Bulls

Bulls' stout defense masks ongoing offensive struggles

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Bulls' stout defense masks ongoing offensive struggles

Monday night's victory against the San Antonio Spurs looked like vintage Bulls. On both ends of the United Center floor.

On one hand, Fred Hoiberg's group continued its stellar defensive play in the early season. The Bulls limited San Antonio to 89 points, one off the Spurs' season-low, including just 16 in the decisive fourth quarter. The Spurs shot 41 percent from the field and made two 3-pointers, uncharacteristic of a Gregg Popovich team ranked third in field goal percentage entering the game.

The Spurs made three field goals in the final 5:30 and Pau Gasol blocked three shots, including a LaMarcus Aldridge layup attempt in the final minute of a tie game. Three Bulls free throws later Jimmy Butler stifled a Kawhi Leonard jumper in the closing seconds before Derrick Rose tipped a Tony Parker desperation 3 at the buzzer.

It was a classic Bulls performance on the defensive end, one that would have made Tom Thibodeau proud. And yet, despite the gritty effort it was only just enough to skate by because of ongoing offensive struggles that don't seem to be going away.

[MORE: Bulls' defense holds up late to top Leonard, Spurs]

Granted, the 92-89 victory came against a Spurs team leading the league in defensive efficiency and opponent points per game, and third in field goal percentage defense. Though the Bulls would have preferred an up-tempo pace they're transitioning into under Hoiberg, Popovich's staple has been to never react to an opposition's style. Monday night was just that, as the two teams combined for 14 fast-break points and battled much of the night in halfcourt sets.

And again, the Bulls struggled. They shot 43 percent from the field, helped largely by a second-quarter burst in which they scored 32 points on 50 percent shooting. In the other three quarters they shot 24-for-60 and committed 10 turnovers. They earned a victory - their fifth in six tries at home - despite not making a field goal in the game's final 6:30, when Taj Gibson's putback dunk gave the Bulls a five-point lead.

"We kept defending, and that’s the big thing. If your offense isn’t going, if you’re not making shots – we had a couple good looks, had a couple at the rim there that just didn’t fall," Hoiberg said after the game, "but we kept it going on the defensive end and that’s what won the game for us."

In a vacuum Monday night was a classic case of a team doing what it needed to earn a victory. The Bulls have now won games in which they've scored as few as 92 points and as many as 115. The veteran core, even under a first-year head coach, played within the game, understanding points were going to be difficult to come by against San Antonio's stingy defense, and matched the Spurs with one more defensive stop.

Added Gasol, who went 6-for-18: "You get to the line and you defend and you figure it out, you find a way to win. That’s the most important part of what happened tonight."

It was enough Monday night, but may not be moving forward.

Entering Monday's contest the Bulls ranked 26th in offensive efficiency, better than only the Pistons, Nets, Lakers and 76ers. Those four teams are a combined 15-54, with Brooklyn, Los Angeles and Philadelphia touting the three worst records in the NBA. For all the gripes about Tom Thibodeau's shortcomings to maximize the Bulls' offensive potential, Chicago ranked 10th in the same category a season ago.

[MORE: Dunleavy suffers setback with back rehabilitation]

As they've become more familiar with Hoiberg's offense, the Bulls have significantly cut down on their turnovers. After averaging 15.1 giveaways in the first seven games of the year, they've cut that number down to 13.2 in their last eight. Committing only 11 against a Spurs team averaging 14.6 takeaways per game was yet another step in the right direction, and the Bulls handed out 25 assists on their 37 made baskets, including a season-high seven from Joakim Noah.

But the offense still isn't clicking, and Fred Hoiberg's decision to utilize Nikola Mirotic (eight points in 24 minutes) in a starter and using Doug McDermott (12 points in 30 minutes) in a larger role has put an obvious emphasis on shooting and scoring. Results have varied. Jimmy Butler is playing at an All-Star pace again, McDermott and Tony Snell have filled the void in place of the injured Mike Dunleavy, and E'Twaun Moore has provided unexpected production, especially as Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich have dealt with injuries. And yet the product as a whole is still questionable.

Derrick Rose was the ignitor in the second quarter Monday night, scoring on three consecutive trips and handing out four assists to help the Bulls to a one-point halftime lead. But he finished the night 5-for-17 and didn't log an assist in the second half. It's been an ongoing struggle for the point guard, who said after the game that while his vision is still blurred it's no longer affecting him. He's shot just 16-for-53 (30.1 percent) in three games since returning from a two-game absence (ankle), and his field goal percentage sits at 35.6 percent, which would be the lowest mark of his career - excluding his 10-game season in 2013.

The Bulls' offensive rating with Rose on the floor is 98.0, and jumps to 103.4 with him off the floor. That on/off difference of -5.4 points ranks third worst among starting point guards, ahead of only Houston's Ty Lawson (-7.5), who was benched last week, and Orlando's 21-year-old Elfrid Payton (-9.0).

Thanks in large part to the second unit performing well, the Bulls again were more efficient with Rose off the floor. McDermott, Tony Snell and E'Twaun Moore combined to go 12-for-23, scoring 29 points. With Rose off the floor the Bulls' offensive rating was 107.8. In Rose's 34 minutes, the Bulls had a rating of 97.3.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Rose is hoping the Bulls' busy upcoming schedule will help him continue to shake off the rust and become more acclimated to Hoiberg's system. Whereas the team played four games in a two-week span on the road, the Bulls now have a three-game week followed by back-to-back four-game weeks.

"(I'm) getting there, man. I’m happy we play back-to-back-to-back now. Will give me a chance to get a couple of games under my belt, give me a chance to catch a rhythm," he said. "I love playing these games like this where it’s one day off then a game. I love that."

It's hard to argue with the Bulls' results. Before the calendar flipped to December the Bulls already tout home victories over Cleveland, Indiana, Oklahoma City and San Antonio, four teams that are expected to play deep into May. They're 10-5 and will play nine of their next 11 games at home, with eight of those opponents currently sitting in the bottom half of defensive efficiency. The Bulls are 7th in the league in defensive efficiency, as the core group known for their prowess on that side of the ball clearly still takes pride in shutting teams down.

Monday night was an impressive victory in which the Bulls went back to their old ways of defending down the stretch. But they'll need to take a new-school approach in righting the ship on offense to give themselves a chance in the long run.

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

This is part of a four-part series looking back at the historic career of Michael Jordan and the legacy he left on the game of basketball. It all leads up to Saturday when we unveil his top 5 moments on his 55th birthday. Here are 55-4544-23, and 22-6.

5. Jordan wins fourth title and finishes greatest individual season ever, June 16, 1996

It’s hard to comprehend just how much Jordan accomplished during the 1995-96 season. We’ll try:He won his fourth championship, was named NBA Finals MVP for a record fourth time, won All-Star Game MVP, won a record 72 games, was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, was the league’s leading scorer and became the Bulls’ all-time leader in games played. So when he dropped a casual 22 points in Game 6, it marked the end of one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Oh, and Space Jam came out a few months later.
 
4. Jordan hits six triples, scores 35 points in first half against Blazers, June 3, 1992

During the 1991-92 regular season, Jordan never made more than three 3-pointers in a single game. In fact, the most 3-pointers he had in any two-game stretch that year was four. So when he began burying triple after triple in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, even Jordan couldn’t believe it, giving a shrug toward the NBC announcers as if to say, “I don’t know, either.” Jordan finished the first half with six triples and scored an NBA-record 35 points. The Bulls cruised in the second half, so Jordan finished with only 39, but his shrug remains one of the most iconic NBA Finals moments in history.
 
3. Jordan battles the flu, scores 38 in Game 5 on his way to fifth title, June 11, 1997

The Flu Game. Jordan was battling a nasty illness in the lead-up to a pivotal Game 5 in Utah, and there were concerns about whether he would even suit up. Hours before tip Jordan got out of bed and made his way to the arena, looking to halt Utah’s momentum after it had taken Games 3 and 4 to tie the series. The Jazz came out red-hot while Jordan looked sluggish, but he responded with 17 points in the second quarter alone to give the Bulls a halftime lead. Jordan then keyed a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a Jazz lead, and he hit a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left to give the Bulls a three-point lead. The Bulls hung on, and Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen’s arms walking off the floor. His final line? 38 points, 13 of 27 shooting, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. Two days later the Bulls won the title in front of a sellout Chicago crowd.

2. Jordan scores 63 points against Celtics in playoff loss, April 20, 1986

Jordan had just turned 23 years old when he took to the Boston Garden floor to face Larry Bird in his prime and the Celtics. These Celtics had gone 40-1 at home, led the NBA in field goal percentage defense, started FOUR future Hall of Famers and had a fifth come off the bench. They would ultimately go down as one of the all-time greatest teams, and Jordan made them look absolutely silly. He played 50 minutes in the double-overtime thriller, shooting 22 of 41 from the field and making 19 of 21 free throws, including the last two with no time on the clock and the Bulls trailing by two at the end of regulation. He scored 54 in regulation, added five in the first overtime and four in the second. He also led the Bulls with six assists. It still stands as the NBA record for most points in any playoff game. Twenty-three years old. Twenty. Three.

1. Jordan scores 45 in final game with the Bulls, securing sixth championship, June 14, 1998

Jordan’s final game with the Bulls was iconic. Like so many of these moments, die hards know exactly where they were. The 45 points were majestic, and while he only had one rebound and one assist he affected just about every possession on both ends. But what we’ll remember most is the final 37 seconds. Jordan drove to the basket for layup that cut Utah’s lead to one, then stripped Karl Malone from behind on the next trip down. That gave the ball back to the Bulls with 20 seconds left. Jordan let the clock tick down to around 9 seconds before making his move from the left wing, driving right on Bryon Russell, (maybe pushing off) and pulling up for a jumper at the foul line. The shot was good with 5.2 seconds remaining, and John Stockton’s ensuing 3-pointer was off the mark. It gave Jordan and the Bulls their sixth NBA title, and marked the perfect ending to his Bulls career: getting it done on both ends, in the clutch, and finishing with a victory. Because it encapsulated so much of his 14-year career in Chicago, it’s our top Michael Jordan moment.

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn have moments in highlight-filled rising stars challenge

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn have moments in highlight-filled rising stars challenge

LOS ANGELES—Kris Dunn wanted to have some fun in the Rising Stars game while Lauri Markkanen wanted to get a win.

Both accomplished their goals, being on opposite sides for the first time as the best first and second year players were divided into U.S. and International teams, with the World Team winning 155-124 Friday night at Staples Center.

It wasn’t set up for either Dunn or Markkanen to truly stand out considering the presence of Lakers and Celtics players who were more notable and flashy, along with the spectacular exploits of rookies Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Dennis Smith Jr (Denver).

Those two certainly wowed the crowd at times with half-court alley-oop passes, giving a preview of what Saturday night will look like, considering both will be in the dunk contest.

Dunn scored nine points in 18 minutes while Markkanen scored 15 in 22 minutes. Both came off the bench, ceding to the likes of Sacramento’s Buddy Hield (29 points) and Bogdan Bogdanovic, who turned the game into his own 3-point showcase with 30-foot bombs, hitting seven triples for 26 points off the bench.

Boston’s Jaylen Brown led all scorers with 35 points and 10 rebounds, playing for the U.S. team, showing his entire bag of tricks with spectacular dunks and dribble moves for jumpers.

Markkanen had his moments in the “game within a game” category. When prompted by World coach Rex Kalamian that the first player to get a block would get $100, Markkanen tipped the next shot at the rim and pointed to the scorer’s table, but wasn’t credited with the block.

However, he felt like he got his pound of flesh with Dunn on a tip-dunk. The two didn’t have their moment

“I almost jumped over his head. That counts,” he joked.

Dunn made sure that although he and Markkanen were on opposite sides that he remained Markkanen’s biggest fan.

When asked who was his pick for rookie of the year, he repeatedly said “Lauri Markkanen”, over the likes of Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma from the Lakers, another standout rookie.

His reasoning was simple.

“Why? He hit eight threes in Madison Square Garden,” Dunn said, half-jokingly.

Half-jokingly.

“For Lauri to be a rookie and have so much confidence in himself and to play in big time games, especially at Madison Square Garden. I’m gonna keep bringing that game up. Because He had eight three’s. You don’t see that too mnay times. Lauri is a big player for us,” Dunn said.

Markkanen probably won’t win the award but to see Dunn so steadfastly support his teammate in this way is a good sign for a budding relationship, despite the light moments of competitiveness where Dunn said he wanted to take advantage of Markkanen on the perimeter.

Markkanen’s game has been aided by Dunn on the floor and one could see how the quality of looks Markkanen had in the past few weeks suffered with Dunn out due to a concussion.

Dunn’s turnaround directly led to the Bulls turning around their season in December, and he remembers what he was doing this time last year at the All-Star break when he wasn’t selected to be part of the rookie challenge.

“Thibs had me in the gym,” Dunn said.

It seemed unlikely but he’s rebounded nicely, being a shoo-in for 15 points, eight assists and two steals on a nightly basis. Turning the corner has been a bright spot in the season.

“I wouldn’t say a specific game but each and every game I started to get more comfortable, not with myself but with my team,” Dunn said. “Being a point guard, you gotta build that chemistry with your teammates and try to figure out where everybody needs the ball. How you can be aggressive and lead at the same time.”