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Questions abound after Bulls loss in New Jersey

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Questions abound after Bulls loss in New Jersey

Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011
Posted 8:45 PM Updated 10:45 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

NEWARK, N.J.In a game that will be examined for its myriad subplotsfirst and foremost, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeaus decisions will be scrutinizedit came down to Chicago finally getting burned after playing with fire (as Thibodeau and All-Star point guard Derrick Rose each have quipped following too-close-for-comfort losses to inferior opponents) over the past few weeks. A reserve-led comeback and a typical Rose clutch performance wouldnt be enough to overcome a lackluster effort Wednesday night, as the Bulls (23-11) fell to the Nets (10-25), 96-94, in the two teams second matchup in less than a week.

After a better-than-usual start to the previous nights winalthough Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau wasnt entirely satisfiedChicago was once again lethargic to open a contest. Facing the inferior Nets for the second time in less than a week, the Bulls opponent appeared clearly motivated, not easily intimidated and ultimately effective in the games early going.

Finally deciding to clamp down on defense, New Jerseys easy opportunities ceased for the time being and on the other end, a pair of consecutive circus layups by Rose (21 points)who else?sparked the visitors offense, enabling Chicago to make it a neck-and-neck affair. That being said, the Nets clung to a one-point lead following the first quarter, 25-24.

All the games are tough. They got some guys back, they play hard and they played us well in Chicago, so I knew it was going to be a tough game. We didnt establish ourselves defensively to start the game, so it was going to be a long night for us, said Thibodeau.

Added Rose: Not starting off well really hurts us. Teams get confidence. We cant do this in this league. Anybody can beat you, no matter what their record is.

Luol Deng (17 points, eight rebounds), continuing his recent spate of hot starts to gamesperhaps a byproduct of his growing comfort level with Carlos Boozer (12 points, nine rebounds, five assists)but his efforts were countered by the strong finishing and rebounding of Nets reserve Kris Humphries (20 points, 11 rebounds)typically New Jerseys starting power forward; top draft pick Derrick Favors got his first career start.

The rookie departed after picking up two quick foulswho brought the Prudential Center crowd to its feet with his explosive dunks and blue-collar production. Chicagos bench, however, rallied, quickly erasing the deficit and turning the tables on the home team to snatch the lead out of the young Nets grasp.

With Thibodeaus regulars back in the contest, the Bulls werent quite able to pull away from New Jerseydespite a clear advantage in talentdue to those dreaded defensive lapses. Through two periods of play, the Bulls held a 47-46 lead.

A 4-0 Nets run to start the third quarter immediately raised Thibodeaus ire, resulting in a 20-second Bulls timeout. New Jerseys onslaught didnt stop, however, as Bulls turnovers, easy transition opportunities and displays of athleticism from Humphries and Favors contributed to Chicagos woes.

Continued defensive breakdownsNets point guard Devin Harris (18 points, 11 assists) was seemingly able to penetrate the lane at will to either score or find an open teammate, while center Brook Lopez (14 points) gradually found his groove against wily veteran Kurt Thomasexacerbated the situation, permitting New Jersey to build a slight cushion. Humphries personal exhibition, in particular, was surprising to see, but Chicagos overall defense was subpar, as the likes of Stephen Graham (11 points) and Sasha Vujacic (13 points) did damage.

With poor shot selection, a lack of cohesiveness and general ineptitude all playing roles in the Bulls nightmarish three quarters, New Jersey took a 78-65 lead into the final period.

Deng and an all-reserve unit, started to gradually chip away at New Jerseys winning margin in the fourth quarter by playing with more energy, attention to detail on defense and focus on offense, with Deng, reserve swingman Ronnie Brewer and backup point guard C.J. Watson leading the charge. Thibodeau stuck with his bench for extended minutes for a second consecutive nightalbeit in vastly different circumstances; Deng played with the second unit on the previous evening, toobefore reinserting Rose into the contest with 4:02 to play.

Boozer, the teams major offseason free-agent acquisition was noticeably absent from the fourth-quarter comeback. Thibodeau shared his thought process afterwards.

We struggled all night and at the end, we were in such a big hole, we were searching for anything that could get us going, so we went small to see if the guys could generate something and it worked pretty effectively. When youre doing that, youre sacrificing some defense, too, Thibodeau reasoned. We were in such a big hole and they were playing zone, so we had to keep shooting on the floor. That was the main reason we put Lu at the four, to get more range shooting out there to see if we could spread them out and take advantage of them that way.

They were small on the perimeter. They were playing Jordan Farmar and Harris and Vujacic, and we had a hard time matching up. Thats why we went small, to see if that would helpI thought Humphries played with a lot of energy off the bench. Their rebounding of second shots hurt us badly, he continued. Well, the big thing was they were behind big and they were zoning, so the group that went inwe were playing Luol at the four, which gave us another perimeter playerso it was more effective for us against the zone. Thats why we did it and when that group cut the lead down and we were in positionthey tied the game upwe were just going to finish with the group that was going well.

Obviously offensively, Boozer helps a lot more, but also the matchup with Lopez. Thats what I was concerned with going down to the other end.

A quiet Boozerin sharp contrast to his usual upbeat demeanorspoke with reporters following the games conclusion.

Youve got to talk to Thibs about that. That was a coaching decision, said Boozer, whoas he did when he was injured to start the seasonsupported his teammates wholeheartedly from the sidelines. I want us to win and Im always going to cheer my teammates on, no matter what.

Rose, along with Boozer, one of four Bulls captains, tried to quell any controversy in the aftermath.

Of his own extended stint on the bench, he said, Of course its going to be hard, but they were out there doing good. They got us back into the game. There were a couple possessions where we could have got the lead, but we didnt. But we had a lot of opportunities to win this game.

Regarding Boozer, Rose remarked, Yeah, we were surprised, but were not going to try to coach. Were going to go out there and do our job and thats to play. Were just going to leave all the subbing and everything up to him.

Although the Nets, propelled by Harris ability to get to the rim and New Jerseys rebounding margin, didnt wilt instantly, Roses knack for stepping up in the clutch began to manifest itself down the stretch. A swashbuckling jaunt to the rimplus the foulhere, a 3-pointer there, a fast-break assist and the Bulls were back in it, cutting their deficit to a single point as quickly as the All-Star point guards first step blows past defenders.

After the Bulls an errant Watson 3-pointer, Lopez was fouled and split a pair of foul shots to give New Jersey a two-point lead with under a minute to play. Following a Chicago timeoutthe teams last, called with 49.7 seconds to goDeng was eventually fouled, but missed both of his chances from the charity stripe.

Ive got to make them. They fouled and in a position like that, I expect myself to make those free throws. Ive been struggling with my free-throw shooting this year, said Deng, who denied fatigue was an issue, despite playing over 40 minutes on back-to-back nights. I cant be in that position and miss clutch free throws.

On the subsequent possession, the Nets were unable to capitalize and on the ensuing trip, Watson was fouled on a long-range jumperruled to be a two-point shotwith 11.1 seconds remaining. Watson calmly buried both attempts.

I thought it was a three, but Lu told me it was a two, so I was kind of disappointed, said Watson. I wasnt really looking, but I thought it was a 3-pointer. I didnt really know; I couldnt tell.

Out of a timeout, Lopez couldnt convert a lob pass and Vujacic gathered the carom to hit a miraculous shot in traffic with 5.3 seconds on the clock.

Youve got to come up with the loose ball. C.J. made a good play to get a piece of the ball and weve got to scramble and come up with it, and we didnt. Give them credit. They came up with it, said Thibodeau.

Rose chimed in: It was like a blur, where they threw the oop, C.J. hit ittapped it awayI thought that we were going to get the rebound for sure, but Sasha got it and he made a great layup over Kurt.

Rose pushed the ball down the floor and attempted a contested triple to try to escape Newark with a win, but it fell short.

We allowed them to set instead of getting the ball in quick and obviously, if you can attack before theyre set, you have more room and space. But that was a tough play at the end of that game, Thibodeau explained. We allowed them to shoot 49 percent. They got the big loose ball at the end that won the game for them. Youve got to defend and rebound on the road.

We didnt defend, we didnt rebound well and we were low energy most of the game. In the fourth quarter, we dug down, we got some stops and we played with more energy. That gave us a chance.

Rose elaborated about the final shot: The way that they were playing me, it was going to be hard for me to drive. They were cutting down the elbows, just forcing me to pass and I just took the shot.

They tried to trap meBrook and Devin tried to trap me at the half-court lineI had to get past them and by that time, my mind was rushing. Im like, What to do? What to do? I picked up the ball, I pump-fakedI was going to passthen I just shot it. Next time, I should know what to do, he continued. It hurt, not having the timeout, but if anything, I can get up the court in a couple of seconds. I think I took a bad shot towards the end, but things like this help you for the long run, when you get into situations like this again. I think I could have got all the way to the basket.

Rose went on to say: This is the second game we lost a team thats under .500, but right now, it hurts. But we cant hang our heads down. Weve got to continue to play. Weve got to get off to good starts againweve got to get out and run, get easy baskets. Were not getting any easy baskets. Everything has to be tough, contested and everything. We dont want that. Weve got to make the game easy again.

Im going to shake this off, go out there and try to win the next game.

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.

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.”

Miscues, miscommunications and missed shots: Bulls offense struggling all around

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USA TODAY

Miscues, miscommunications and missed shots: Bulls offense struggling all around

Denzel Valentine corralled a rebound and casually dribbled up the right side of the floor, unaware of the final 5 seconds ticking off the clock in the third quarter. The second-year shooting guard moved toward the basket as the buzzer sounded, only realizing his gaffe as the red lights behind the backboard lit up. It was that kind of night for the Bulls offense, and one that highlighted carelessness, a lack of talent and obvious growing pains as the rebuild begins.

Fred Hoiberg’s group finished with more turnovers (20) than assists (18), shot 38 percent from the field and were doubled up on points in the paint in an ugly 87-77 loss to the Spurs on Saturday night. Adding to the issues were only nine free-throw attempts and 28 percent shooting from deep on a night where the Bulls played well enough defensively to earn a win.

But they couldn’t take advantage of a Spurs team playing without Kawhi Leonard. The ball stopped for long periods of time in the halfcourt, the fast break was non-existent and miscommunications were frequent, even when they didn’t result in one of those 20 turnovers.

“We had 20 turnovers that led to 23 points…that’s what kills you,” Hoiberg said. “A team goes on a run and they get easy ones, pick-sixes, you’re all of a sudden in a big hole. And obviously did not shoot the ball well today.”

The struggles came from across the board. Only Cris Felicio was turnover-less of the nine Bulls who played. The backcourt tandem of Jerian Grant and Justin Holiday combined for 11 of 32 shooting. Rookie Lauri Markkanen showed flashes with eight first-half points, but finished 5 of 14 and committed three ugly turnovers. Robin Lopez made the first 3-pointer of his career 630 games in, but a 29-year-old leading the way for a young rebuilding group could be deemed bittersweet at best.

It capped off a whirlwind first week for the Bulls, who dealt on the fly with the fallout of the altercation between Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis. Losing Mirotic and Portis hurt from a talent standpoint, but it also threw a wrench into Hoiberg’s rotation and scheme. It thrust 20-year-old Markkanen into the starting lineup; Paul Zipser has shifted to playing more power forward (while also starting at small forward); Lopez is being asked to score more than ever, and at times be the primary option.

“With everything we’ve had going on the past week, with playing guys different positions that they haven’t played yet,” Hoiberg said, “we’re still trying to figure out exactly how we’re going to go out there and play. We’re getting stuck at times because guys are in the wrong spots.”

The Bulls opened Saturday night with a solid first quarter, scoring 21 points, assisting on nine of 12 baskets and committing just three turnovers.

The final three quarters couldn’t have been more different. The second unit again struggled like it did in allowing the Raptors a 20-2 second-quarter run on Tuesday. Even without Leonard the Spurs’ defensive length cut off passing and driving lanes, forcing the Bulls to dribble down the shot clock and turn to isolation basketball or contested 3-pointers.

The Spurs couldn’t pull away thanks to an inspired defensive effort by the Bulls, but the offensive stalling rendered it moot; the Bulls took 28 3-pointers and 37 shots in the paint, an ugly ratio when considering the nine free-throw attempts. The bench shot 7-for-19, but most of that came in garbage time.

“One thing we definitely need to work on is attacking the basket,” Lopez said. “I think there are times where we all get a little jumper-happy on the perimeter. I think we need to have a good balance.

We need to be aware of that. We’re a team that doesn’t have a lot of room for error so any time we concede the ball like that, we don’t get up a shot attempt, tat’s going to really hurt us.”

Kris Dunn may be closer than expected to returning to the lineup after dislocating his finger in the preseason. It would give the Bulls help on that dismayed second unit, knocking Kay Felder (3 turnovers in 15 minutes) out of the rotation. Once Mirotic and Portis return in November, Hoiberg will have more flexibility with his rotations as well as some insurance if frontcourt foul trouble arrives.

None are go-to scorers, and not even Zach LaVine's 19.8 points per game last season will save the Bulls once he's healthy. Season-long struggles like Saturday night are on the way for a young team searching for pieces of the future. That's expected, and in the long term it benefits them as more Lottery balls roll toward Chicago.

But in a season in which success will be judged not on wins and losses but improvement from game-to-game, but the Bulls have set the bar low in the season's first week.