Bulls

The Jimmy Butler-Isaiah Thomas matchup is tricky territory for the Bulls

The Jimmy Butler-Isaiah Thomas matchup is tricky territory for the Bulls

Even in a small ball world, big usually beats little in terms of elite talent, as evidenced by LeBron James besting Stephen Curry in the last three games of the NBA Finals last June.

So as the Bulls prepare to take on the Boston Celtics in their first-round playoff series, they know containing the ultimate “little” in this series may have to require a big of sorts for them to have a reasonable chance at an upset.

Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas is all of 5-foot-9, depending on the day of the week, and is constantly on the attack. If the NBA ranked the leading scorers in points per inch (height), Thomas would be at the top of the list but will have to settle for being behind Russell Westbrook and James Harden at 28.9 points per game.

Which means there will come a time where having Rajon Rondo or Jerian Grant or Michael Carter-Williams just won’t do for Fred Hoiberg, and he’ll have to call upon Jimmy Butler to shadow Thomas for stretches—probably in the fourth quarters assuming the games are close.

And considering Thomas trails only Westbrook in terms of fourth-quarter scoring at 9.8 points, you can bet Butler will have to chase Thomas around screens and have to deal with Thomas’ herky-jerky style as he often gets to places in the paint only he can fit in.

“Yeah, I look forward to that matchup,” Butler said at Bulls practice Friday, two days before the series opener at TD Garden Sunday night. “Especially what he’s done this year for that team. I know it’s going to come at some point and time. I don’t know when, I don’t know where, but you know, I’m going to make it tough for him.”

Avery Bradley, Al Horford and Jae Crowder are secondary scorers for the Celtics and all are capable of hurting the Bulls if left alone, but Thomas—like his namesake, Isiah—is the force that drives this Celtics team.

“We need to understand it’s a team problem, it’s not just the guy guarding him, it’s not just an individual assignment,” Hoiberg said. “He’s so good getting into the paint, getting downhill.”

Isiah Thomas, the Chicago native, disproved the “big beats little” theory for quite some time when his Pistons took on the Chicago Bulls in their heated playoff battles.

Stopping this Thomas is probably the biggest key to the Bulls pulling off an upset, although the Bulls have to be careful about running down Butler, as he likely carries too much of a burden on both ends as is.

“He’s a big part to what they do,” Butler said. “I think we all know that, I think they know that. But you can’t just take him out of the game and think you’re going to win. Nah, because they’ve got a lot of other really good players, role players, that make shots, that create for others, that guard, that rebound, pass the ball. They’ve got a really good team and they’re really good at what they do.”

When Butler was asked how long he could stay on Thomas, the uber-confident swingman said “the whole game”, but that doesn’t seem to be realistic considering he’ll be guarded by Crowder, Bradley and Marcus Smart—meaning he won’t catch a break at any point.

It’ll be incumbent on Hoiberg and the coaching staff to find a way to have a apt defender on Thomas without pressing the “in case of emergency, break open Jimmy” button.

And Butler, never one to shy away from a marquee matchup, may have to resist his competitive urges in going head-to-head—or chest-to-head in their case—for the betterment of the Bulls.

“I know other teammates that I have can guard him, that want to guard him, that look forward to that matchup just as much as I do,” Butler said. “Nobody is backing down from anybody on our side, and I’m sure they feel the same way on their side. So whoever is locked in on guarding him, guarding Jae [Crowder], guarding whoever it may be, like I always say, you win your matchup, you win the game.”

Rondo and Grant will have to keep Thomas busy on offense, exploiting Thomas being a defensive liability, as he’s one of the worst fourth-quarter defenders in terms of defensive rating.

“We do have a plan in place, but obviously you have to adjust if things are going in the wrong direction, but we do have a plan on how we are going to try to slow him down a little bit, which is obviously difficult to do,” Hoiberg said.

So the same way Thomas will run the 220-pound Butler through picks and strenuous off-ball movement, the Bulls will have to pound Thomas on the other end, making him work and perhaps making Celtics coach Brad Stevens adjust to what they’re doing.

But it does seem to the Bulls that if it comes down to big versus little, they’re happy with their 6-foot-7 wing late in games.

Zach LaVine not sweating contract extension, anxious to get back in uniform

zachlavinebulls.png
USA TODAY

Zach LaVine not sweating contract extension, anxious to get back in uniform

The Zach LaVine timeline for a Bulls debut remains the same, although he’s ahead of schedule in every metric of his return from ACL surgery this past February.

It doesn’t mean he isn’t angling for more work and pushing his limits to learn the offense he’ll be featured in, along with taking contact “here and there,” in his words. He’s supposed to wait nine months from the day of his February 14 surgery before taking contact, which would put him at a November 14 practice before the Bulls go to Oklahoma City.

“I should be doing contact really soon. It all depends on them,” LaVine said in his first public words since media day several weeks ago. “I’m pushing them as hard as I can, but at the end of the day we still gotta be careful. I feel great. I’m doing everything I was doing before. I’m pretty sure I can do contact, but we’ve got to stick to that schedule. But every day I’m just getting back, trying to as close to 100 percent as I can before I come back.”

LaVine was at Air Canada Centre getting a workout in before the Bulls opener against the Raptors and has gotten in heavy workouts on the off days with the assistant coaches in the meantime.

Sticking to the schedule will be on both LaVine and the Bulls, although both sides could be tempted to cut corners a bit. It would be human nature for the Bulls to show the NBA world their centerpiece from the Jimmy Butler trade on draft night, as well as LaVine to want to be the frontline player he feels he deserves to be.

“Yeah, it’s definitely hard. I don’t like missing games,” LaVine said. “Before the injury I didn’t really miss any games. I think I missed one or two in my career, so it really sucks just sitting there, not being able to help. I try to help as much as I can from the sideline. You know, give a little advice here and there, but yeah it hurts.”

He’s also in line for a big-time extension, having passed the deadline for extensions for players in his 2014 draft class. He’ll have to wait until the summer, especially since it didn’t make sense for him to extend unless it was a max deal.

“Obviously, I want to be here for a long time,” LaVine said. “And I feel the deal is going to get done, either then or next summer. I don’t have any fear in that. I think I know I’ll be in black and red for a little bit longer. I’m very happy and looking forward to that day as well. The main concern is just getting back on the court, get my legs ready and try to help the team as much as possible until then.”

LaVine was averaging a career-high 18.9 points as a third option behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, but will be featured in Fred Hoiberg’s offense as a first and maybe even second option, too—especially seeing how anemic the Bulls offense has looked in the first two games.

“With the team that we have and the system that (Fred Hoiberg) put in, we’re going to get up a lot of threes,” LaVine said. “When we’re on we’re going to blow some teams out with those threes. When we’re off, as the last couple games have shown, it’s going to be a struggle to score sometimes, but I think that’s where I can come in and help, and I can’t wait to get out there and start playing.”

Never lacking for confidence, LaVine hasn’t been deterred by the losing or even the unfortunate Bobby Portis-Nikola Mirotic incident from last week.

“We’re building something here. People understand we’re going through a little bit of that process,” LaVine said. “But we’re going to play and win. When I’m on the court, I’m trying to win. Wins and losses do happen. We can always take positives from both of those. That’s how you grow.”

As for Mirotic, LaVine hasn’t spoken to him but has sent texts—as it seems many of the Bulls have reached out to their teammate over the last several days.

“It was unfortunate. That’s what happens when two players are battling I guess,” LaVine said. “I don’t think either of them were in the wrong. It was just something that happened, an altercation. Men are men sometimes. We never should have that happen. But I think we’ve moved past it. Bobby’s in a good spot. We’ve all tried to contact Niko. I think we’ll all be able to move forward.”

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

Keeping the game simple is often a tough task for rookies entering the NBA, but it seems Lauri Markkanen has been a quick learner in that aspect.

Through two games he’s probably the lone bright spot, especially after the Bulls’ cringe-inducing 87-77 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in their home opener at the United Center.

Jumper not falling? Okay, go to the basket.

“It wasn’t falling so I tried to get to the rim a couple times,” Markkanen said. “At the end, I was like let’s do it and I connected on a 3-pointer, I felt more open just because I was at the rim. I think that helped.”

He was asked what the difference was in the second game of his career compared to the first.

“I mean the crowd was chanting for us (tonight),” Markkanen said, referring to Thursday in Toronto.

He wasn’t attempting to display any dry wit but applying common sense seems to work for him, even though he’s been thrust into a situation after an incident that doesn’t make any sense.

With Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic out for the foreseeable future, playing a game-high 37 minutes will be more common than anomaly.

“Whatever your minutes are, you gotta play them to the best of your ability,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s being allowed to play through some mistakes right now. He’s gonna play heavy minutes every night.”

He only shot five of 14 but achieved his first double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds after a 17-point, eight-rebound debut against the Raptors Thursday.

No, someone didn’t open a door for a draft to come into the United Center on that three-pointer that went wide left, but it didn’t stop him from being assertive and continuing to look for his shot.

There was plenty of muck, easy to see on the stat sheet. The 38 percent shooting overall, the lack of penetration, the 29 percent shooting from 3-point range and 20 turnovers.

It’s not hard to imagine what Markkanen will look like with competent and effective NBA players around him, along with a true facilitating point guard that will find him in this offense.

“Markkanen is a wonderful player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s aggressive, he’s smart and obviously, he can shoot the ball. He’s just going to get better and better as he figures things out.”

He received a crash course, facing the likes of Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay Saturday night. On one instance, Gay drove baseline and made Markkanen buckle with a 3-point play.

Aldridge had 24 shots in 32 minutes as a new focal point with Kawhi Leonard out with injury.

So he’s not getting treated with kid gloves, nor is he backing down from the assignments.

“He didn’t shoot the ball well but he battled,” Hoiberg said. “He had a tough assignment with Pau, who’s gonna be in the Hall of Fame one day. Good experience. He guarded Aldridge, Rudy Gay some. He battled, he fought them.”

Even with the airball, had the moment that gives the Bulls fans hope, when he drove on Gasol, spun and hooked a lefty layup while being fouled by the veteran in the first half—giving the United Center faithful something to have faith in for a moment.

“Sometimes you get labeled as a shooter. That’s the label Lauri had,” Hoiberg said. “But he really is a complete basketball player. He’s versatile, he can put in on the deck. He slides his feet very well for a guy that’s seven feet tall, someone his age. Yeah, he’s learning on the fly. He’s gonna have ups and downs, as young as he is. He’s gonna have some struggles at times. But he’s played pretty darn well for everything he’s been through, understanding two days ago he’s gonna be in the starting lineup.”

And for all the bad air around the Bulls right now, from the on-court product to the off-court drama that seems to follow them around like Pigpen, it would be even worse if Markkanen’s first two games had him looking like a corpse, or someone who would be a couple years away from reasonably contributing to an NBA team.

“He’s good, he’s very good,” Gasol said. “I like him. I like his game.”