Bulls Need to Build on Road Winning Streak


Bulls Need to Build on Road Winning Streak

Monday, Feb. 1, 2010
9:32 PM
By Mark Schanowski

Is it safe to assume the Bulls have finally turned the corner, and will put the .500 mark in their rear view mirror the rest of the season? Or, will they slide back to their inconsistent ways and fail to take advantage of a favorable schedule? As always, we welcome your opinions in the comments section below. The upcoming week should be telling. It's a stretch of 4 games in 5 nights, starting with VERY winnable games against the Clippers and 76'ers, followed by a day off, then a much tougher back-to-back against Atlanta and Miami. You'd love to say the Bulls should get 3 out of 4, but if we've learned anything this season, it's that this team is about as unpredictable as they come.

All kinds of positives coming out of the "Ice Show" trip, starting with Derrick Rose earning a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team, and playing at a level that is certainly All-Star worthy. Rose averaged over 23 points a game in January, shooting right around 50 percent from the field. He's also shown a willingness to try to take over late in close games, a trait that's shared by the biggest stars in the game. Rose making the All-Star team will only help the Bulls' prospects in this summer's free agent derby. The Bulls can now sell the opportunity to play with one of the NBA's best point guards to the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. And, with the team also playing better, the argument can be made that the additon of a true superstar like the 3 guys we just named would vault the Bulls into immediate contention for the Eastern Conference crown.

But chasing superstar free agents is still a few months away. Let's get back to the Bulls and their sudden improvement. They're now 13-4 with Kirk HInrich in the starting line-up, and Captain Kirk has helped the team in so many ways. On the recent trip, he defended star point guards Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul, allowing Rose to save his energy for the offensive end and avoid foul trouble. He's also improved his perimeter shooting, giving Rose an outlet against all the collapsing defenses he's been facing. Hinrich has been re-energized by his promotion to the starting line-up, and is playing with the kind of all-out intensity we saw a few seasons ago when the Bulls were considered one of the rising teams in the East.

Let's not forget about the frontcourt, either. Joakim Noah continues to make a strong case for the NBA's Most Improved Player Award, while Luol Deng has been the model of consistency, playing in all 45 games, despite a fractured left thumb injury. Meanwhile, rookie Taj Gibson is looking like one of the steals of last June's draft, playing solid defense and contributing big baskets and rebounds almost every night. Who would have guessed the guy picked 26th overall would be heading to All-Star weekend in Dallas as one of 9 players on the !st year squard for the annual Rookie-Sophomore game? The Bulls are also getting contributions off the bench from big men Brad Miller and Tyrus Thomas. Miller has found the fountain of youth, hitting big 3 points shots with consistency, and celebrating like a rookie. Thomas has been his usual inconsistent self, but on the nights he's focused, he can change the game with his shot blocking and ability to finish with resounding dunks on the fast break.

We're still waiting for Devin Brown's Bulls' debut, but Brown is a solid NBA defender, who is also a threat from 3 point range. Brown is expected to get some minutes against the Clippers, and his arrival probably means the end of John Salmons' short stay in Chicago. Salmons was one of the stars of the Bulls' near upset of Boston in last spring's playoffs, but his slow start this season, coupled with a 6.7 million dollar player option for next season that the Bulls want to unload probably means he'll be traded before the February 18th deadline.

The larger question remains, will the Bulls do something big before the deadline, or just try to move players who don't fit in the long term plan like Salmons and Thomas for expiring contracts andor draft picks? Phoenix All-Star forward Amare Stoudemire is very available in trade, but he's hardly looked like a player deserving a maximum contract. Hard to tell whether it's the effect of knee and eye surgeries, but Stoudemire has a tendency to drift in games, and he's never been a consistent rebounder. It seems very unlikely the Bulls would hitch their future hopes to an inconsistent player with a frightening history of injuries.

The latest name to surface in trade rumors is Boston shooting star Ray Allen. Allen is having a sub-par season, shooting only 35 percent from 3 point range, and some people are wondering if he's close to the end at the age of 33. Allen has an expiring 20 million dollar contract, and the Bulls might be able to get him for a package that would include Miller, Salmons and Jerome James. Is that something you'd be interested in? Allen probably could help the Bulls make a run for the 5th playoff spot in the East, but it's hard to picture him being a fit beyond this season. Still, as expiring contracts go, Allen is more capable of helping a team right now than Tracy McGrady, who continues to rehab here in Chicago, waiting for a trade.

We'll be hearing all kinds of rumors over the next 2 and a half weeks leading up to the deadline. Chances are the Bulls will do a smaller deal involving Salmons, and wait until this summer to make their recruiting pitch to Wade and Bosh. I'm guessing they won't even bother talking to James unless Cleveland makes an early exit from the playoffs, and the King gets restless.

I'll see you courtside Tuesday night to preview the Bulls-Clippers match-up with Kendall Gill during SportsNite at 6:30. You can watch the game on Comcast SportsNet starting at 7. Enjoy the hoops and let's hope the Bulls' rollercoaster ride will be replaced by a steady upwards climb towards the playoffs.

Mark Schanowski hosts our Bulls pre- and postgame studio coverage with 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill. You can also watch Mark on SportsNite, Sunday through Thursday at 6:30 and 10.

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

Keeping the game simple is often a tough task for rookies entering the NBA, but it seems Lauri Markkanen has been a quick learner in that aspect.

Through two games he’s probably the lone bright spot, especially after the Bulls’ cringe-inducing 87-77 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in their home opener at the United Center.

Jumper not falling? Okay, go to the basket.

“It wasn’t falling so I tried to get to the rim a couple times,” Markkanen said. “At the end, I was like let’s do it and I connected on a 3-pointer, I felt more open just because I was at the rim. I think that helped.”

He was asked what the difference was in the second game of his career compared to the first.

“I mean the crowd was chanting for us (tonight),” Markkanen said, referring to Thursday in Toronto.

He wasn’t attempting to display any dry wit but applying common sense seems to work for him, even though he’s been thrust into a situation after an incident that doesn’t make any sense.

With Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic out for the foreseeable future, playing a game-high 37 minutes will be more common than anomaly.

“Whatever your minutes are, you gotta play them to the best of your ability,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s being allowed to play through some mistakes right now. He’s gonna play heavy minutes every night.”

He only shot five of 14 but achieved his first double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds after a 17-point, eight-rebound debut against the Raptors Thursday.

No, someone didn’t open a door for a draft to come into the United Center on that three-pointer that went wide left, but it didn’t stop him from being assertive and continuing to look for his shot.

There was plenty of muck, easy to see on the stat sheet. The 38 percent shooting overall, the lack of penetration, the 29 percent shooting from 3-point range and 20 turnovers.

It’s not hard to imagine what Markkanen will look like with competent and effective NBA players around him, along with a true facilitating point guard that will find him in this offense.

“Markkanen is a wonderful player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s aggressive, he’s smart and obviously, he can shoot the ball. He’s just going to get better and better as he figures things out.”

He received a crash course, facing the likes of Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay Saturday night. On one instance, Gay drove baseline and made Markkanen buckle with a 3-point play.

Aldridge had 24 shots in 32 minutes as a new focal point with Kawhi Leonard out with injury.

So he’s not getting treated with kid gloves, nor is he backing down from the assignments.

“He didn’t shoot the ball well but he battled,” Hoiberg said. “He had a tough assignment with Pau, who’s gonna be in the Hall of Fame one day. Good experience. He guarded Aldridge, Rudy Gay some. He battled, he fought them.”

Even with the airball, had the moment that gives the Bulls fans hope, when he drove on Gasol, spun and hooked a lefty layup while being fouled by the veteran in the first half—giving the United Center faithful something to have faith in for a moment.

“Sometimes you get labeled as a shooter. That’s the label Lauri had,” Hoiberg said. “But he really is a complete basketball player. He’s versatile, he can put in on the deck. He slides his feet very well for a guy that’s seven feet tall, someone his age. Yeah, he’s learning on the fly. He’s gonna have ups and downs, as young as he is. He’s gonna have some struggles at times. But he’s played pretty darn well for everything he’s been through, understanding two days ago he’s gonna be in the starting lineup.”

And for all the bad air around the Bulls right now, from the on-court product to the off-court drama that seems to follow them around like Pigpen, it would be even worse if Markkanen’s first two games had him looking like a corpse, or someone who would be a couple years away from reasonably contributing to an NBA team.

“He’s good, he’s very good,” Gasol said. “I like him. I like his game.”

Miscues, miscommunications and missed shots: Bulls offense struggling all around


Miscues, miscommunications and missed shots: Bulls offense struggling all around

Denzel Valentine corralled a rebound and casually dribbled up the right side of the floor, unaware of the final 5 seconds ticking off the clock in the third quarter. The second-year shooting guard moved toward the basket as the buzzer sounded, only realizing his gaffe as the red lights behind the backboard lit up. It was that kind of night for the Bulls offense, and one that highlighted carelessness, a lack of talent and obvious growing pains as the rebuild begins.

Fred Hoiberg’s group finished with more turnovers (20) than assists (18), shot 38 percent from the field and were doubled up on points in the paint in an ugly 87-77 loss to the Spurs on Saturday night. Adding to the issues were only nine free-throw attempts and 28 percent shooting from deep on a night where the Bulls played well enough defensively to earn a win.

But they couldn’t take advantage of a Spurs team playing without Kawhi Leonard. The ball stopped for long periods of time in the halfcourt, the fast break was non-existent and miscommunications were frequent, even when they didn’t result in one of those 20 turnovers.

“We had 20 turnovers that led to 23 points…that’s what kills you,” Hoiberg said. “A team goes on a run and they get easy ones, pick-sixes, you’re all of a sudden in a big hole. And obviously did not shoot the ball well today.”

The struggles came from across the board. Only Cris Felicio was turnover-less of the nine Bulls who played. The backcourt tandem of Jerian Grant and Justin Holiday combined for 11 of 32 shooting. Rookie Lauri Markkanen showed flashes with eight first-half points, but finished 5 of 14 and committed three ugly turnovers. Robin Lopez made the first 3-pointer of his career 630 games in, but a 29-year-old leading the way for a young rebuilding group could be deemed bittersweet at best.

It capped off a whirlwind first week for the Bulls, who dealt on the fly with the fallout of the altercation between Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis. Losing Mirotic and Portis hurt from a talent standpoint, but it also threw a wrench into Hoiberg’s rotation and scheme. It thrust 20-year-old Markkanen into the starting lineup; Paul Zipser has shifted to playing more power forward (while also starting at small forward); Lopez is being asked to score more than ever, and at times be the primary option.

“With everything we’ve had going on the past week, with playing guys different positions that they haven’t played yet,” Hoiberg said, “we’re still trying to figure out exactly how we’re going to go out there and play. We’re getting stuck at times because guys are in the wrong spots.”

The Bulls opened Saturday night with a solid first quarter, scoring 21 points, assisting on nine of 12 baskets and committing just three turnovers.

The final three quarters couldn’t have been more different. The second unit again struggled like it did in allowing the Raptors a 20-2 second-quarter run on Tuesday. Even without Leonard the Spurs’ defensive length cut off passing and driving lanes, forcing the Bulls to dribble down the shot clock and turn to isolation basketball or contested 3-pointers.

The Spurs couldn’t pull away thanks to an inspired defensive effort by the Bulls, but the offensive stalling rendered it moot; the Bulls took 28 3-pointers and 37 shots in the paint, an ugly ratio when considering the nine free-throw attempts. The bench shot 7-for-19, but most of that came in garbage time.

“One thing we definitely need to work on is attacking the basket,” Lopez said. “I think there are times where we all get a little jumper-happy on the perimeter. I think we need to have a good balance.

We need to be aware of that. We’re a team that doesn’t have a lot of room for error so any time we concede the ball like that, we don’t get up a shot attempt, tat’s going to really hurt us.”

Kris Dunn may be closer than expected to returning to the lineup after dislocating his finger in the preseason. It would give the Bulls help on that dismayed second unit, knocking Kay Felder (3 turnovers in 15 minutes) out of the rotation. Once Mirotic and Portis return in November, Hoiberg will have more flexibility with his rotations as well as some insurance if frontcourt foul trouble arrives.

None are go-to scorers, and not even Zach LaVine's 19.8 points per game last season will save the Bulls once he's healthy. Season-long struggles like Saturday night are on the way for a young team searching for pieces of the future. That's expected, and in the long term it benefits them as more Lottery balls roll toward Chicago.

But in a season in which success will be judged not on wins and losses but improvement from game-to-game, but the Bulls have set the bar low in the season's first week.