Punchless Bulls can't break Hawks' spell as winning streak ends


Punchless Bulls can't break Hawks' spell as winning streak ends

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Hawks have arguably been the most disappointing team in the NBA, but for whatever reason they have cast a spell over these Bulls.

Three games, three double-digit losses they’ve dealt the Bulls this season, and their 103-88 win Friday at Philips Arena broke a three-way tie for fifth place in the East, as the Bulls entered the evening percentage points ahead of the Hawks. But their usual bugaboo appeared, as it usually does in this matchup.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg warned his team of the Hawks’ trapping and aggressive defense, as the Bulls played hot potato in the first two matchups. It led to 21 turnovers this time, a familiar number and a big no-no considering all the impact players the Bulls were without.

“With the amount of games coming our way, everybody’s one or two games out of a seed, we’re jockeying for position,” Taj Gibson said. “We dropped the ball tonight.”

Derrick Rose was out for the second straight game with hamstring tendinitis, and Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic were already out, with their returns still sometime away.

Doug McDermott scored 20 points, continuing his strong play, and Pau Gasol scored 16 points with 17 rebounds, but the Bulls were downright ineffective offensively, shooting 36 percent as only the first quarter featured a period in which the Bulls shot better than 40 percent.

“Right from the beginning they out-muscled us,” Hoiberg said. “I don’t get it. Three games we made a lot of progress but took a step back today. That’s all we talked about for two days was taking care of the ball. You don’t give yourself a chance to win. Too careless.”

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Luckily for the Bulls early, the Hawks were just as anemic offensively and twice as stubborn — an attribute they could afford to have given they weren’t without their main weapons.

“The problem was we were 1-for-10 (from 3-point range) in that stretch, they were 2-for-20,” Hoiberg noted. “We came back, we had a wide open shot to cut it to five at the end of the third quarter. We didn’t make it. It’s all about, they were the aggressors tonight.”

Though the final score was lopsided, it was more a byproduct of the Hawks pulling away late in the fourth quarter than the Bulls getting blown out of the building — but to be fair, the Bulls never made the Hawks do much more than sweat in the fourth.

“We didn’t get off to a good start with a lot of energy,” McDermott said. “They scored 27 off (turnovers), that’s the game right there.”

Bobby Portis’ jumper pulled the Bulls to within nine with 9:48 left, but that was about it as the Hawks overcame their 2-for-20 start from behind the 3-point line to dispose of the Bulls and their three-game winning streak.

“They were getting their hands on the ball, they were tougher with the ball,” Hoiberg said, as the Hawks only had 11 turnovers.

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The Bulls out-rebounded the Hawks, 49-48, but the key rebounds and possessions that could’ve swung precious momentum went the Hawks’ way.

“I feel we have a strong shot right now, we’re playing on a short deck,” said Gibson, who scored 11 with seven rebounds. “That’s another team we’re jockeying for playoff position with. We understand it’s a letdown tonight, it’s another one tomorrow. Once we play tomorrow, we move forward.”

Jeff Teague scored 19 with nine assists, while Al Horford scored 18 and Kent Bazemore scored 17 with seven rebounds — the biggest culprit of the Hawks’ terrible shooting, going 1-for-8 from 3.

While the win against Washington was an affair in which everyone could say they made positive contributions, the same couldn’t be said Friday night, as only McDermott and Gasol were in double figures until midway through the fourth quarter — and the high-scoring Bulls had just 76 points.

Ugly early, the Hawks took a 15-point lead before the Bulls went on a 15-7 run to close the first half.

Shooting wasn’t either team’s forte, but the Bulls’ margin for error left winning to be an impossible option as they scramble back home hoping this isn’t a first-round playoff matchup.

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

MINNEAPOLIS—The applause was thunderous on the welcome back for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, two Timberwolves draft picks sent away when the chance to acquire Jimmy Butler came along.

But some of the air was taken out the Target Center due to the absence of Jimmy Butler, who’ll miss the next several weeks after deciding to have surgery on his right meniscus following an injury Friday night.

So while there was no rematch of the thrilling contest the two teams had in Chicago, some things were very much the same.

Lauri Markkanen’s struggles continued.

LaVine showed more flashes of his complete game and Dunn had a couple moments of his own.

And on the other side, Tom Thibodeau kept his starters in the game with victory secured and his team up 20 points in the Timberwolves’ 122-104 win over the Bulls Saturday night.

The Timberwolves broke the game open in the fourth quarter with some key shot-making from veteran Jamal Crawford, as he was one point short of the Timberwolves having four 20-point scorers on the night.

Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combined for 70 points in their first game of many without Butler.

LaVine was a main reason the Bulls stayed afloat in the first 36 minutes, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game back in front of the Minneapolis crowd he spent his first few years playing for.

Going head-up with his former teammate Wiggins for a stretch, the two seemed to relish their practice matchups. Wiggins was doing a lot of pure scoring while LaVine seemed to enjoy probing the defense and making plays for teammates, taking more of a ballhandling role as opposed to floating around the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

“He’s doing a much better job not settling for tough shots,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s attacking the basket much better than he was. You can just see him getting his legs, getting more comfortable. It was good to see him as a playmaker, he was terrific.”

Perhaps the Bulls are unlocking something with LaVine, getting him the ball in different places and on the move, where he made some nifty passes in traffic, exercising patience and maturity.

“I liked it. Hopefully we get a little bit more of it,” LaVine said. “But it’s working. Should’ve stuck to it.”

They didn’t, as the Bulls didn’t look as organized as they have previously. Dunn looked extremely motivated and aggressive but it seemed to work against him at times as Teague took advantage of Dunn being too quick for his own good. So hyped up, Dunn blew a breakaway dunk in the first half, but luckily Nwaba was right behind him for a putback.

That type of energy was expected for Dunn and LaVine, maybe even moreso for Dunn considering his underwhelming rookie year where he didn’t get much chance to play as a top-five pick.

Dunn finished with 10 points on four of 12 shooting while Cameron Payne scored 11  in 19 minutes, but the decision making from both point guards left plenty to be desired—which is to be expected given the lack of veterans on the floor.

Their starting unit again struggled as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez again sat as the evaluation of the younger players continued.

Cristiano Felicio had a better outing than his foul-plagued game against Philadelphia, scoring 11 points but had his hands full on the other end. David Nwaba impressed for the second straight game as a starter, getting in the open floor to force the action, scoring 14 with nine rebounds in 34 minutes.

“The second quarter, I thought, was one of our better quarters of the year,” Hoiberg said. “As bad as we played in the first quarter, I thought we were down 20. We just didn’t sustain it. Against a great team like that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Nwaba, along with Bobby Portis, was a big reason why the Timberwolves couldn’t run away from the Bulls until well into the fourth quarter, even after taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sending Hoiberg scrambling for early timeouts.

“You can expect it because you haven’t played with that group before,” LaVine said. “We’re gonna get that chemistry down. We (only) had a couple practices with that lineup.”

Whether it’s the lineup change or just the rookie blues, the year has clearly caught up with Markkanen, who only made one field goal in 32 minutes.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Markkanen has gone one-for-eight in each game coming from the All-Star break and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

MINNEAPOLIS — That feeling of having your knee buckle out of nowhere, Zach LaVine is all-too familiar with it.

That feeling of being on the sidelines and watching Jimmy Butler’s knee give out, Fred Hoiberg has been there, too.

Different perspectives, and different reactions but Butler’s knee injury produced a sick feeling to many who watched it Friday night. Butler turned to pivot in the Timberwolves’ game against the Houston Rockets and immediately collapsed on the floor, having to be carried off.

LaVine tore his ACL in Detroit over a year ago, while it was revealed Butler suffered a right meniscus injury. But it looked all the same and LaVine understood the uncertainty Butler must’ve been feeling before the MRI revealed it wasn’t an ACL injury.

“It’s scary,” LaVine said following morning shootaround at the Target Center Saturday afternoon. “I wish him the best. You don’t want to see that happen to anybody. Especially a player of his caliber and what he’s done for the team.”

When LaVine injured his ACL, he actually played a few more minutes before being removed and going to the locker room. The time between being evaluated by doctors and them coming back feels like a lifetime.

“It’s scary. You know you hurt yourself, you don’t know how bad,” LaVine said. “You think you’re good, you’re a tough minded person trying to get through it.”

“I saw him on the ground trying to get up, (Rockets guard) Chris Paul made him sit down. Jimmy’s a tough dude. Thoughts and prayers going out to him.”

Butler and LaVine were the centerpieces of the draft day trade involving the Bulls and Timberwolves. With Butler suffering the injury the night before playing his former team a second time, the timing produced a bunch of memories.

In Hoiberg’s first year with the Bulls, Butler went down in a somewhat similar manner in Denver, a non-contact injury. It looked just as bad, and Butler was taken off the floor in a wheelchair.

Thankfully it was a right knee strain that cost him several weeks but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Considering the minutes he’s played over the last few years, Hoiberg was asked if Butler pushes himself too hard to be on the floor.

“Jimmy he wants to be out there,” Hoiberg said. “I remember the first year in Denver, he went down with what looked to be a serious injury. Thankfully he was back on the floor after 15-16 games.”

Actually, Butler missed 11 consecutive games before coming back for a nationally-televised game against the Rockets, playing 34 minutes in a Bulls win and missing the next three games for recovery.

“We really worried when he went down but it wasn’t something that ended his season,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy’s a worker. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. It’s a huge reason for the type of player he is, that work ethic to make him one of the elite players in the league.”