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Hoiberg challenges fading Bulls to 'find ourselves' during break

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Hoiberg challenges fading Bulls to 'find ourselves' during break

The Bulls' problems began rather quietly.

Following a season-best six-game win streak that had vaulted them just 2 1/2 games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Bulls traveled to Atlanta on Jan. 8 and were demolished in a 120-105 loss. Not much cause for concern, facing a quality opponent on the road after playing five of six at home, more problems crept up in losses to Washington and Milwaukee. The Bulls then needed a Jordan-esque performance from Jimmy Butler to beat the 4-36 Sixers, when a sense of trouble began.

Road wins against Detroit and Cleveland quieted critics temporarily, but Wednesday night's loss — again to Atlanta — produced what Derrick Rose admitted was the low point for the Bulls in this roller coaster of a season; a roller coaster featuring far more downs than ups of late, as the Bulls have now lost 13 of 18 games and are teetering near .500 for the first time since early November.

Head coach Fred Hoiberg, who admitted the first game back home after a lengthy road trip is "the hardest game you're going to play all year," wouldn't make excuses for his team after a 113-90 loss, the seventh straight game an opponent has topped the century mark. A difficult game, but for the Bulls it might have also been the most important to date.

Struggles during an odd road trip that had them in Los Angeles for four days, playing an always-difficult Denver game followed by four games in four different time zones in a six-day span might have been expected. Especially while dealing with injuries to three key players, including their All-Star shooting guard the final two-and-a-half games.

But Wednesday night was a chance for the Bulls earn a victory over an opponent with a winning record for the first time since Jan. 25, win at the United Center for the first time since Jan. 15 and snap a three-game losing streak. Doing so would have given the Bulls a glimmer of momentum heading into a period where they won't play again for eight days.

[MORE BULLS: Disastrous third quarter dooms Bulls in fourth straight loss]

Instead, as Hoiberg remarked, the Bulls got satisfied with a break in sight and, as many teams are guilty of doing, looked ahead to the hiatus.

"It’s almost when the tough times hit our guys we're satisfied with, ‘Oh well, we’ve got the break coming up,'" Hoiberg said after the loss. "And as a team we’ve got to find ourselves. I challenged them to whatever they’ve got to do over the break, look themselves in the mirror, find a way to get committed to this thing and go on a run. And that’s all we can do right now, is look forward."

Looking forward, the Bulls are still dealing with real injury concerns. Butler will miss the next three to four weeks, Nikola Mirotic is only just standing upright after an appendectomy, and Joakim Noah likely has played his final game with the Bulls. Even Taj Gibson got banged up Wednesday night.

But Rose is playing the best basketball of his post-ACL-tear career, his 6-for-18 shooting performance against the Hawks notwithstanding. Pau Gasol, 35, was named to his second straight All-Star Game in place of the injured Butler, and he went for 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in Wednesday's loss, his 12th double-double with five or more assists; that trails only Draymond Green (16) and Russell Westbrook (13).

E'Twaun Moore is putting up career-best numbers in an extended role the past two weeks, Doug McDermott is shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc — he scored 17 points against the Hawks — and Mike Dunleavy is rounding into form after offseason back surgery. In other words, as Gibson described it:

"We have more than enough to win. We used to win games with less than this," said the power forward, who himself has averaged 9.0 points and 8.1 rebounds since Jan. 1. "It’s our mental. It’s extremely frustrating, and it hurts my heart.

"I can't seem to put a finger on it. It's frustrating. I try to tell guys, we’ve got to get back to playing for each other. Leave your heart out there and leave it on the line."

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Gasol echoed the sentiments of his coach, saying the All-Star break will give the Bulls a chance to recharge and figure out how they're going to play better basketball. Since Jan. 8, the Bulls have had the fifth least efficient offense and ninth worst defense. That's combined for a net rating of minus-7.3 points per 100 possessions; that mark is fourth worst in the NBA, behind only the Suns, Lakers and Nets, who are a combined 39-128 this season.

"I think we can be a lot better than what we are, and hopefully this break helps us understand where we are, reflect on what we can do better, what it means to — from an individual standpoint — change for us to perform at a better level and win games.

"Understanding that we’ve gone through a difficult stretch, but at the same time there’s 30 games left and we can make a really good push and a really good run. And that’s what we’re going to do. That’s my mindset."

The issue for the Bulls, however, is that the road doesn't get any easier. On their losing skid they've played seven teams with below-.500 records. They'll begin the second half of the season in Cleveland, playing a Cavs team that has won eight of 10 since Tyronn Lue's head coaching debut. The following night they host the Raptors, arguably the East's hottest team.

Now just one game in front of the ninth-seeded Pistons, the Bulls will use the All-Star break to rest bumps and bruises, reduce the timetables of those still injured and figure out how they'll dictate the rest of a season that appears to be fading fast.

"The biggest thing is we have to get back to playing winning basketball. It has to be a sacrifice. You have to give everything you can to help this team win," Hoiberg said. "All the little things. That's what it's about right now."

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

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AP

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

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USA TODAY

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.”