The Bulls started slow but finished red-hot in their 113-109 victory over the Pelicans. It was an impressive way to open the preseason the slate on what expects to be a rebuilding year for a team littered with youth.
The Bulls will be right back at it tomorrow night against the Mavericks on NBC Sports Chicago, but before we get to that here are five takeaways from game No. 1.
1. The defense is going to struggle
This probably isn’t a news flash for anyone, but the Bulls defense is going to be very poor in 2017-18. The Pelicans scored 46 points on 70 percent shooting in the first quarter, getting every outside look they wanted and getting to the hole at will to draw fouls. True, the Pellies only shot 47 percent from the game and committed 16 turnovers, but there wasn't a lot to like on that end of the floor.
Of those few positives were Justin Holiday on the perimeter, Nikola Mirotic on the low block throwing his new body around, and Jerian Grant. Losing an All-NBA defender in Jimmy Butler was bound to hurt the Bulls' defense (that finished sixth in efficiency a year ago) but it might be worse than initially thought. Some of it is a product of putting more shooters on the floor; some of it is just not enough athleticism.
2. The Bulls are going to shoot a lot of 3-pointers
Preseason basketball is always a little more scattered than what regular season offensive sets look like. That being said, it’s clear the Bulls want to shoot 3-pointers early and often. With the Three Alphas and their ugly percentages gone, Fred Hoiberg can put lineups on the floor with four 3-point shooters. The Bulls shot a whopping 35 3-pointers in the win, with nine different players hoisting triples; to put that in perspective, last year they attempted 22.3 3-pointers per game.
They made 16 of those, which is certainly a positive sign, and got promising performances from deep from Denzel Valentine (4-for-7), Nikola Mirotic (3-for-8), Paul Zipser (2-for-3) and Jerian Grant (2-for-2). They did all that without Lauri Markkanen (and Zach LaVine), meaning even more 3-pointers could be on the way once he, and even Quincy Pondexter, returns.
3. Jerian Grant looks more comfortable than Kris Dunn
Jerian Grant said during the first week of training camp he was excited to have his first legitimate chance at earning a starting spot in the NBA. The deck is stacked against him given that his competition, Kris Dunn, was part of the Jimmy Butler trade that the Bulls need to have something to show for. But through one week (and now one game) it’s apparent Grant has the upper hand.
Grant finished with 11 points and nine assists, hit a pair of 3-pointers, grabbed a steal and finished an outstanding three-point play in the third quarter. He was a team-best +15 and had just one turnover in 20 minutes. Dunn, on the other hand, made a few careless turnovers (three in 22 minutes) and struggled defensively until late in the game in essentially mop-up time. His basketball savvy is apparent, and he has the size to compete, but he still hasn’t put it all together. He had 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting thanks to a late surge, and he added three assists. Dunn will start Wednesday against the Mavericks, but for now Grant looks like the answer at the point.
4. Justin Holiday is going to have take on a larger role than expected
At least until Zach LaVine returns, the best wing on the Bulls roster is Justin Holiday. Paul Zipser is going to contribute, and Antonio Blakeney has some solid potential. But it's Holiday that gives the Bulls their best two-way wing in a league where that's essential,
tanking rebuilding or not. Holiday looked the part in his first game back with the Bulls, scoring 14 points on 6-for-12 shooting, grabbing a game-high three steals and contributing elsewhere with three rebounds and four assists. Holiday is just a career 40 percent shooter, and he's averaging less than a free throw per game 203 career appearances. If he can improve on some of that efficiency in a larger role, it'd go a long way for the Bulls. Someone has to score, and someone has to guard the NBA's top wings. Holiday could do both.
5. Cris Felicio looks like he has improved once again
When's the last time you watched Cris Felicio play and he didn't look better than the previous outing? Good luck trying to figure that one out. Big Cris, fresh off signing a four-year, $32 million deal, scored a team-high 15 poiints, grabbed five rebounds and handed out two assists. He was 6-fot-8 from the field and made all three free throws. He cleaned up the glass, showed soft hands on pick and rolls and even knocked down a 15-footer late in a close game. His pick-and-roll defense was solid and he did as a good a job as could have been expected against a talented Pelicans frontcourt.
Robin Lopez still has the reins on the starting job, but it's probably in the Bulls' favor to find as many minutes for Felicio as possible. This may be getting a little too excited, but the Bulls may have found something for the future in Big Cris.