It's not panic time for the Bulls, but warning signs all around


It's not panic time for the Bulls, but warning signs all around

It’s certainly not the time for the Bulls to panic, even after another home loss that should be deemed inexcusable, which occurred two nights after another inexcusable home loss.

But still, while it’s not time to take a trip down Panic Street, they are nearing the intersection of extreme concern and panic at this point in the season, one which can shouldn’t be called “early” any longer.

One can seek solace in the fact that the Eastern Conference is a tightly-wound group, that the difference from being a top seed to being lottery-bound is two games. In a sense, the season is young with more than three quarters left to determine playoff positioning and such.

But it’s not early to see which teams are developing certain identities, hallmarks in select instances that will let you know which direction they’re trending even before the record bears it out.

“Hell, you either got it or you don’t. Right now we don’t have it,” said Jimmy Butler when asked about a killer instinct, something that hasn’t been present the last two years.

[RELATED: Hoiberg admits Bulls 'have yet to find' killer instinct to close out teams]

The Bulls, unfortunately, are becoming known for patterns that inevitably will be increasingly hard to shake as time goes on. At some point, blown leads will become as much a part of their DNA as their once fortress-like defense.

Or maybe it already has.

Teams, no matter if it’s the San Antonio Spurs or the Philadelphia 76ers, will know no lead is safe, no job too insurmountable on a given night because the Bulls don’t have the mental concentration in them to handle their business over 48 minutes.

“I really don’t know. That’s tough,” Butler said. “I think we got complacent, thinking they were going to lay down. In this league, that never happens.”

One wonders if the Bulls have too much freedom after years of the iron-fisted Tom Thibodeau, and now don’t know what to do with themselves with the new free-flowing offensive system employed by Fred Hoiberg.

“We’re still learning each other,” Taj Gibson said. “We believe in ourselves and Fred. We just have to get some things right.”

It was surprising to see Nikola Mirotic in the game late against Phoenix, as Hoiberg wanted his offense in the game for a two-for-one situation, as well as Mirotic being a +11 overall, second to Tony Snell.

But it backfired a bit when Mirotic had a weak dribble and turnover when Hoiberg began subbing offense for defense and vice-versa, which left Gibson on the bench for the final play when Mirza Teletovic crashed the offensive glass for the winning play.

“(We have to) Want to win games more than anybody else,” Butler said. “You have to have that mentality that no matter what, you continue to build on leads.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

They scored better and defended better last year, though that’s an 82-game sample size, and that was with Mike Dunleavy on the floor, so it’s only worth but so much.

But Wednesday’s opponent, the Boston Celtics, don’t seem to have a better personnel group than the Bulls, yet average over 103 points a game and the Bulls, who expected to be the offensive-minded unit, are second to only the Miami Heat in terms of fewest points scored per game (98.8) amongst the top eight teams in the East.

At a point differential of +0.6, the Bulls have the lowest margin for victory of the top eight, which could change over 24 hours given the jumbled nature of the top 10.

And while their early-season shellacking they took against the Hornets played a part in that statistic, they hit the 76ers with a 23-point win that evened things out. In other words, the Bulls are playing far too many close games so far.

In fact, eight of them have been decided by five points or fewer, and although the Bulls are 6-2 in those games it’s been very rare occasions where they’ve walked away saying they executed down the stretch, particularly on offense.

Last season, the Bulls played just 19 games decided by five points or less and went 12-7, so for all their struggles a year ago, they put teams away better than they’re doing now.

There’s a school of thought that these heartbreaking losses will harden this bunch into learning they can’t take teams or moments for granted.

But didn’t they supposedly learn that lesson in last spring’s playoffs?

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie


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.”

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

This is part of a four-part series looking back at the historic career of Michael Jordan and the legacy he left on the game of basketball. It all leads up to Saturday when we unveil his top 5 moments on his 55th birthday. Here are 55-4544-23, and 22-6.

5. Jordan wins fourth title and finishes greatest individual season ever, June 16, 1996

It’s hard to comprehend just how much Jordan accomplished during the 1995-96 season. We’ll try:He won his fourth championship, was named NBA Finals MVP for a record fourth time, won All-Star Game MVP, won a record 72 games, was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, was the league’s leading scorer and became the Bulls’ all-time leader in games played. So when he dropped a casual 22 points in Game 6, it marked the end of one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Oh, and Space Jam came out a few months later.
4. Jordan hits six triples, scores 35 points in first half against Blazers, June 3, 1992

During the 1991-92 regular season, Jordan never made more than three 3-pointers in a single game. In fact, the most 3-pointers he had in any two-game stretch that year was four. So when he began burying triple after triple in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, even Jordan couldn’t believe it, giving a shrug toward the NBC announcers as if to say, “I don’t know, either.” Jordan finished the first half with six triples and scored an NBA-record 35 points. The Bulls cruised in the second half, so Jordan finished with only 39, but his shrug remains one of the most iconic NBA Finals moments in history.
3. Jordan battles the flu, scores 38 in Game 5 on his way to fifth title, June 11, 1997

The Flu Game. Jordan was battling a nasty illness in the lead-up to a pivotal Game 5 in Utah, and there were concerns about whether he would even suit up. Hours before tip Jordan got out of bed and made his way to the arena, looking to halt Utah’s momentum after it had taken Games 3 and 4 to tie the series. The Jazz came out red-hot while Jordan looked sluggish, but he responded with 17 points in the second quarter alone to give the Bulls a halftime lead. Jordan then keyed a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a Jazz lead, and he hit a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left to give the Bulls a three-point lead. The Bulls hung on, and Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen’s arms walking off the floor. His final line? 38 points, 13 of 27 shooting, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. Two days later the Bulls won the title in front of a sellout Chicago crowd.

2. Jordan scores 63 points against Celtics in playoff loss, April 20, 1986

Jordan had just turned 23 years old when he took to the Boston Garden floor to face Larry Bird in his prime and the Celtics. These Celtics had gone 40-1 at home, led the NBA in field goal percentage defense, started FOUR future Hall of Famers and had a fifth come off the bench. They would ultimately go down as one of the all-time greatest teams, and Jordan made them look absolutely silly. He played 50 minutes in the double-overtime thriller, shooting 22 of 41 from the field and making 19 of 21 free throws, including the last two with no time on the clock and the Bulls trailing by two at the end of regulation. He scored 54 in regulation, added five in the first overtime and four in the second. He also led the Bulls with six assists. It still stands as the NBA record for most points in any playoff game. Twenty-three years old. Twenty. Three.

1. Jordan scores 45 in final game with the Bulls, securing sixth championship, June 14, 1998

Jordan’s final game with the Bulls was iconic. Like so many of these moments, die hards know exactly where they were. The 45 points were majestic, and while he only had one rebound and one assist he affected just about every possession on both ends. But what we’ll remember most is the final 37 seconds. Jordan drove to the basket for layup that cut Utah’s lead to one, then stripped Karl Malone from behind on the next trip down. That gave the ball back to the Bulls with 20 seconds left. Jordan let the clock tick down to around 9 seconds before making his move from the left wing, driving right on Bryon Russell, (maybe pushing off) and pulling up for a jumper at the foul line. The shot was good with 5.2 seconds remaining, and John Stockton’s ensuing 3-pointer was off the mark. It gave Jordan and the Bulls their sixth NBA title, and marked the perfect ending to his Bulls career: getting it done on both ends, in the clutch, and finishing with a victory. Because it encapsulated so much of his 14-year career in Chicago, it’s our top Michael Jordan moment.