Bulls

Bulls keep rolling, lock up No. 1 seed in East

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Bulls keep rolling, lock up No. 1 seed in East

Friday, April 8, 2011Posted: 9:00 p.m. Updated: 10:30 p.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

No. 1 and now were going to the sun, said Joakim Noah.

Were going to Orlando and its sunny out there. We havent seen the sun in a long time. Thats what I meant, elaborated the center. It means what it means. We are the No. 1 seed and we have home-court advantage. We are not satisfied and we are trying to catch up to San Antonio. We are focused on our next opponent and thats Orlando.

Typical of these Bullsand their charismatic centerthe visiting locker room at Quicken Loans Arena was happy, but not over the top Friday night, following a 93-82 victory over the Cavaliers that clinched the top seed and home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Its the next step, so we still have ways to go. Were not done. We have to keep playing, keep improving and get ready for the next game, said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. Youre chasing the league-leading Spurs. You want to put as many things in your favor as possible. It doesnt guarantee anything. Thats how you have to approach it.

Led by Carlos Boozers 24-point, 10-rebound effortin the city where he began his NBA careerthe Bulls were never truly in danger against their inferior opponent.

After making their living by scoring in the paint the previous evening, the Bulls (59-20) opted to try their luck with perimeter jumpers in the games early going. While the strategy was somewhat effective because of the Bulls accuracy, the hosts were too close for comfort mostly due to the initial scoring burst of third-year Cavaliers forward J.J. Hickson (22 points, 15 rebounds).

With the score tied at 14 piece, the Bulls followed a timeout by going on a 10-0 run that featured heavy doses of Boozer and Derrick Rose (11 points, eight assists). Cleveland, however, rallied back behind their bench, particularly backup point guard Ramon Sessions (13 points), resulting in the Bulls leading by the score of 29-26 after the opening period.

Instead of increasing the lead, as they are prone to doing, Chicagos Bench Mob meandered through the beginning of the second quarter, allowing the Cavaliers (17-62) to stay within close range. Taj Gibson (nine points, four rebounds), however, singlehandedly brought the second unit out of its malaise, scoring four consecutive baskets to propel the Bulls to a double-digit advantage.

The second quarter, they were playing so well and I wanted to extend their minutes," Thibodeau said. "I thought it would be good for the bench and good for the starters, and I probably knocked the starters out of rhythm a little bit. But they were playing so well and defensively, they were doing a very good job. Our bench has been so consistent all year. Those guys step up, they play hard. Some nights, we dont make shots, but they give you great effort, great defense, rebound the ball and they share the ball.

The visitors took advantage of Clevelands sloppy execution by converting turnovers and offensive rebounds into easy scoring opportunities, a scenario that persisted when Thibodeau reinserted his regulars, with the exception of sharpshooter Kyle Korver (10 points), who made his presence felt with his usual marksmanship.

But the home team made another stand before the break behind Hickson and veteran point guard Baron Davis (10 points, six assists), cutting the Bulls lead to 54-46 at halftime.

A lack of urgency marked the return from the intermission for the Bulls, eventually infuriating Thibodeau enough that he put a halt to the action in the aftermath of an alley-oop from Davis to center Ryan Hollins that received scant attention from his players.

His instruction didnt immediately help matters, as Cavaliers swingman Alonzo Gee (11 points) hit a corner three-pointer to make it a one-possession contest, igniting a sellout Quicken Loans Arena crowd primarily in attendance for a tribute to longtime Cavaliers announcer Joe Tait.

Noah (11 points, eight rebounds) was a catalyst in the third quarter, as the Bulls extended their advantage to double digits once again, while Luol Deng (10 points, nine rebounds, six assists) was quietly in the midst of a typically solid all-around performance and Ronnie Brewer (12 points, four rebounds, three assists) provided a spark off the bench with his slashing and finishing.

A generally sloppy affair, both teams struggled with mishandling the ball, but although the Bulls didnt definitively put away their Central Division rival, they went into the final frame holding a 78-63 lead.

Theres a lot of areas we can improve in. everything, every aspect of the game. We know were pretty good in a lot of areas. We hold ourselves to a very high standard and we want to play as perfect as possible, said Noah. We definitely can play better pick-and-roll defense. We can stop the three-pointer, we can stop transition betterjust getting back in transition a little bit betterand offensively, theres a lot of things that we can do better.

Chicagos reserves maintained the visitors comfortable cushion early in the fourth quarter and it appeared as if the Bulls would cruise to the inevitable victory. But the lackluster nature of their effort became evident as time went on, with the Cavaliers making a final push to cut the deficit to single digits.

Boozer carried the offensive load for the Bulls down the stretch, asserting his will on the game with his strong interior play, deft passing and mid-range jumper, ensuring the win. The Bulls will host the eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference playoffs on the opening weekend of the NBA postseason.

I loved the way we passed the ball. I thought we were very unselfish, said Thibodeau. We did what we had to do to get the win.

You still have to play well and it doesnt guarantee anything, but when you study the numbers, having a Game 7 at home is an advantage, he continued. You want to put as many things in your favor as you can.

Concurred Noah: Its good to be a No. 1 seed, but at the end of the day, we understand that theres a bigger picture. Were staying focused, but its definitely an achievement and were excited about it.

If we come with the right mentality, we feel like we can beat anybody.

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.

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

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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.

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

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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.