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Bulls' top guns spark victory in Nation's Capital

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Bulls' top guns spark victory in Nation's Capital

Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010
Posted 8:44 PM Updated 11:24 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

WASHINGTON Anybody with raised expectations after Tuesdays drubbing of Philadelphia would be disappointed, but in the end, the Bulls got the same result Wednesday, outlasting the Wizards, 87-80, in a cover-your-eyes ugly affair.

However, as Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau opened his postgame comments, A win is a win, no matter what.

It wasnt a repeat of the previous nights flawless start for the Bulls, as the hapless Wizards proved competitive early, with swingman Nick Young (22 points) keeping the home team within striking distance with his scoring prowess.

The visitors were balanced at the games outset, with veteran Kurt Thomas proving his performance Tuesday was no fluke, Carlos Boozer (30 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists) having his way with Washingtons frontline and Derrick Rose (25 points, five assists) attacking former backcourt partner Kirk Hinrich (19 points, nine assists).

Captain Kirk, however, using insight into his old squad, proved to be a thorn in Chicagos side in the early going, using his trademark pesky defense and scrappy all-around play to buoy his new team.

Although Luol Deng also contributed positively for the Bulls, Hinrich-led Washington aided by a successful debut Wizards appearance for newly-acquired forward Rashard Lewis led, 33-29, after a quarter.

A ragged style of play actually benefited the Wizards, who possessed the athleticism and talent to succeed in a sloppy, foul-plagued contest without much structure or cohesiveness, especially with Chicago turning the ball over like there was no tomorrow. Still, the Bulls managed to stay in the game due to the ineptitude of their inferior opponent.

A scoreboard malfunction causing a slight delay on the court was fitting, as the Bulls were unable to slip out of their malaise, enabling the Wizards to extend their slim cushion, with Youngs continued scoring and the Hinrich-Rose back-and-forth actually more even than expected. Heading into intermission, Chicago trailed, 50-46.

The visitors uninspired play persisted after halftime, but Washingtons equal lack of sharpness gave way to a 13-0 Bulls run, allowing Chicago to surge back ahead. Boozers effectiveness inside and Roses always-dangerous penetration ability keyed the extended push, changing the tenor of the game to a more familiar one for Washington.

Toward the end of the period, however, the Wizards once again made it a neck-and-neck affair, with the starting backcourt of Young and Hinrich propelling the home teams effort, along with Lewis and swingman Josh Howard (13 points) providing boosts off the bench. Chicago clung to a 73-70 advantage after three quarters.

Boozer, who was in the midst of an excellent all-around game particularly passing the ball, probably the most underrated aspect of his skill set carried the Bulls early in the final stanza, as Chicago gradually widened its winning margin.

Its amazing that hes doing what hes doing. I still think hes working himself into shape and his legs arent under him yet. His timing. Hes in great shape, but not great basketball shape and theres a difference between the two. But you can see what great instincts he has to score 30 points, and every night, he knows how to find seams around the basket and the way hes rebounding the ball, its a testament to his ability and I think hell just continue to get better and better, said Thibodeau.

Chimed in Boozer: I just had a good matchup going, tried to be aggressive, tried to get to the line a little bit and just keep playing. Joakim Noah is out, so everybodys got to step up a little bit, including myself.

The festival of fouls on both ends resumed and became significant on the Bulls side when Boozer picked up his fifth personal on a charge with 6:57 remaining; Thibodeau would leave him in the game, as he did with Thomas after the veteran drew his fifth shortly thereafter.

Were both vets, weve been around the block, weve been in a lot of playoff games, played a lot of games where weve had five fouls with Thibs and against Thibs. We knew what to do. Play solid defense. Even Kurts sixth foul was a smart play, said Boozer. At that point in the game, you cant. Youve just got to keep playing because otherwise, you may be in a position where you lose if you dont play hard or dont do the right things. At that point, youve got to trust in yourself and trust in your principles and trust what weve been taught to continue to keep playing the way were been playing because its win or lose at that point.

Added Thibodeau: It was at around the six-minute mark when they both had five and the question is, do you take one out? Usually, with five, they go back at the five-minute mark but with the way it was going, I thought wed take a chance. We were probably a little more cautious than we would have liked. It was a strange sort of game for us. We were grinding away, grinding away and trying to be in position at the end.

Neither team appeared much inclined to score the basketball or play with any type of flow, for that matter for a crucial stretch, which eventually benefited the Wizards, who inched closer to Chicago as the games conclusion approached.

There were a lot of calls. It had a weird rhythm to it. It wasnt a fluid fourth quarter. A lot of free throws, a lot calls being made, a lot of physical play. Thats part of it, though. Some quarters are going to be like that. This game, it just happened to be the fourth quarter, Boozer observed.

Despite the Bulls multiple attempts to leave the door open for Washington, the home team simply couldnt convert and a Boozer basket with 35.2 seconds left effectively shut the door on any comeback hopes.

We made it hard ourselves because of the turnovers, particularly with their team. Putting them in the open floor is something you dont want to do, particularly on the road. I thought the first quarter giving up 33 points and the high percentage I was concerned about that, Thibodeau recounted, referring periodically to his teams 21 turnovers. But I liked the second quarter. I thought we changed our mindset. I thought we started to defend. I thought we established the paint. We got the ball into Carlos to start the second quarter and I thought that helped us get control of the game, where we felt, Okay, if we do these things, we should have a chance.

Then, the second half, I thought we attacked. We got some calls, we got to the line in the third quarter. The fourth quarter, I thought the defense was terrific.

Concurred Boozer: As you can see from the course of the game, the way it went, we gave up 33 in the first quarter. In the fourth quarter, we gave up 10. So, as the game progressed, our defense got more like the Chicago Bulls defense. They only had 80 points total, but they did have 33 in the first quarter. Grind-out win. Well take it and keep moving.

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.