Bulls

Familiar foes Bulls, Heat have mutual respect

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Familiar foes Bulls, Heat have mutual respect

MIAMI -- Always, said Joakim Noah, when asked about facing a familiar foe Friday night, the defending-champion Heat.

Its always big to play here, continued the center, who will return to action after a one-game absence, due to flu-like symptoms. Its going to be fun.

I dont think its just another team in the East. Theyre very good, we want to compete against the best and its always a battle, so its going to be exciting.

Thats an understatement. Obviously the Bulls arent considered an elite team by observers this season, partially due to Derrick Roses recovery from ACL surgery, as well as the departure of the majority of the Bench Mob, but that doesnt mean Miami isnt taking them seriously.

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They still have that Chicago Bulls fabric and toughness. They just grind. I think the fact their fifth in the Eastern Conference right now with the MVP out shows you the character of the team. Theyve had a lot of changes, their bench looks totally different and yet, they still find a way -- even after tough losses -- they find a way just to grind, stay in there and win enough games to get them right in the middle of the pack of that Eastern Conference, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said after his teams morning shootaround. Theyre a dangerous team, and theyre mentally and physically tough enough to win in any building, and we know that, regardless of Rose being out, bench looking different, you know how theyre going to play, so its going to be an extremely physical, competitive game, likely will be close. It doesnt matter which building -- here or in Chicago -- and well have to earn it, and well have to play a complete, 48-minute game.

Reigning league MVP LeBron James concurred: We understand what Chicago brings. They bring a lot of size, a lot of physical play. Their defensive intensity makes you focus even more on your offense, your ball movement.

The respect is mutual, as the Bulls have gone toe-to-toe with the Heat frequently over the past two seasons and while they havent always come out on top, virtually every game has been a dogfight. But just because Miami has a title under its belt now, not to mention adding the likes of sharpshooter Ray Allen during free agency, dont expect the Bulls to defer to their rival, although theyre wary of the champions firepower.

Theyve added a significant player in Ray Allen, so the three-point shooting, its always been big, but its even bigger now, so their offense is spectacular. They added a lot to their team and they won the championship last year, so their depth makes them even more dangerous, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau explained. A guy like Ray Allen is a big shot-maker late in the game, LeBron James continues to get better, Dwyane Wade is healthy again, Chris Bosh sort of fills in whatever needs they have for whatever particular game theyre playing. His skill sets unique; put him at the five, they can out-quick you up and down the floor. Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier, Mike Miller, those guys are great role players. Mario Chalmers is a guy who sort of flies under the radar, another great role player. So, its a team thats very well put together.

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Chimed in Noah, when asked about countering Miamis small-ball approach -- Bosh plays center now, something he previously resisted in his career -- something theyve used extensively since switching to it last postseason: Rebounding, defense, try to give them the least amount of opportunities in transition because when they start playing that fast-tempo, transition game theyre pretty much unstoppable, so its on us to try to slow them down as much as possibleIve never faced it before, so well have to wait and see, see what it looks like, but theyre obviously very talented, they spread the floor very well, theyve got great shooters and they have great talent, but they still post up a lot with LeBron, so they have a lot of offensive firepower.

For Miamis part, they aren't taking the Bulls for granted and even without Rose in the lineup, the Eastern Conference squad thats given them the fiercest battles over the last two seasons is still must-see TV.

Ive seen them. Ive watched them -- a lot -- and the adjustments theyve made, theyve kind of went away from the pick-and-roll theyve done in the past with D-Rose being such a good pick-and-roll player, to a lot of catch-and-shoot, using Joakim at the high post because hes such a great passer and a facilitator, James explained. Also getting the ball into Luols hands, as well, because hes a really good offensive player, as well, so they do a good job of getting everybody involved in their offense, not having their MVP out there.

Bosh added: They all play a certain type of way. They play physical basketball and we pride ourselves on being able to play a bunch of different styles, and they present a unique challenge. They play a lot of good team ball. They have a very unique defense, where they really try to slow the pace down a little bit, so we just have to make sure we play sure our game. Usually, the team that plays their game, where theyre in their comfort zone, is the aggressor and we want to play our style of basketball.

Its always a challenge as a player, putting everything to the test, putting your skills to the test, intensity, focus. A national-TV game, of course. We know the energys going to be great and to be able to just showcase your talent, both team-wise and individually, its always a good time, he continued. We know how they play. Theyre going to crash the boards, its going to be physical. You know theyre a paint team, they want to get down there and get in the paint.

Wade concurred: Its a competitive team and we enjoy playing competitive games, and this team is very competitive and theyre physical, whatever they let the game be called. For us, were just going to continue to try to play our game and well see what happens from there, but I think the Bulls are a team who I think surprised a lot of guys early on without D-Rose and making some offseason moves, and still be the team we became accustomed to. When you talk about defensively, rebounding the ball, theyre still that team and a very tough team to play, a gritty team, so theyve got some very good wins, especially on the road, and weve got to come out and protect home court.

Even Bulls players you wouldnt necessarily think of immediately -- veteran guards Rip Hamilton and Kirk Hinrich, for instance -- are on Miamis radar.

Theyre two good NBA players. Rip is a world champion and hes done so many great things in this league, James said. Kirk has always been solid, no matter where hes been. His first stint in Chicago, in Atlanta and now back in Chicago, hes been really good, not only for the team hes been on, but for this league. We respect everyone.

Wade added: Rip is one of those guys, since Ive came in the league, Ive had multiple battles with. You play guys in the Eastern Conference Finals and youre going to have those war marks, war wounds, and weve had that, so weve had many battles, but I respect Rip as a player and what hes been able to do consistently in this league from that standpoint. So, he brings the best out of me and I feel I do the same.

One things for sure: Miami is a game that every opponent gets up for, but unlike other opponents, the Heat will be equally ready for the Bulls. That said, the visitors to American Airlines Arena want to maintain the same approach thats served them so well during Thibodeaus tenure.

Thats why you want to build the right habits, so you dont want to change your approach for any game. You want to be consistent, you want to do the same things to get ready for an opponent: know them well, know what youre trying to get to, analyze their strengths and weaknesses and then, you have to go out and execute, the coach said. Its the next game and again, from the start of the season, we didnt want to change. We wanted our approach to improve every day, get better and hopefully be playing our best basketball at the end of the year, and be healthy.

Bobby Portis apologizes to teammates as Bulls continue to deal with all-around complicated situation

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AP

Bobby Portis apologizes to teammates as Bulls continue to deal with all-around complicated situation

The mending hasn’t yet begun for the Bulls, but perhaps a good sign in moving forward from the Bobby Portis punch that delivered a concussion and broken facial bones to Nikola Mirotic is that it isn’t being ignored.

Fred Hoiberg is being tight-lipped about where matters stand, but he did at least say Portis returned to practice and apologized to the team Friday afternoon. Hoiberg wouldn’t reveal the contents of Portis’ apology and Portis didn’t address the media, but it’s clear things aren’t business-as-usual at the Advocate Center.

“Bobby was back at practice. It was good to have him back in here,” Hoiberg said. “Obviously, everybody’s looking forward to having Niko back in here, as well, hopefully soon.”

When asked about Portis’ spirit, Hoiberg deflected and preferred to talk about what adjustments the team will have to make in the immediate future, especially with rookie Lauri Markkanen having to go against Spurs power forward LaMarcus Aldridge in the home opener Saturday night.

“That’s the biggest thing we have to do as far as preparing until we get our guys back, is throwing different lineups out there and hopefully getting better with our execution,” Hoiberg said.

Justin Holiday admitted that things aren’t normal, saying the actual games to start the season won’t serve as a welcome distraction because this isn’t something that can just be treated trivially.

He wouldn’t venture into getting into his teammates’ head, saying “Bobby came into today like Bobby. We’re not quite sure what he’s thinking mentally. We can’t assume that.”

But one thing that can’t be assumed is a sweeping under or pretending.

“I mean I don’t necessarily think this is a situation for us to get past,” Holiday said. “I think it’s a situation that obviously (needs) to be brought to the forefront. It’s a situation that needs to be taken care of for those two to be able to come together and be brothers again. I don’t think we’re trying to get past it.”

Holiday has been a leader during this early time, so his words and definitive tone were noticeable.

“They say sometimes you need time to heal,” Holiday said. “Again, we have to think about both situations in this. One guy is trying to get back healthy. And again, I don’t know. I wish I did. I wish we could just fix this the right way, but that’s not the case.”

It’s complicated all around, with no real precedent.

For Hoiberg, his handling has two faces. Since Portis is able to practice but has to sit out seven more games on a team-mandated suspension, he has to walk the line of incorporating Portis in daily drills and activities but also has to prepare a team that wasn’t prepared for two power forwards being out for an extended period.

That was on display Thursday as Quincy Pondexter likely played that position for the first time in his career, and it’s highly unlikely Paul Zipser practiced there at all with the depth the Bulls had until now.

“We have to get our guys ready to play positions that they haven’t played,” Hoiberg said. “We’re getting them in here early. We’re getting a group in to work on our execution. Quincy not only hasn’t played in two and a half years but I don’t know if he has ever played the 4.

“You just have to do the best with what you have.”

Emotional return to the court for Quincy Pondexter after missing two seasons: 'The journey is worth it'

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USA TODAY

Emotional return to the court for Quincy Pondexter after missing two seasons: 'The journey is worth it'

Quincy Pondexter’s trade to Chicago makes him a newcomer. His birth certificate makes him a veteran. But it’s his story that makes him worth listening to.

Even in the eye of team chaos, Pondexter’s debut with the Bulls had such a special meaning that when he entered the game to start the second quarter, he thought he would come to tears.

Having been out of basketball the last two years after knee surgeries went bad, Pondexter came close to dying in a New York hospital in January when his organs began to fail after a MRSA infection.

Catching MRSA can often lead to death.

“It wasn’t looking good,” Pondexter said. “It was tough. I prayed. My family was there close to me. Being able to play basketball again in less than a year is crazy. It’s all God. This journey has been amazing.”

His journey took him from being in New Orleans, where his knee troubles started, to being an addition to the Bulls in a trade months ago when the Bulls picked up cash and a second-round pick from the Pelicans.

Pondexter joined high school teammate and close friend Robin Lopez on a team needing some leadership, and due to the punch Bobby Portis threw to Nikola Mirotic Tuesday afternoon, it put Pondexter in position to get on the floor as a backup power forward behind rookie Lauri Markkanen.

If the Bulls were smart, they’d probably put Pondexter in a room to talk to his teammates about his struggles, especially the two teammates who may have to share the same floor in several weeks.

“The competitive nature of our team has been really terrific and we wouldn't want to trade that for anything,” Pondexter said. “It hurts those two guys aren't here right now. But we love them and we love what they brought to this team.

“I think my age on my ID solidifies me as one of the veterans. When you do things the right way, that's what it means to be a veteran. Show up first, last one there. That's what it means to be a veteran. Establishing myself there and doing things that are right, the guys have followed and listened and embraced me and I love it.”

No word on whether Pondexter got teary-eyed when he got a breakaway steal and dunk for his first points since the 2015 playoffs, when the Pelicans were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the eventual champion Warriors.

“I know I’m going to get emotional on the court later on and probably tear up,” Pondexter said after the morning shootaround. “I told Robin that a thousand times. People don’t know what you’ve been through. There are a lot of times they’re not there besides your close family and friends. I appreciate them carrying me through this whole process.”

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg can relate to Pondexter, with Hoiberg’s heart ailment cutting his career short. When the Bulls coach speaks about the frailty of the game and how precious things are in the NBA, Pondexter is living, breathing proof.

“I’m really really happy for Quincy. For a time there, his life was in danger with his infection. I know he’s really excited to get his career going again,” Hoiberg said. “I never got that opportunity to get back out there. I tell these guys to cherish it ever day. You never know when it can end. All of a sudden. For Quincy to get this chance, it’s awesome.”

Pondexter, with the straightest of faces, called basketball his “obsession” and he felt happy to get back on the floor, if even for a few minutes.

“I love it to death. It’s my life,” Pondexter said. “Basketball is what got me through it---my family and basketball. It was like, ‘How can I make this story even better? Do I quit?’ No. I watched so many inspirational movies, 'Hacksaw Ridge.' They get you through tough times because you say, ‘That’s going to be me.’ I’m going to be able to inspire someone down the road. That’s really helped me.”

A hamstring injury slowed Pondexter in training camp, which would explain his lack of explosive lift in the season opener.

No one was really sure if the Bulls would hold onto him for the season, but it’s clear he holds value beyond the box score. When he finished his media session, Lopez turned to Pondexter and said, “Now you’re stuck with me”, putting his arm around his teammate.

“Being able to play after two and a half years, it feels like hundreds of surgeries, getting traded to this organization. It's been a lot,” Pondexter said. “I wouldn't trade any of that for this moment right now and how I feel in my heart. I can't wait to get on this floor and play with my teammates and try to do something special. The journey is worth it.”