Bulls offense unable to solve versatile Bucks defense


Bulls offense unable to solve versatile Bucks defense

What’s ugly and stagnant, slow as Chicago traffic in the middle of the day and painful to watch?

That’s right, the Bulls offense.

The Milwaukee Bucks have taken them out of anything they've wanted to do, anything they came into this series doing well has been taken away ever so slowly and the Bulls have one more day to adjust before Game 6 Thursday in Milwaukee.

While the Bulls certainly don’t run the most free-flowing offensive sets, they have the personnel to solve the Bucks’ defensive puzzle. It’s just taking longer and longer to figure out, as Game 5 presented another hole in the Bulls’ armor, as their inconsistent shooting reappeared after four good games in the series.

For all the talk about the Bulls being at full strength being the ultimate elixir, it hasn't proven to be true, especially considering Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic appear to have been taken out of the series by matchups.

“Aaron I thought played very well yesterday,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He got caught because (Jerryd) Bayless played less. It was more matchup with him. Niko took the hit in that game. He's still working his way back so hopefully a few days here, he'll be ready to roll.”

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And this team doesn’t appear to have much in the way of consistent energy or rhythm, which is why confusion carries the day for this team in this series and possibly beyond.

“Two things you want this time of year. You want your health and to be playing well,” Thibodeau said. “If you have health and you're not playing well that does you no good. if you're playing well and you don't have health that's gonna hurt you also. So you want both.”

They hit four of 22 triples, unable to get in a shooting rhythm from the jump as Mike Dunleavy and Tony Snell, players who benefit from ball movement, were unable to hit shots early and couldn’t get them late.

“Some were good. Some they challenged well,” Thibodeau said. “They were flying at us and we’re going to have to adjust. The big thing is moving the ball, not holding on to it. If they’re flying at you, go by.”

The analytics-based theory in today’s game is the 3-point shot is the best one, followed by taking the ball to the basket. The problem is that plays right into the Bucks’ hands if you’re not hitting jumpers from the outside—and the Bulls aren’t taking nearly enough in-between shots, those dreaded midrange attempts that the analytics community decries as the worst shots known to man.

And the Bulls lost trust in the extra pass, so the fourth quarter was a potpourri of driving head on into a Bucks defense that was ready for it. They missed more than their share of shots on the interior, including back-to-back missed layups from Joakim Noah after the Bulls pulled to within three.

“Not only that (lack of trust), layups,” Thibodeau said. “When you’re not making the 3s and you’re not making layups, the ball has to move. It’s going to move better when you’re making shots. When they collapse on the penetration, we have to hit the open man.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up for the playoffs, Bulls fans!]

Since no one was making shots, it left Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler feeling like they were on islands, leading to a fourth quarter where the Bucks amazingly had more blocked shots (eight) than the Bulls had field goals (seven).

“They’re very athletic. They’re quick,” Thibodeau said. “You can’t hold on to it. You just have to make the right read. If it’s a long closeout and they’re flying at you, go by. If they’re closing short, shoot. Just know when to shoot and when to pass. We want penetration. Those are things we want to do.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo was a menace with three blocked shots and every Bucks player aside from Michael Carter-Williams had a blocked shot in the fourth, not only frustrating the Bulls but confusing them.

“They have good size,” Thibodeau said. “If they’re coming to block, move on penetration, hit the open man. You’re getting by one, that means another one is picking you up. When that guy comes, you have to hit the open man.”

Jimmy Butler leaves game unable to put any pressure on right leg after apparent non-contact injury


Jimmy Butler leaves game unable to put any pressure on right leg after apparent non-contact injury

The NBA may have lost another top superstar due to injury.

On Friday, Jimmy Butler appeared to have suffered a non-contact injury to his right knee. He left the game against the Houston Rockets unable to put any pressure on his right leg and needed assistance getting back to the locker room. 

Here's a video of the incident:

Coach Tom Thibodeau said that Butler will have an MRI when the team returns to Minnesota on Saturday.

Butler drew a lot of headlines last weekend after not playing in the NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles.

Entering Friday, Butler led the league with 37.3 minutes played per game.

The Bulls also take on the Timberwolves in Minnesota on Saturday night.

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.

Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.

But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.

The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.

Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.

“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”

Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.

In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.

Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.

Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.

If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.

“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”

Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.

But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.

“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”

Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.

His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.

The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.

Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.

“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”

Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.

“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.

“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”

When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.

No hesitation.

“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”

Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.

“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”

And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.

“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”

His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.