Bulls

This NBA preseason unlike any other

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This NBA preseason unlike any other

I tried to put on a brave face during the NBA lockout, maintaining my enthusiasm for college and high school basketball. It's real, my passion for the amateur level of the game, but starting Friday evening, I woke up to reality.

It was one thing for the lockout to end -- interrupting my Thanksgiving weekend, something taken for granted when you're in a faraway city like Denver for the holiday -- and for players to come in for voluntary workouts and training camp to begin, let alone a hectic period of free agency and trades. But when the Bulls played the Pacers in Indianapolis in the preseason opener Friday, something clicked.

The NBA was really back. Attending shootaround at Conseco Fieldhouse that morning was fine, nothing amazing, but again sitting courtside, watching Derrick Rose slashing to the basket, Taj Gibson sparking the team with high-energy play off the bench, rookie Jimmy Butler starting his professional career with a flourish and evaluating the rival Pacers, it felt different than any other preseason.

Before I started covering the Bulls, preseason games were something to be taken with a grain of salt as players knocked off the rust, rookies adjusted to the league and veteran stars mostly sat on the sidelines. As a full-time beat reporter, they're typically considered more of a necessary evil before the games that really matter commence.

But this time around, there's an aspect of feeling grateful to be able to dissect the minutiae of the sport from the perspective of watching actual games. Forget the quality of play early in the season; media, fans and players -- to a man, every player I've encountered spoke of "just being happy to be playing basketball again," and based on the fact that they seem less weary of the media as a whole, it seems pretty accurate -- alike are just happy to watch basketball at the highest level, whether in person or on television, now that seeing NBA highlights before bed can finally be part of a daily routine again.

There was plenty of talk about whether fans had become apathetic during the lockout, whether they'd be resentful at both the league and players, and although I'm a writer, I'm also a fan, so I can absolutely understand if some people feel that way. From a purely selfish standpoint, though, I'll just say this: NBA exhibition games are ultimately meaningless, but they certainly beat covering labor negotiations.

Three Things to Watch: Bulls-76ers

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Bulls-76ers

The Bulls square off against the Sixers tonight on NBC Sports Chicago, with coverage beginning at 6:30 with Bulls Pregame Live. Here are three things to watch as the Bulls begin the stretch run of their regular season.

1. The new rotation: Most of the Bulls’ rotation looks the same, but the addition of David Nwaba, Cristiano Felicio and Cameron Payne will have a different feel. The Bulls clearly want to get a look at these guys before the end of the regular season, meaning they’re not just going to get sporadic minutes. They’ll have to play through their mistakes, play out-matched at times and be put in uncomfortable situations. But the Bulls need to see what they have, especially in Payne, who has missed the entire season to this point with a broken foot.

2. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons: They’re quite the 1-2 punch and have the Sixers looking at their first playoff appearance since Derrick Rose hadn’t yet torn an ACL. Yeah, that’s a long time. Embiid just finished his first All-Star appearance (starting in his second year) and Simmons is the front runner for Rookie of the Year. The Bulls will have their hands full with these two. Luckily…

3. Kris Dunn is back: The Bulls wanted to get Dunn some run before heading to All-Star Weekend to play in the Rising Stars Challenge, and he looked healthy in that thumping against the Raptors last week. The good news is John Paxson says Dunn won’t be on a minutes limit, which means he’s healthy. That, of course, is more important than how he’s playing. It’ll be fun to see him, LaVine and Markkanen play together down the stretch. Their numbers together aren’t great, but the Bulls are 2-2 with all three in the lineup, and tanking or not…it’s more fun to watch when those three are rolling. 

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Of Bulls and Blackhawks, which team will finish with higher draft pick?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Of Bulls and Blackhawks, which team will finish with higher draft pick?

On the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast, Patrick Finley (Chicago Sun-Times), Hub Arkush (ProFootball Weekly) and Jason Goch (SB Nation) join Kap on the panel.

The guys debate which team will finish with a higher draft pick when the season ends: Bulls or Blackhawks?

Plus, hear their reaction to the MLB’s new pace-of-play rule change.

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live Podcast right here: