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Bulls take Cavs' best shot, start 2011 with win

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Bulls take Cavs' best shot, start 2011 with win

Saturday, Jan. 1, 2011
Posted 8:33 PM Updated 11:07 PM
By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

One way to look at Chicagos recent spate of unimpressive victories is that theyre playing down to their competition. To Carlos Boozer, however, opposing teams are approaching matchups with the Bulls with the mindset that theyre playing an elite NBA team.

Before I got here, we werent afraid to play the Bulls at all, but were trying to rewrite everything and I think when teams think about us now, they get ready to play, Boozer told CSNChicago.com. Thats because of the people in this locker room, our coaching staff and how weve been able to perform this season. Weve changed that mentality. Teams look forward to playing us because were a good team. I think when you have success, you get everybodys attention around the league and teams do have to play you.

We have that X on our backs and whether we get recognition or not, we dont care. We want to keep getting better, keep getting wins and well be a team to reckon with come playoff time.

If Boozers theory is correct, it explains how a short-handed, dismal Cavaliers (8-25) team was able to keep things close Saturday eveningin fact, the visitors led for the majority of the contestbefore a Derrick Rose-fueled, 32-9 third quarter gave the Bulls (22-10) the upper hand before an eventual 100-91 victory.

The lowly, injury-riddled visitorsfor the second consecutive, the Bulls hosted one of the leagues lesser lights while they were short-handedjumped out to a 5-0 start on the first day of the calendar year, reviving past concerns about Chicagos readiness to begin games, especially after last months close call in Cleveland. With two quick fouls saddling Boozer (20 points, 11 rebounds) to compound matters, the Bulls slow start persisted, although the Cavaliers didnt possess the firepower to significantly widen the gap, outside of veteran scorer Antawn Jamison (19 points, nine rebounds).

While Cleveland wasnt necessarily the most offensively proficient bunch, the cold-shooting and foul-pronestarting center Kurt Thomas (season-high 13 rebounds), like Boozer, acquired a pair of first-quarter foulsBulls simply couldnt slice into their deficit (which reached double figures) and despite efforts by Rose (28 points, 11 assists) to manufacture points via drawing fouls and his playmaking ability, with assistance from Luol Deng (23 points), the Bulls trailed, 28-24, after a period of play.

A lot of games have been slow for us in the first quarter, said Boozer. Weve got to come out better, weve got to come out stopping teams better, executing our offense a little bit better and thatll take care of it.

Chicagos bench gave the team somewhat of a jolt to start the second quarter, as increased intensity and solid efforts from Taj Gibson and Ronnie Brewer specifically made the energy in the United Center go up a few notches, albeit briefly. The Cavaliers, however, didnt immediately wilt, with young reserve J.J. Hickson (21 points, eight rebounds) providing instant offense when inserted into the contest, as well as solid backcourt play from starting guards Ramon Sessions (13 points, six assists) and rookie Manny Harris (11 points).

Midway through the period, the Bulls finally began to find a rhythm and while Jamison and undersized big man Leon Powe (14 points, six rebounds) continued to do damage for Cleveland, Roses distribution to the likes of Deng and Boozer helped the home team gain ground on their Central Division rivals. But the Cavs withstood Chicagos surge and at the half, the Bulls trailed, 61-53.

We came in here at halftime. We started talking to each other before Coach even walked in and said, Were not playing our best on defense, Boozer recounted. To a man, we had to look each other in the eye and say, Weve got to do better. We came out there and gave up nine points, and thats where the game was won for us.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau bristled at the suggestion that his team didnt give maximum effort from the outset.

I dont know if were not trying hard. I think were trying pretty hard. I dont think we played particularly well in the first half, but well take the win, said Thibodeau. Well take the wins any way we can get them, but we know we have to improve in a number of different areas. We have some practice time now, where we can work on some stuff, so we have to take advantage of that.

You look at the overall picture and I think defensively, were never satisfied and we want it to be great and then offensively, I think its going to come. Right now, were still finding our way offensively. Weve got to get a balance between transition, post-ups, catch-and-shoot, ball movement, player movement and when we do that, were very efficient offensively, he continued. First and foremost, we have to establish ourselves defensively and we didnt do that, so we wanted to correct that first. Offensively, I thought we missed some shots that I thought were good shots, but I also thought took away from how we were playing, with energy. We got into a mode where we were just trading baskets with them and you cant win like that. When we went ahead, they just came right back. It seemed like we caught up, we got the lead, exhaled and then they hit us againin the third quarter, we came out and had the right energy, the right intensity.

Rose, as hes prone to do, asserted his will on the game early in the third quarter, bringing the Bulls back with both his scoring and passingwith Deng being the primary beneficiary of the latterfueling an 18-2 run to open the second half. Suddenly, Clevelands previously uncontested looks were now defended a bit more closely and thanks to Roses penetration ability, outside shooting and distribution, Chicagos offense ran a lot more smoothly en route to seizing both the lead and the games momentum.

Now that they were rolling, everything flipped for the Bullsshots that were rattling out before now either dropped through or were tipped in, while the Cavs couldnt buy a basket, shooting an abysmal 3-for-21 in the period, compared to 61.9 percent for the home teamand a double-figure advantage was built, energizing the previously dormant crowd and prompting Cleveland head coach Byron Scott to call a timeout. With Roses personal mini-exhibition no longer necessary for Chicago to snap out of its malaise, the Bulls cruised to an 85-70 lead after the decisive third quarter, during which the visitors were outscored, 32-9.

In the early portion of the final stanza, the Bulls endured a return to offensive stagnation, which, coupled with Powes scoring contributions, permitted Cleveland to whittle Chicagos winning margin down to double figures. Hickson gave the Cavs an additional boost and all of a sudden, the game was once again a tight-knit affair, as the Bulls failed to capitalize on numerous offensive possessions.

The tension got thick late, but Clevelands offensive inefficiency was enough for Chicago to sustain a winning effort, even with the Bulls missing multiple key free throws late; as opposed to throughout the whole game, as they shot a respectable 21-for-26 for the evening. Maybe it wasnt most beautiful thing to watch, but the fans got their moneys worth, as Dengs game-ending free throw earned the crowd free Big Macs.

I knew they were big free throws. I know how much the fans love Big Macs. I just thought Id play some games and miss the firstno, Im kidding, said Deng. Im really glad I made it. The fans have been great all year.

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.

Just as we all predicted, two rookies stole the show in L.A.

Just as we all predicted, two rookies stole the show in L.A.

There's not often hype surrounding a game between two of the NBA's worst teams, but Tuesday's Bulls-Lakers matchup was intriguing to many because it offered a chance to see a pair of top rookies compete. 

Oh, but you didn't think we meant Lonzo Ball and Lauri Markkanen, did you?

Nah, it was two different, less-touted first-year players that ended up stealing the spotlight at the Staples Center. 

Kyle Kuzma and Antonio Blakeney may not be household names, but they sure played like they were in the Bulls' 103-94 loss. 

Kuzma, the Lakers rook drafted 27th overall, has been a spark for Luke Walton's squad all season long. Boasting a terrific scoring arsenal, the Utah product carried the load for the Lakers' offense in the first half, dropping 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting. He finished the game as L.A.'s leading scorer with 22 in 40 minutes. But if you still need a more in-depth scouting report on Kuzma, just let Lonzo break it down:  

More importantly for Bulls fans, though, was the play of their undrafted guard who's signed to a two-way deal. 

Blakeney, the unofficial Summer League MVP, came off the bench on Tuesday and immediately left his mark on the game. The 21-year-old out of LSU posted 15 in the first half, finishing through contact as well as connecting on outside jumpers. 

Blakeney's shooting isn't reliable quite yet, but his energy has clearly influenced Hoiberg's rotation. The guard went from playing one NBA minute in the Bulls' first 11 games to playing 75 in the last four. Given that his two-way deal allows him to only spend 45 days with the team, it'll be fascinating to see how creative Gar Forman and John Paxson will get with his contract if this type of production continues. 

In a season that's obviously going to have its share of rough moments, an offseason flyer hitting is a huge plus for the rebuild. 

As for the recognized rookies, Lonzo's shooting woes persisted and Markkanen had maybe his worst offensive performance of his young Bulls career. Combined, they finished 7-for-30 with 21 points. Not ideal. 

Zach LaVine cleared for contact practice

Zach LaVine cleared for contact practice

The Zach LaVine comeback is one step closer as the shooting guard was cleared for contact practice after checking with his doctors in California. 

LaVine will go through a step by step process over the next few weeks and the Bulls will gauge his progress to see when the best time for his return will be. 

But, given the nine-month process from his ACL injury he suffered in February, he's right on track and there doesn't appear to be any setbacks. 

"There’s no real timeframe, I guess," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said at practice Monday. "It’s really going to be on how he feels. We’ll try to do a little more every day with him. We did a little bit, got him some light contact today just to get the process started.

"He’ll be able to play a little two-on-two with not a lot of practice time these next 10 days. But we’ll throw him out there and continue to try to get him feeling better. There’s going to be a mental hurdle that he’s going to have to clear as well. I know he’s excited. His teammates are excited and the coaches are obviously excited as well."

LaVine's recovery has gone as planned since his arrival in Chicago from the Jimmy Butler trade on draft night. Targeting a mid-December return seems realistic but of course, the Bulls will take every precaution to make sure he's healthy for the long term, both for LaVine and the franchise, as he's a restricted free agent this summer--and they have no plans on letting him walk. 

LaVine told NBC Sports Chicago recently that he wants to get on the floor immediately but the Bulls know they'll have to protect him from himself in the meantime. 

"He’s going to have to string together a lot of really good days, and he knows that," Hoiberg said. "He understands that. The important thing is he’s right on track from where it was said after the injury. He’s been doing a great job with his rehab. He’s on time. He’s doing everything that’s asked of him. His strength numbers are where they’re supposed to be. I’m confident he’s going to keep making progress. But we’ll absolutely monitor it daily and hopefully it’ll just continue to get better."

The Bulls aren't sure if they'll send LaVine to the G-League but it's certain they have plans on not only how to use him when he steps on the floor but also a regimen they've stuck to, to ensure there are no real setbacks. 

Hoiberg has been salivating over having a true scorer at that position since trading for him, and LaVine has been eager since his arrival to prove to the Bulls and fans that he is a franchise player. 

Prudence in the moment of progression, though, appears to be the approach taken by both sides.