Bulls top Pacers again, end preseason on high note


Bulls top Pacers again, end preseason on high note

It's just one game, an exhibition at that, but if Tuesday's 93-85 win over the Pacers was any indication, this season's edition of the Bulls won't just be Derrick Rose, his supporting cast and a dominant defense.

On some nights, they'll be a balanced offensive squad that's fun to watch.

Back in the United Center for the first time since losing the Eastern Conference Finals, Chicago dispatched last spring's first-round playoff opponent, Indiana, and while it couldn't be called picture-perfect or up to Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau's impossibly high standards, it was at least a positive sign for the upcoming campaign.

"I thought the whole team played very unselfishly. Everyone made the extra pass," said Thibodeau, whose squad dished out 30 assists in the outing. "We got easy baskets, we got the ball up the floor quickly, we were inside-out, our post guys played very unselfishly--they kicked the ball out--so offensively, I thought it was excellent."

Perhaps learning from their lackluster start in the preseason opener in Indianapolis, the Bulls played high-energy basketball from the outset. Carlos Boozer (24 points, seven rebounds, three assists), in particular, opened the game on a positive note--the power forward made an early impact with his low-post scoring--as did Luol Deng (14 points, seven rebounds), for whom beginning the game with a flourish is a fairly consistent habit.

The team's newest addition, Rip Hamilton (13 points, six assists, four rebounds), gave the home crowd something to look forward to, connecting on his first attempt as a Bull, then sprinting out in transition--ahead of even the speedy Rose (12 points, nine assists, five rebounds), who fed him the ball--for a fast-break layup.

"Probably the first time I ever played with somebody that was faster than me, so trying to keep up with him every time he pushed the ball on the break, it was fun, it was exciting, because I could get so many easy baskets," said Hamilton. "Everything's new. Everything is on the fly. But this is my 13th season and basketball's basketball. Once the ball is thrown up, when you've got good guys on your team like I have here, they helped me through the whole time, so it makes my job a lot easier."

Solid defense, that held the visitors to a paltry 23.8 shooting percentage for the quarter, resulted in a 24-15 Bulls advantage after the opening period.

When backup power forward Taj Gibson picked up three early fouls in the second quarter while guarding Pacers counterpart Tyler Hansbrough (24 points, 13 rebounds), Indiana's primary offensive source, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau re-inserted Boozer, who resumed his productivity as both a scorer and facilitator.

Ronnie Brewer (11 points, four rebounds), despite being relegated again to a reserve role, provided additional firepower, showing he either didn't take the demotion too hard or he didn't mind sacrificing his starting spot for the team's benefit.

Meanwhile, Deng and Pacers go-to scorer Danny Granger (12 points on 4-for-11 shooting) waged their usual small-forward battle--Deng was more efficient, but Granger got hot late in the quarter--and Rose showed his maturity and development by orchestrating Chicago's offense to perfection as a distributor.

"I'm a winner. That's the way that I think of myself. Anything to win and if that's me passing the ball, that's just what it is and being in situations, I know Thibs is going to give me the ball, but I'm not rushing," said Rose, the recipient of a new five-year, 94-million contract extension. "If anything, I love a game like this every night, especially seeing my teammates happy."

Added Thibodeau: "That's what the game was dictating. Derrick can beat you a lot of different ways. He can beat you with scoring, passing, active with his defense, pushing the ball up the floor, getting easy baskets. So, I thought he was real patient. He got into the post one time, so he'll be excited about that, but overall, he played terrific. The way he ran the team, I think his help defensively is vastly improved from last year, so we're encouraged by that."

Following Indiana fighting back from a double-digit deficit when the second unit was in the game, the starters again gave the home team some breathing room, and at the intermission, the Bulls had a 50-42 lead.

Boozer picked up where he left off in the the third quarter, producing points in a variety of fashions--agile post moves, mid-range jumpers and putbacks after offensive boards--and helping the Bulls extend their cushion.

"I think he was very aggressive. In the first game, I thought he played a great floor game. He was posting deep, he passed the ball well, did a lot of good things in that game--he didn't score well and we tend to judge him that way--and this is the way he's been practicing in training camp," explained Thibodeau. "He's done a great job with running the floor and getting deep post-ups. He had good balance, he's in great shape, so I'm not surprised by his play."

Hamilton also showcased his proven scoring ability, while center Joakim Noah (five points, eight rebounds, five blocked shots, three assists)--besides Rose, the only starter not to reach double figures by the time Thibodeau began to mix in his reserves--made his presence felt on the defensive end by either altering or outright denying multiple Pacers' shot attempts.

Hansbrough was again a bright spot for the visitors, as was second-year swingman Paul George (14 points, six rebounds), who flashed his talent and versatility, along with an improved perimeter stroke. This time around, however, Chicago's reserves withstood Indiana's push and took a 78-66 winning margin into the final stanza.

Gibson finally got into an offensive rhythm in the fourth quarter--his most aesthetically-pleasing play was a dunk off a Hamilton behind-the-back pass--and with Brewer continuing to contribute as a scorer, the Bulls maintained their comfortable double-digit lead. Thibodeau inserted his regulars (sans Boozer, who earned a well-deserved break; he'd eventually replace Gibson later, after his understudy fouled out) back into the contest.

Chicago cruised during the game's stretch run and Pacers head coach Frank Vogel eventually waved the white flag, sending in his deep reserves, although the majority of Bulls starters would play out the string.

After concluding a brief, yet undefeated preseason, the Bulls head to Los Angeles for their Christmas Day season opener Sunday against the Lakers.

"For Thibs, he was in a pretty good mood," Boozer said. "But again, it's preseason and the 25th, things will change."

Rationalized Thibodeau: "You can't get carried away with this. This is preseason. David West is a heck of a player and he's working his way back off an injury. That team is an excellent team. They play hard and they play unselfishly, they're very well-coached. We're not going to get too excited about a preseason win.

"Well, there's still a lot of work to be done. I like the attitude of our team. They're serious-minded, they come to work every day, they strive for improvement and we know we have a long way to go. In this type of season, you have to keep grinding. Sometimes the schedule will be going your way, sometimes it won't," he continued. "But the games will keep coming. We really believe that if we defend, rebound and keep our turnovers down, we'll be in position to win. So, those are three things that we want to do every night and we've got to keep working towards that every day."

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment


Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie


Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

Los Angeles—Lauri Markkanen called himself “The Finnisher” when asked what the movie of his life would be called.

Apparently, that moniker didn’t apply to the All-Star Skills challenge as he took down the best big men but couldn’t close against a former Bull, Spencer Dinwiddie, in the final.

The contest highlights players’ ability to dribble around cones shaped like NBA logos, throwing a chest pass into a net while having to complete a layup and then 3-pointer before their opponent does.

Markkanen took down Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid before facing off with Dinwiddie. He held a pose after hitting a triple to beat the uber confident Embiid, in what will likely be used as a memorable gif following the weekend.

His confidence doesn’t come across as blatantly as Embiid’s, but that snapshot shows he’s no humble star in the making. He didn’t even practice for the contest, by his own admission.

“I heard some of the guys did,” Markkanen said. “I didn’t do much, just before the competition, I did a little warm-up.”

Missing on the first pass attempt into the circular net in the final, it gave Dinwiddie the advantage he wouldn’t relinquish, hitting on his second 3-point attempt before Markkanen could make it downcourt to contest.

“It’s a lot harder than I’ve seen,” Markkanen said. “I thought it was gonna be super easy but it was kind of tough. Maybe I need to hold my follow through (on the pass).”

“I saw he missed (the first shot) and I started going. I thought he would’ve missed it too. I think I would’ve gotten it on the third shot.”

Being one of the multi-dimensional big men in today’s game who can be adept on the perimeter as well as the interior, it almost seems like the contest was made for Markkanen. Although he doesn’t do much handling in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, it’s clearly a skill he will develop as time goes on.

The last two winners of the skills challenge were Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, and Markkanen was well aware of the recent trend.

“The last two years the bigs have won,” Markkanen said. “I’m kind of pissed that I couldn’t keep the streak going after (those two). I think there’s a lot of guys who can do that now, it’s why they changed the format to bigs versus smalls.”

For Dinwiddie, who was discarded by the Bulls last season after a promising start in the preseason so they could pick up R.J. Hunter, he’s taken advantage of an opportunity with Brooklyn.

“I think for Chicago it was just another series of unfortunate events,” he said. “They were in win-now mode. I was an unproven guard on a non-guaranteed contract and they felt Michael Carter-Williams gave them a better shot to win.”