Bulls

Bulls withstand late flurry in 11th straight win over Raptors

Bulls withstand late flurry in 11th straight win over Raptors

At some point, it has to become absurd for the Toronto Raptors.

Certainly, they were smarting and angry over dropping a 16-point home fourth-quarter lead to the Detroit Pistons on Sunday night, but they had to be on high alert against a Bulls team they haven't beaten in more than two seasons.

But absurdity rarely has an acceptable explanation, and the Bulls' dominance over their friends from the north qualifies as such. The Bulls made the Raptors say "uncle" shortly after the opening tip for their 11th straight win in the series, a 105-94 decision Wednesday at the United Center in the Bulls' first home game after their disappointing western swing.

In the most recent evidence of mastery prior to Tuesday's game, the Butler did it, as in Jimmy Butler, who poured in 43 in a game that saw the Bulls come back from a 19-point third-quarter deficit, pushing the game into overtime before suffocating and frustrating the Raptors.

Tuesday, Butler didn't have to be Superman in his return from missing four of the last five games with a right heel injury, though he took the extra defensive attention to dish out a career-high 12 assists and scored 19 points, with 15 of those points coming from the free-throw line as he went just 2-for-10 from the field.

"The heel is good, all there is to say," Butler said. "There wasn't much pain at all. Now it's about getting a rhythm and getting back in shape."

As for his third-worst shooting night of the year, Butler said, "When you're shooting 2-for-10, I think you'd better get to the free-throw line. Other than that, everyone has a different way of changing the game. Getting to the free-throw line was the way to win."

The firepower came from the bench as Doug McDermott led the Bulls with 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting with five rebounds. The Bulls shot 41 percent from 3, their highest such clip in awhile.

Denzel Valentine hit two triples in the fourth and along with Butler helped withstand a rousing comeback when the Raptors finally woke up after being down 23 in the second half.  Butler hit four free throws in the last two minutes to push the Bulls' lead back to nine when the Raptors cut the lead to 94-89 with 2:31 left.

"We were getting stops, which allowed us to get into transition," said McDermott, who had an inside score and layup when the Raptors started charging midway through the fourth.

"It started with our defense and rebounding. We got out, and we were really unselfish. It was a great win."

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

The Raptors cut down on the turnovers in the second half after having 13 in the first, methodically getting back into the game, cutting the lead to 88-80 with six minutes left and shutting off any semblance of a Bulls offense.

The Raptors weren't playing anywhere near their best basketball, but apparently something clicked about the guys who were beating them, as it was anything but the usual suspects for the Bulls doing the damage.

The Raptors shot 50 percent in the second half after shooting 41 percent in the first, hitting just enough triples to make the Bulls pay for their scrambling defense. Kyle Lowry caught fire after scoring five points in the first half, hitting four of those triples and cutting through the teeth of the Bulls' defense and finishing with 22 points in 37 minutes.

His All-Star teammate DeMar DeRozan couldn't shake from his first-half doldrums, missing 14 of his 19 shots and earning an ejection with 25 seconds left with two technical fouls of frustration. Norman Powell and Corey Joseph came off the bench to provide support when the Raptors looked quite lifeless and the Bulls looked well on their way to re-establishing whatever this level of success is against this particular opponent.

In this case, the Bulls were the ones leading by 20 well into the third quarter, courtesy of 12 first-half turnovers that allowed the Bulls to get out and running for the latter part of the half, leading 66-43 with 7:55 left in the third.

"The biggest thing was our energy. We made good, simple basketball plays in the first half," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "We had good pace, and it started with our defense. We were really locked in."

Cristiano Feicio (10 points, six rebounds) had his own jam session off the bench, following up misses with thunderous dunks and playing above the rim in a way that likely precipitated the Raptors acquiring Serge Ibaka from the Orlando Magic earlier in the day for swingman Terrance Ross and a first-round pick.

"Cris was terrific, I thought. He was all over the floor," Hoiberg said. "He was up in his pick-and-roll coverage, we did a good job getting our hands on balls and that's what led to those transition baskets."

But Ibaka wasn't yet in uniform as the trade still has to be cleared through the league and physicals must be taken, so the Bulls took full advantage of the free real estate inside.

Taj Gibson (14 points, four rebounds) had more than his share of dunks on the fast break, many of the aided by the pace-pushing of Rajon Rondo, who had 12 points and hit two triples, the fourth time such an occurrence happened this season.

How bad of a night was it for the Raptors? Isaiah Canaan was about to take a foul with less than six seconds left as the Bulls had one to give before the penalty, and as he was grabbing Joseph, reserve big man Lucas Nogueira gave Canaan too much hip and was called for an illegal screen.

They made the Bulls do a little more than sweat and the Bulls had to earn the victory, but the Bulls are no closer to finding out any true answers before the All-Star break — other than the fact the Raptors have no answer for them.

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

22752696_10155487323821858_1170167000_n.jpg
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.