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Bulls should cruise past Pacers in opening round

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Bulls should cruise past Pacers in opening round

Saturday, April 16, 2011Posted: 10:30 AM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

Its finally time. Time to tell whether, after a 62-win regular season that resulted in the leagues top overall seed in the postseason, the Bulls championship aspirations are reality or a figment of their (and an increasingly growing fan bases) imaginations.

Chicagos first-round series against the Pacers might not seem like much of a test after racking up a 3-1 record during the seasonthe lone loss, an overtime defeat in Indiana with Carlos Boozer out of the lineup, was the Bulls sole Central Division setback of the seasonbut it can be used as a measuring stick for the future.

Schanowski predicts Bulls in five games

Such issues as Joakim Noahs return to form, Boozer and Noahs on-court chemistry, the extent of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeaus playoff rotation, the level to which Derrick Rose raises his game and whether Luol Dengs quietly stellar campaign continues in the postseason are all things to watch.

But perhaps the most pressing item on the agenda, however, is the question of the Bulls playoff experience.

There are key Bulls who have made deep postseason runs, such as veteran Kurt Thomas and the former Utah trio of Boozer, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver, but the only player on the team who has won a championship is seldom-used reserve forward Brian Scalabrine, who will likely be inactive for games.

While Deng has been to the second round and both Rose and Noah played major roles in the Bulls classic first-round series against the Celtics two years agoTaj Gibson has also had a taste of the playoffs from his experience as a rookie starter in last springs first-round series against Clevelandthis Bulls team isnt exactly teeming with grizzled vets, who have been through the battles that forge reputations in this league.

But although the Bulls freely acknowledge they havent proved anything yet, this squad has carried themselves with the end in mind all season. In terms of their preparation, maturitylocker-room issues and off-court drama isnt going on unreported by the media, they simply dont existand ability to bounce back from losses, the Bulls are a throwback to another era, in which basketball was just about the game and nothing else.

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Unfortunately for their first-round opponent, Indiana, the Bulls have also displayed another qualityholding grudgesthat has served them well. From the sting of losing their last matchup to the Pacers to Danny Grangers inflammatory comments (whether or not the Bulls admit to it), not to mention simply being motivated for the playoffs in general, its unlikely the Pacers even come close to testing the Bulls' mettle in the opening round. Heres a closer look at the series:

Point guard: Derrick Rose vs. Darren Collison

Collison is a solid young player, but this is almost unfair. The likely league MVP will overpower his second-year counterpart and while Granger told reporters the Bulls go as Rose goes, the Pacers only win against Chicago during the series was when the All-Star point guard matched his career-high, scoring 42 points. Look for Rose to take his game to another level, not only dominating as a scorer, but consciously involving his teammates to prove Chicago isnt a one-man show.

Shooting guard: Keith Bogans vs. Paul George

Bogans has been much maligned by Bulls fans all seasonand its possible that Roses joking comments about utilizing President Barack Obama as the teams starting shooting guard at Navy Pier Thursday didnt helpbut hes played his role expertly, hitting timely three-pointers and playing tough defense, as well as facilitating ball movement. While almost nobody around the league would take Bogans over the rookie George in the future, the veterans physicality will be important against a bruising Indiana squad. George has been a starter for the Pacers since interim head coach Frank Vogel took over and shows flashes of potential occasionally, but its unlikely he has much of an impact in the series.

Small forward: Luol Deng vs. Danny Granger

Deng, in particular, claimed to not be personally motivated by Grangers comments, but seeing as the two play the same position, its impossible that he wasnt at least slightly affected. The native of the Sudan actually defends Granger well, forcing him to his off hand and luring him into taking difficult, contested jumpers, while putting pressure on Indianas leading scorer on the other end of the floor with his versatility. Expect Deng, the Bulls workhorse, defensive stopper and glue guy, to have a strong series individually.

Power forward: Carlos Boozer vs. Tyler Hansbrough

Hansbrough stepped up his game since former head coach Jim OBriens firinga day after losing to the Bulls at the United Centerand played extremely well in the Pacers March win, in which Boozer didnt suit up. However, while Boozer may not be the most defensively-inclined player, his bulk, rebounding prowess and ability to draw fouls will mitigate some of his second-year counterparts strengths. Also, theres the whole Duke-North Carolina thing (Boozer went to Duke, Hansbrough is a North Carolina graduate), too, so expect Boozers college pride to kick in for some extra motivation.

Center: Joakim Noah vs. Roy Hibbert

This is perhaps the most intriguing positional matchup, as the two young pivots are two of the leagues best at their position, but bring different strengths to the table. Noah, who is still recovering from various ailments, thrives on his high activity level, rebounding, defense and running the floor, while the 7-foot-2 Hibbert uses his size, shooting tough and low-post game to be effective. If the Bulls can successfully play at a fast pace, Noahs agility should give Hibbert problems, but for that to happen, Noah must get back to his dominant ways on the boards.

Bench:

Chicago (Taj Gibson, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson, Kurt Thomas, Omer Asik) vs. Indiana (Mike Dunleavy, Josh McRoberts, Jeff Foster, Brandon Rush, A.J. Price)

Indiana actually has some solid reserves, especially in the frontcourt, but the Bulls depth and consistency should overwhelm the Pacers. More significant is whether Thibodeau decides to trim his rotation in the playoffsthe rookie Asik could be a victim, as Thomas experience and physical nature should serve the Bulls well in the postseasonbut regardless, its nice to have options. If the Bench Mob can replicate what theyve done all season, the Bulls will have a major edge.

Coach: Tom Thibodeau vs. Frank Vogel

Both coaches are in their first season at the helmVogel got the job in the middle of the campaignbut the differences in experience are huge. Although the Pacers definitely responded better to Vogel than OBrien, Thibodeaus postseason experience after 20 years as an NBA assistant have him leaps and bounds ahead of the virtual novice on the opposing sideline. Its possible that Indiana plays as if they have nothing to lose and challenges the Bulls, but Thibodeaus intensity and extensive preparation wont leave much to chance.

Prediction: Bulls, 4-0

Many observers believe the Pacers could steal a game, but the focus of this Bulls team has been incredible all season and theres no reason to expect that to change now. Rose should take his game to another level, his teammates, as usual, will follow his lead and the squads single-minded mentality will reap benefits. Barring a complete catastrophe in a single game, it should be smooth sailing for Chicago.

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.

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

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USA TODAY

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.