Bulls

International-born players leading Bulls charge

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International-born players leading Bulls charge

Sunday, March 20, 2011Posted: 11:00 AM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

If the playoffs started todayapologies in advance for utilizing one of the most overused phrases this time of the yearthe Eastern Conference-leading Bulls first-round opponent would be Fridays foe, the Pacers. Indiana, which ended the Bulls' eight-game winning streak with Fridays overtime win at Conseco Fieldhouse, initially surged upon the dismissal of Jim OBrien and promotion of young assistant Frank Vogel. They then hit a downturn before recently bouncing back behind the improved play of young building blocks Tyler Hansbrough, Roy Hibbert and Darren Collison.

All-Star point guard Derrick Rose doesnt take Indiana lightly, as he remembers the challengesand motivationof being a team fighting for the eighth seed in the postseason, as the Bulls did his first two seasons in the league. These days, the Bulls are the hunted instead of the hunter and as such, are experiencing being a team with a big target on its back.

Its been fun, but at the same time, its kind of hard," Rose said. "Its even harder because youre trying to get in position in the playoffs. You want to get a better seed, of coursebut youre playing against teams that are playing just to get a spot, so you see how hard theyre playing.

Remembering from last year, we were playing pretty hard towards the end, just trying to make it and it took us until the last game.

Despite Fridays loss, one reason the Bulls wont fold, however, is Roses improved leadership. Much has been made of his jumper and defense, including his shut-down job against fellow elite floor general Deron Williams in the Bulls Thursday win at New Jersey, but the soft-spoken 22-year-old is also becoming noticeably more vocal on the court.

I just feel more comfortable, thats the biggest thing. Im able to talk to my guys, no matter what its about. If its on the court, they know if I talk to them or yell at them, its nothing serious. Its just that were trying to win a game and its basketball. People are going to yell at you in basketball, so dont take it seriously. Im fortunate to have these bunch of guys. They dont complain about anything. They just want to hoop, explained Rose, who scored a career-high-tying 42 points before fouling out in Fridays extra session. In games, in situations, it takes a while, but you just get that feeling from teammates, when they come to you about certain things, ask you about certain things. It just happens.

Asiks progress not drawing surprise

While Rose has become more confident in himself, he also continues to develop more trust in his teammates, including rookie center Omer Asik. The 7-foot native of Turkey rang up 11 points and a career-high 16 rebounds in the Nets win, leading his peers to gush about his ongoing progress.

Thats almost every game with him," Rose praised. "To come in, get that many rebounds, get to the free-throw line, dunk a lot of balls, block shots, play defense. Thats what we need from him. He works hard, listens. Thats the biggest thing. To be a rookie, hes doing everything Coach wants him to do, especially to be a big and we need him on this team.

Added Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau: Were not afraid to play Joakim Noah and Asik together and I think thats the value of those guysall of them, all five post guysthey can all play with each other.

If you want more size out there, Omer can play with all of our other bigs. Taj Gibson can play with everybody. Taj can play the five. He has great feet, so when teams go small, we can stay big, he continued. Of course, the shot-blocking with Taj and Omer in the second unit. We have a lot of different things that we can do. The versatility of our bigs is a huge plus for us.

Thibodeau also quipped that Asiks so-called language barrier hasnt been a detriment to his development.

Its probably more challenging for you guys the media," the coach said. "With us, hes been fine. His teammates understand him, he understands us. Sometimes with criticism, he doesnt understand, but everything else, he understands. Hes serious, hes a diligent worker, very bright and now this is his second and third time through against some of these teams. He keeps learning, getting better, more confident. But hes come in with a defensive mindset from the start and he has great instincts.

While Asiks offense can appear raw at times, Thibodeau believes the rookie is making progress.

Asiks post moves are probably a little too fast, but youre probably starting to see his passing right now. Hes been a great screener, great offensive rebounder, very smart, he helps you execute, is comfortable away from the basket passing the ball, he sees things, he reads helps, plays are being defended, explained Thibodeau.

Asik is showing signs of the ability to be a starting-caliber NBA center sooner than later, giving the Bulls a terrific luxury, as Noah is already an upper-echelon player at the position and both 7-footers are still very young.

I think its just a matter of time before he gets more confident back to the basket," Thibodeau said. "Hes great on pick-and-rolls rolling to the basket. Right now in his post game, he has to slow down, just a little bit.

Sometimes hes trying to get into his move too quick and obviously, if its a paint catch, we want him to go quick, but if he catches outside the lane, we want him to be a little more patient. Let the cutters go through, then go to work and make plays. Itll come in time.

Starting center Noah is also appreciative of Asiks contributions to the squad. While hes working his way back into his old form, Noah feels confident that the teams legion of big menhimself, veteran Kurt Thomas, Asik, Gibson and currently sidelined power forward Carlos Boozercan help carry the load.

I dont feel Im playing my best, but I know that somebody can step in and play the way O Asik played," Noah said after Thursday's game. "Thats huge and Im just going to keep working and try to get back to 100 percent as soon as I can. I like playing with AsikI like playing with all our bigs and everybody brings something different to the table.

Weve got five bigs that are very solid rebounders. Booz went down, were still solid rebounding. When I went down, were still very solid rebounding. What Kurt Thomas and what Omer are bringing to the table is huge for us, what Taj is bringing to the table with his versatility.

Thats the beauty of this team," Noah continued. "Weve got a lot of weapons. Omers somebody who lives in the gym, improving. His confidence is getting better and better. Hes understanding how he can score in the offense. Hes playing at a really high level and we need that to do what we want to do.

Noah still regaining form
Although Noah admitted to not being 100 percent because of the flu-like symptoms that sidelined him for Tuesdays home victory over Washington, his trademark energy was still present in New Jersey, evidenced by his key tip-in down the stretch Thursday that helped hold off a Nets rally.

After Fridays loss, however, Noahlike Rose, who somehow believed that not only was his scoring effort not enough, but he came up short in the clutch after bringing the team back from a seemingly insurmountable deficitwas extraordinarily hard on himself, in light of his uncharacteristic three-rebound outing. At the same time, after playing in his second game without a bandage to protect the right thumb that caused him to miss 30 games following surgery, he did feel his under-appreciated shooting touch was returning.

My touch felt good. Im just feeling more and more comfortable out there the more I play. Im still a little sick right now, but the more I play, the more I get over this, the better Ill feel.

Noah also fessed up to something made obvious since the early days of the season: Thibodeaus defense and team-oriented mantras have rubbed off on the players, to the point that they parrot his philosophies when talking to the media.

Were doing the same things every day, so its almost becoming more routine. Thibs is preaching the same stuff and even when were doing interviews, I always end up saying what hes saying to us all the time and everybodys saying the same things, he revealed. Its funny, but you know what? Thibs, he knows what hes talking about and were listening.

Deng not distracted

The last of the Bulls' international-born playersoutside of Noah and AsikLuol Deng, has become the teams most consistent player, according to his teammates and coaches. The Sudanese product, who also spent some of his formative years in London before moving to New Jersey in high school, recently opined about how the NBAs pending Collective Bargaining Agreement could affect players, as many observers have speculated that a league lockout is almost a sure thing.

Deng, who scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against Indiana, told CSNChicago.com that he would consider playing overseas next season if a potential lockout was prolonged and it was permissible by NBA rules, although hes obviously focused on the current season at the moment.

I have no problem with it. Ive got to wait and see what the rules are, but growing up in Europe and playing in the summer in European competition, I have no problem doing that, but I dont want to do that. I want to stay right here and play. Well see how it goes. I might not be able to. It might be smart to just wait and see what happens, but at the same time, if it looks like its going to be a long timewhich we all hope its notIve got to see whats the rules, whats the options, what can you do and what can you not do because all of us want to be here and play, said Deng, who learned last week that his Great Britain national teamwhich may have former Bulls teammate Ben Gordon on boardhad qualified for the 2012 Olympics, to be held in London.

When that time comes, you go over it. Theres no point right now to be thinking about that. Youve got to be locked in this season and try to do what youve got to do. When its all over and done, when that time comes and youre in that situation, thats when you make that decision, but I havent even given it a thought at all. Really I just try to focus on what weve got here.

Still, the small forward, often described by Thibodeau as the teams glue, is more excited about the continuation of an already-exciting season with possibilities for much more down the line.

Were doing things that havent been done in a long time and I think we should be proud of that. I said it from the start of the year: We really worked hard in training camp and we still do. You deserve what you put in and we really put in the time. Were really committed to it and its just great to be a part of it.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Just as we all predicted, two rookies stole the show in L.A.

Just as we all predicted, two rookies stole the show in L.A.

There's not often hype surrounding a game between two of the NBA's worst teams, but Tuesday's Bulls-Lakers matchup was intriguing to many because it offered a chance to see a pair of top rookies compete. 

Oh, but you didn't think we meant Lonzo Ball and Lauri Markkanen, did you?

Nah, it was two different, less-touted first-year players that ended up stealing the spotlight at the Staples Center. 

Kyle Kuzma and Antonio Blakeney may not be household names, but they sure played like they were in the Bulls' 103-94 loss. 

Kuzma, the Lakers rook drafted 27th overall, has been a spark for Luke Walton's squad all season long. Boasting a terrific scoring arsenal, the Utah product carried the load for the Lakers' offense in the first half, dropping 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting. He finished the game as L.A.'s leading scorer with 22 in 40 minutes. But if you still need a more in-depth scouting report on Kuzma, just let Lonzo break it down:  

More importantly for Bulls fans, though, was the play of their undrafted guard who's signed to a two-way deal. 

Blakeney, the unofficial Summer League MVP, came off the bench on Tuesday and immediately left his mark on the game. The 21-year-old out of LSU posted 15 in the first half, finishing through contact as well as connecting on outside jumpers. 

Blakeney's shooting isn't reliable quite yet, but his energy has clearly influenced Hoiberg's rotation. The guard went from playing one NBA minute in the Bulls' first 11 games to playing 75 in the last four. Given that his two-way deal allows him to only spend 45 days with the team, it'll be fascinating to see how creative Gar Forman and John Paxson will get with his contract if this type of production continues. 

In a season that's obviously going to have its share of rough moments, an offseason flyer hitting is a huge plus for the rebuild. 

As for the recognized rookies, Lonzo's shooting woes persisted and Markkanen had maybe his worst offensive performance of his young Bulls career. Combined, they finished 7-for-30 with 21 points. Not ideal. 

Zach LaVine cleared for contact practice

Zach LaVine cleared for contact practice

The Zach LaVine comeback is one step closer as the shooting guard was cleared for contact practice after checking with his doctors in California. 

LaVine will go through a step by step process over the next few weeks and the Bulls will gauge his progress to see when the best time for his return will be. 

But, given the nine-month process from his ACL injury he suffered in February, he's right on track and there doesn't appear to be any setbacks. 

"There’s no real timeframe, I guess," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said at practice Monday. "It’s really going to be on how he feels. We’ll try to do a little more every day with him. We did a little bit, got him some light contact today just to get the process started.

"He’ll be able to play a little two-on-two with not a lot of practice time these next 10 days. But we’ll throw him out there and continue to try to get him feeling better. There’s going to be a mental hurdle that he’s going to have to clear as well. I know he’s excited. His teammates are excited and the coaches are obviously excited as well."

LaVine's recovery has gone as planned since his arrival in Chicago from the Jimmy Butler trade on draft night. Targeting a mid-December return seems realistic but of course, the Bulls will take every precaution to make sure he's healthy for the long term, both for LaVine and the franchise, as he's a restricted free agent this summer--and they have no plans on letting him walk. 

LaVine told NBC Sports Chicago recently that he wants to get on the floor immediately but the Bulls know they'll have to protect him from himself in the meantime. 

"He’s going to have to string together a lot of really good days, and he knows that," Hoiberg said. "He understands that. The important thing is he’s right on track from where it was said after the injury. He’s been doing a great job with his rehab. He’s on time. He’s doing everything that’s asked of him. His strength numbers are where they’re supposed to be. I’m confident he’s going to keep making progress. But we’ll absolutely monitor it daily and hopefully it’ll just continue to get better."

The Bulls aren't sure if they'll send LaVine to the G-League but it's certain they have plans on not only how to use him when he steps on the floor but also a regimen they've stuck to, to ensure there are no real setbacks. 

Hoiberg has been salivating over having a true scorer at that position since trading for him, and LaVine has been eager since his arrival to prove to the Bulls and fans that he is a franchise player. 

Prudence in the moment of progression, though, appears to be the approach taken by both sides.