rose.

Added Thibodeau: "And like all rookies, he did some things well, some things not so well, but overall, I was very pleased with what he did. He's worked very hard, he's studied hard, he's prepared himself well thus far and now he has to show he can do it over the course of the season, but I think he's got the right attitude and the right approach, and that's the first step."

Thibodeau was pleased, in general--after all, he's never completely satisfied--with how his reserves performed.

"The defense was great," Thibodeau observed. "That group the second unit gave us a good lift.

"I love our depth," he added, choosing his words carefully, so as to avoid a fine so early into the campaign. "It was interesting today because of course, Derrick had a couple calls that were tough calls, but it was good because it got C.J. into the game early and I thought he gave us a big lift. I think we all have a lot of confidence in his ability."

Chicago would seize its first lead of the game at 40-39 and with Luol Deng (16 points, six rebounds) having one of his quietly effective nights, the Bulls slowly built a small cushion against their hosts. Despite neither Boozer nor Rose--who did hit seven free throws--making a first-half field goal, the visitors, buoyed by a defense that held the Pacers to 2-of-23 shooting went into the intermission with a 52-47 advantage, after a Deng bucket in the waning moments of the period.

While the Bulls maintained their slim lead, the feisty Pacers continued to battle, keeping things close behind center Roy Hibbert's (14 points, seven rebounds) aggressive interior offense. Rose, however, started to find his offensive mojo--as both a scorer and a playmaker, and even on the offensive glass-but with active swingman Paul George (17 points, 10 rebounds) and other comrades providing high-energy plays, the contest evolved into a back-and-forth affair.

"I charged, traveled, like some high school turnovers, but I just know that comes with being excited," said Rose. "But I know my game is definitely going to come back to me, since I've been working so hard this summer.

"It feels good just being in the training room, just seeing guys excited about going out there playing, and the fans, seeing them come, cheer, boo against us, it doesn't matter. Just us being in this atmosphere is great," he continued. "I hope the fans like it. We were out there, really getting at it. A lot of tough plays, really diving for the ball, rebounding, a lot of intensity and it shows that both teams are trying to do something this year."

Boozer (seven points on 3-for-3 shooting, six rebounds, three turnovers) wasn't as appreciative of the rowdy Indianapolis crowd, many of whom targeted Bulls players--especially him--for verbal abuse.

"Some of them are funny, some of them are not so funny," he quipped. "I've got to knock the rust off, knock the cobwebs off and then, now we can start getting loose a little bit more.

"It seems like we've played them 20 times," he went on to say. "Doesn't it seem like we played them a lot over the last 12, 16 months? We're very familiar with them, to say the least.

Added Thibodeau: "I did like the way Boozer and Ronnie were playing off each other. I thought his floor game was very good. I thought he had some bunnies that he normally makes, that he didn't make. But some good, some bad. Just got to keep building."

The on-court action couldn't be described as crisp, but the Central Division rivals exhibited midseason effort, in terms of hustle, as if they were picking up from where they left off in their spring first-round playoff series, as the brand of "smash-mouth basketball" Pacers sideline skipper Frank Vogel--the league's youngest head coach, hired on a permanent basis in the offseason after ending the franchise's postseason drought as an interim coach--employs paid dividends. However, through three quarters of play, the Bulls held a tenuous 72-71 lead.

Gibson continued his consistent play, using his left-handed jump hook--a product of post move-intensive summer workouts--a mid-range jumper and solid awareness to provide the Bulls with a scoring presence, along with Watson resuming his first-half efforts. But the Bulls were mainly propelled by their defense, which led the league a season ago and looked to be top form--rebounding, contesting of shots, hustle plays and help-side defense were all at a high level--despite it only being the preseason opener, helping the Conseco Fieldhouse guests gain some separation from home-standing Indiana.

Joakim Noah (10 points, eight rebounds began to put his stamp on the contest's stretch run, with plenty of activity on both ends of the floor, particularly the backboards, while also playing his usual role as the team's formidable back line of defense. As the game wound down, the Bulls, equipped with a double-digit lead, would cruise to a hard-fought triumph, with a rematch looming Tuesday in Chicago.

"They're a good team, I'll say. There's no other way you can put it. They're a good team and when you play against good teams, sometimes the games aren't going to be that pretty," Rose explained. "We know each other--know the players, coaches--like the back of our hand. It's the same way with them. We make things tough on them sometimes, too."

Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

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USA TODAY

Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

LOS ANGELES—

Jimmy Butler was absent from the scoresheet of the All-Star Game, unless you count a “DNP-Coaches’ Decision” as activity. Whether due to the All-Star festivities of the weekend or even the grinding minutes he plays under Tom Thibodeau, it wasn’t truly surprising to see him want to have a night off of sorts.

But what was mildly surprising was the reflection he displayed on Saturday at All-Star Media Day in reference to his time with the Chicago Bulls. Usually, Butler’s armor is up because of his feelings surrounding his draft-night departure.

“I learned a lot in Chicago,” Butler said. “Just all through the season and life in general. What to do, what not to do and how to adapt to any situation that you’ve been in. I’ve done that to the best of my abilities. I have a ways to go in that.”

It’s clear he’s still grasping the weight of his words as the best player on a team, or at least, the player whose words impact everything around him.

“A people pleaser? No, I just didn’t say much,” Butler said. “Now I just don’t care. I never talked whenever I was in the league at an early age. It really didn’t matter, nothing I did was gonna make or break us when it comes to losing a game. Now it does and I have a lot to say. Half the time it’s not the right time or right way to say it but it’s okay.”

Whether it was the battles with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg or the internal struggles in the Bulls’ locker room through his ascension from bench warmer to rotation player to impact player to now, a legitimate star, he’s modifying his approach—just a tad.

“I’ve never been the best player on my own team. I was in Tomball,” he joked, in reference to his beginnings in small town Texas. “I wasn’t in junior college. At Marquette I wasn’t. I’m probably not now. In Chicago I wasn’t. You just pick up on it, watch others and learn.”

He admitted to writing in a journal and reading self-help books now that he’s in Minnesota. The novel he’s reading now, “Faith, Forward, Future” is authored by Chad Veach, a Los Angeles pastor and the subtitle of the book says “Moving past your disappointments, delays and destructive thinking.”

Whether he started the book following a slow start with the Timberwolves in November, where his nightly numbers looked like one of a high-level role player, he took some self-evaluation before leading the charge since, playing like an MVP candidate with 25.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 49 percent shooting since the start of December.

“It’s relatively new. Yeah, basketball is still basketball but it’s hard when somebody else is coming in and roles change overnight,” Butler said. “You gotta see where you fit in with the group. At the end of the day you gotta win. I didn’t feel the way I was playing was our best opportunity to win games.”

Bringing along the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, with Towns being a fellow All-Star for the first time, has been a process.

“I’ve never actually had to be a leader,” Butler said. “I just always done what I was supposed to do, didn’t say much and played hard. Now you know, everybody wants to call someone a leader.”

He disputes taking a softer hand, especially as Towns and Wiggins seem to struggle with sustaining concentration at critical moments. The Timberwolves won’t be able to make those mistakes during the playoffs, but he’s being more selective with his words.

“I’m not soft,” he said. “If I see something wrong, I speak on it. If you don’t like it, oh well. You’ll get over it.”

One thing he could take a bird’s eye view of was the aftermath of LeBron James and Kevin Durant’s comments to the “Uninterrupted”, where they were criticized by cable news hosts for speaking out against President Donald Trump.

No stranger to criticism, Butler would likely have the same approach if he dipped his toes into that arena.

“I like it. You got the right to say what you want and you speak on what you think is right,” Butler said. “Good for them. And they are magnified in a very big way. They embrace it and they’re doing the right thing, I’m all for it.”

And if the day comes where he doesn’t stick to sports, Butler’s directness and lack of diplomacy would certainly cause an interesting reaction.

“I don’t care. Whatever I believe in, I believe in,” Butler said. “Everybody else does it. You see everybody on Twitter and the Internet doing it and saying what they want to say. We just have a different job than the person to our left and right.”

Well, not quite a warm and fuzzy Jimmy Butler.

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”