Bulls

Bulls: Thibs must make most of versatile bench against Cavs

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Bulls: Thibs must make most of versatile bench against Cavs

It doesn’t take an expert to tell you the Cleveland Cavaliers will miss Kevin Love in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Bulls. Sure, Love struggled at times in playing the third wheel to LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, but he’s still one of the NBA’s elite power forwards, capable of putting up 20-point, 10-rebound games with regularity, while providing the floor spacing that’s so important to the Cavaliers offense.

But the loss of Love (and J.R. Smith for the first two games because of a league suspension), has an even greater impact when the two teams go to their benches. It’s expected Cleveland coach David Blatt will start 6-foot-9 Tristan Thompson in Love’s spot, and Thompson had great success against the Bulls during the regular season, averaging 5.5 offensive rebounds per game. The combination of Thompson and Timofey Mozgov inside will definitely pose some problems for Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah inside, and keeping the Cleveland bigs from dominating the offensive boards will be one of the keys to the series.

But what does Blatt do when Thompson and Mozgov need to rest? Enforcer Kendrick Perkins will get some playing time in the middle, looking to punish Derrick Rose and any other Bulls who drive to the basket. But the power forward spot provides some interesting options for Blatt. Does he go with seldom-used veteran Shawn Marion, or simply slide LeBron James to that spot and go with either James Jones or Mike Miller at small forward? Miller might be an option at shooting guard as well in the first two games when Smith serves his suspension for punching Jae Crowder in the final game of their first-round series against Boston.

[MORE: Bulls will be at full strength facing LeBron, Cavs]

No matter which option Blatt chooses, Thibodeau should have a deeper and more talented reserve group throughout the series. Taj Gibson is one of the league’s top sixth men, and has the size and quickness to guard James if he moves to the power forward spot. Gibson’s post-up skills could also cause problems for Cleveland if they try to defend him with Marion. Look for Gibson to log extended minutes throughout the series.

Nikola Mirotic is the ultimate X factor for the Bulls, giving Thibodeau a 6-foot-10 stretch forward who can hurt the Cavs with his outside shooting or his ability to drive to the basket. Mirotic wasn’t very effective after suffering a leg injury in Game 2 against Milwaukee, but the additional time off should have him close to full strength for this round. Thibodeau will have to pick his spots in using the European rookie to protect him against bad defensive matchups, but he could give the Bulls the offensive boost they need in close games.

It’s a similar story in the backcourt, where Bulls’ reserves Aaron Brooks, Kirk Hinrich and Tony Snell all bring something a little different to the table against Cleveland’s duo of Iman Shumpert and Australian Matthew Dellavedova. Shumpert figures to start the first two games of the series while Smith is out, but he’s not nearly the same type of threat on the offensive end. When Smith returns for Game 3, look for Shumpert to come off the bench as a wing defender to match up with Jimmy Butler when James slides to the power forward spot.

Thibodeau should be able to mix and match his reserve guards depending on the lineup Cleveland has on the floor. Given the size of Cleveland’s shooting guards and Irving’s quick strike scoring ability, Brooks will again be a negative on the defensive end. Thibodeau will try to use Brooks at point guard when Dellavedova is on the court and hope he can provide the scoring punch that made him such a valuable reserve during the regular season.

[MORE: Bulls get what they want in matchup with LeBron, Cavaliers]

Look for Hinrich to get limited minutes in a defensive role against Irving, but the real wild card in this series could be Snell. Remember how good he was in the Bulls’ lone win over Cleveland during the regular season, scoring 22 points on 9-for-11 shooting in a starting role and playing solid defense against James? Snell has the quickness and length at 6-foot-7 to give Butler some help in guarding James and Smith on the perimeter. And, if Snell is knocking down that 3-point shot, he gives Thibodeau another floor spacer to make the Cavs pay for sending double teams at Rose or Butler.

This series figures to be extremely close, with bench scoring capable of swinging one or more games in the Bulls’ favor. Let’s see how creative Thibodeau can be in using his five primary reserves and find out if the Bulls can really take it to the Cavs when the 30-somethings such as Marion, Perkins, Miller and Jones are on the floor.

Lauri Markkanen battling the rookie wall

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen battling the rookie wall

MINNEAPOLIS — The misses have come wide, long and short for Lauri Markkanen in the last couple games, perhaps a sign he’s hit the popular but unseen “Rookie Wall.”

Since coming back from the All-Star break, Markkanen has hit the same amount of jump shots as a dead man, only scoring with two dunks and missing all seven 3-point attempts.

He’s hit the point of the season where the legs turn to spaghetti as the grind of the season catches up. Last year at Arizona, he played 37 games and then went through Summer League following the draft before playing for the Finland national team. The Bulls have been careful with his minutes, particularly early on in the season when they didn’t have the depth at power forward, but Markkanen is still adjusting to the rigors of the NBA.

After seemingly peaking in January, averaging 17 points and 8.4 rebounds on 48 percent shooting and 43 from three-point range, he’s averaged just 10.8 points on 37 percent shooting and hitting just four of 27 from deep.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg tried to pump Markkanen up recently, comparing his shooting to a golfer who’s lost his stroke. Unfortunately, it didn’t translate to Markkanen, who looked at his coach as if he grew a third eye.

By the time Hoiberg compared it to curling, he wound up confusing the press corps last week.

And yet, Markkanen hasn’t broken out of his slump. It’s been quite a while since Markkanen’s devastating performance on Broadway where he nailed eight 3-pointers against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 10 for a career-high 33 points.

“It’s been a long season, I’m not denying that,” Markkanen said Saturday night following the Bulls’ loss to the Timberwolves. “I just gotta work through it. At times I feel it. I felt good today. As the game went on, a little tired.”

Consistency has been a hallmark of Markkanen’s season to date. He scored in double figures 21 straight games before the last two, where he scored three points in the last two Bulls losses.

As a whole, he’s only scored fewer than 10 points six times. To compare, rookie of the year frontrunners Donovan Mitchell (nine) and Ben Simmons (six) are right around the same number.

Hoiberg boldly predicts Markkanen will burst out in a big way soon, but the rookie wall takes no prisoners, especially in the dog days of the season.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”

His looks have been relatively clean, although one can’t discount the difference between playing alongside Cristiano Felicio compared to Robin Lopez. Lopez assisted on 39 field goals, tied with Jerian Grant for second-highest feeds behind Kris Dunn.

Both Lopez and Grant are out of the rotation, while Dunn is still getting his legs back after missing nearly a month in concussion protocol. Lopez was used in a lot of dribble handoff offense with Markkanen, while also setting solid screens to free him.

Felicio doesn’t have that level of experience in this offense, and the Bulls are also running more through Zach LaVine as a primary ballhandler.

“He’s had a lot of really good games. It’s never gonna be an 100 percent season,” LaVine said. “It’s so many games you’ll eventually run into some slumps so I just think he needs to get into a rhythm. We’ve gotta help him with that too. Help him find easier shots on the floor. He’s cool, he’s good. We tell him to shoot the ball every time.”

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

MINNEAPOLIS—The applause was thunderous on the welcome back for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, two Timberwolves draft picks sent away when the chance to acquire Jimmy Butler came along.

But some of the air was taken out the Target Center due to the absence of Jimmy Butler, who’ll miss the next several weeks after deciding to have surgery on his right meniscus following an injury Friday night.

So while there was no rematch of the thrilling contest the two teams had in Chicago, some things were very much the same.

Lauri Markkanen’s struggles continued.

LaVine showed more flashes of his complete game and Dunn had a couple moments of his own.

And on the other side, Tom Thibodeau kept his starters in the game with victory secured and his team up 20 points in the Timberwolves’ 122-104 win over the Bulls Saturday night.

The Timberwolves broke the game open in the fourth quarter with some key shot-making from veteran Jamal Crawford, as he was one point short of the Timberwolves having four 20-point scorers on the night.

Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combined for 70 points in their first game of many without Butler.

LaVine was a main reason the Bulls stayed afloat in the first 36 minutes, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game back in front of the Minneapolis crowd he spent his first few years playing for.

Going head-up with his former teammate Wiggins for a stretch, the two seemed to relish their practice matchups. Wiggins was doing a lot of pure scoring while LaVine seemed to enjoy probing the defense and making plays for teammates, taking more of a ballhandling role as opposed to floating around the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

“He’s doing a much better job not settling for tough shots,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s attacking the basket much better than he was. You can just see him getting his legs, getting more comfortable. It was good to see him as a playmaker, he was terrific.”

Perhaps the Bulls are unlocking something with LaVine, getting him the ball in different places and on the move, where he made some nifty passes in traffic, exercising patience and maturity.

“I liked it. Hopefully we get a little bit more of it,” LaVine said. “But it’s working. Should’ve stuck to it.”

They didn’t, as the Bulls didn’t look as organized as they have previously. Dunn looked extremely motivated and aggressive but it seemed to work against him at times as Teague took advantage of Dunn being too quick for his own good. So hyped up, Dunn blew a breakaway dunk in the first half, but luckily Nwaba was right behind him for a putback.

That type of energy was expected for Dunn and LaVine, maybe even moreso for Dunn considering his underwhelming rookie year where he didn’t get much chance to play as a top-five pick.

Dunn finished with 10 points on four of 12 shooting while Cameron Payne scored 11  in 19 minutes, but the decision making from both point guards left plenty to be desired—which is to be expected given the lack of veterans on the floor.

Their starting unit again struggled as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez again sat as the evaluation of the younger players continued.

Cristiano Felicio had a better outing than his foul-plagued game against Philadelphia, scoring 11 points but had his hands full on the other end. David Nwaba impressed for the second straight game as a starter, getting in the open floor to force the action, scoring 14 with nine rebounds in 34 minutes.

“The second quarter, I thought, was one of our better quarters of the year,” Hoiberg said. “As bad as we played in the first quarter, I thought we were down 20. We just didn’t sustain it. Against a great team like that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Nwaba, along with Bobby Portis, was a big reason why the Timberwolves couldn’t run away from the Bulls until well into the fourth quarter, even after taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sending Hoiberg scrambling for early timeouts.

“You can expect it because you haven’t played with that group before,” LaVine said. “We’re gonna get that chemistry down. We (only) had a couple practices with that lineup.”

Whether it’s the lineup change or just the rookie blues, the year has clearly caught up with Markkanen, who only made one field goal in 32 minutes.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Markkanen has gone one-for-eight in each game coming from the All-Star break and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”