Bulls

Rose's mental approach shows evolution as a leader

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Rose's mental approach shows evolution as a leader

For Derrick Rose, it's all mental. His MVP season of a year ago already in his rear-view window -- sans for motivational purposes -- the point guard continues to grow as a player, but it's less about adding any skills to his impressive abilities than adopting a veteran's approach to the game.

"If anything, winning the MVP made me work even harder, just knowing that I want to be better as a player. You want to get back to that level, where you want to compete against the best, you want everybody showing up to your games -- the crowd and everything -- and the goal is to win a championship, and if it takes me being in the gym for numerous hours, I'm willing to do it," Rose said. "I think that's what pushed me this summer, really working on my conditioning, running anywhere possible. I remember running in China, everywhere I went outside of the country, just running on a treadmill. This is the most I ever ran and I think by the time the season comes, I should be in shape."

Honestly, all the focus on Rose's perceived struggles against the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals is probably a bit overblown. At 22 years old in his third season, playing that deep into the postseason for the first time in his career, he was bound to have some hiccups along the way. But you won't hear that excuse coming from the player himself.

"The reason that we lost last year, I put it all on me. Me not making the right decisions at certain times, me not knowing the clock and decision-making, turnovers and all that stuff, it really got to me and it hurt the team," he stated, maintaining the stance he's taken since the Bulls were ousted from the playoffs. "When I look at film, there were a lot of plays where I could have made the extra pass and I know that my basketball I.Q. got higher and I think that if it happens again -- where they over-help like that -- we'll have something for it."

By "we'll have something for it," it's clear he means the team, but feel free to read that as "Rose and Tom Thibodeau," given their extensive one-on-one post-practice film sessions and late-night exchanges of strategy-oriented text messages. However, Rose himself has started approaching the game from a more scientific standpoint, dissecting defenses based on his prior knowledge, as opposed to simply relying on his physical gifts.

The point guard -- often bigger and stronger than his defenders, if not just much quicker -- has talked about improving his post-up game, but aside from his more cerebral approach, expect the defensive-minded Bulls coach to push him to become an improved defender, wreaking havoc as a rover (as Thibodeau employed Celtics All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo while in Boston) in the team's help scheme.

"Just over-helping everywhere. Thibs has been doing a great job in practice, just making sure that I'm always in the play. Even if I'm over-helping, me doing that isn't going to hurt the team. I remember last year, I didn't really understand where he was coming from, but just looking at film, talking to him, just me being in the shape that I am, I should be able to do that," Rose explained. "My game, period: I just want to be efficient. I think I sharpened everything up, making the right decisions, my basketball I.Q. got higher, I think, and I really worked my tail off this summer."

Blessed with a coach who has equal fervor for improvement and just as little tolerance for losing, Rose's incredible work ethic and self-critical nature are a perfect match for Thibodeau's relentless pursuit of perfection. Unlike many stars of his magnitude, who have either been coddled throughout their careers or have adapted to their every whim being catered to, Rose still carries himself like just another player. However, he acknowledges that he's more than that, making it even more admirable that he submits to being one of Thibodeau's primary targets of verbal abuse on the team.

"It's tough. If you know Thibs, he's a tough coach. Every practice is going to be tough and he just pushes you, and as a player, you want that. You want a coach pushing you, yelling at you, telling you to do everything on the floor the right way, holding you accountable on the floor. It makes you a better player and I can say I'm happy being in this position I'm in. I appreciate him being the coach that he is, the coaching staff being the way that they are and I don't take them for granted," he revealed. "Thibs pushes you to that point, but being me, you'll never know when I'm mad or I'm happy so, he probably doesn't know when to stop. As a player, it's going to happen. Throughout your whole basketball career, you're going to have a coach that's always yelling at you, talking to you, but it's not to be an a-hole. It's to push you as a player and to help the team, and to help your teammates, and for Thibs to yell at me -- me being one of the leaders on the team -- he's able to yell at some of the people on the team that's like regular players. People seeing that, I think that helps our team."

As humble, fan-friendly and a reporter's dream to cover Rose is, the side most people overlook about him is his fierce competitive nature. Extremely team-oriented, he also has a strong independent streak within the context of the group, being fiercely loyal to his teammates, to the point where he freely admits to not being very open to recruiting free agents because of his belief in the team as currently constructed.

"It's just me, man. Just being younger, I remember just doing stuff because I wanted to do it. Just like the same thing here, where if it's not coming from the front office or anything, you're not going to hear me say anything about recruiting anyone. I think the city speaks for itself. It's a great marketing place, like I said. If you want to come here, do whatever you want to here, you can. Opportunities are here. The front office is great, our fans are the best in the world and I think Chicago just speaks for itself, especially in basketball," he said. "I think that I'm good. The team is good. My teammates, good. I wouldn't trade my teammates for anything in the world.

"Our front office has been doing a great job coming in, bringing guys in, picking the right guys with the right attitude, that just want to improve their game and want to win, and I think that's really what's driving this team. When you come in the gym, you see our rookie, Jimmy, just up in here shooting. That makes you want to come in here and work as hard as him, and he's a rookie. When you see that, it brings up your spirit, especially as a player, knowing that we have a goal and that's to win a championship, and you've got to put everything that you have into it.

"Our goal is to win a championship and I think we have a decent shot with the guys that we have coming back and we don't know what else is going on, but I know that the front office is doing a great job with getting whoever or whatever. I have a lot of belief in my teammates and I know that they have a lot of belief in me, and confidence in me as a player. That's all we need."

Despite his facade of being oblivious to everything not Bulls-related, Rose admittedly seeks outside criticism for motivational purposes. Contrary to their heads-buried-in-the-sand collective front last season, Rose and his crew are now behaving as if they've been slighted by any and everybody.

"We hear everything. We're just like you all; we hear and see everything, and I know that's just going to push us. We had the No. 1 record in the NBA last year. I guess people forgot that, but if anything, I know that it's going to make us go out there and play even harder. Thibs and the coaching staff are doing a great job making sure guys are coming in early and just training," he said. "We've got like 30 bikes that he ordered, just making sure everyone's in shape. Even when we're watching film, we're on the bike. So, this year is going to be totally different, but I think that everybody should be confident.

"I think that with the guys that we have coming back--we didn't trade really any big pieces yet, or if we trade or whatever, I don't know--we still have the same guys that's back and I think the chemistry that we have as a team, knowing what we went through, with that being our first year, I think that it definitely helped us because of the experience."

When Rose professes that all he's focused on is winning a title and that he's confident in his current group of teammates, take him at his word. His own personal experiences -- going back to his back-to-back Illinois state titles in high school, a NCAA runner-up showing in his lone college season, winning the Rookie of the Year and taking the defending-champion Celtics to the limit in an epic seven-game series, another .500 season and first-round exit in a campaign in which he earned his first All-Star berth, followed by the MVP year -- detail a consistent uptick in his year-to-year progress.

One constant during that time, whether at Simeon, Memphis or the various incarnations of Bulls squads has been his selflessness and desire for a family-like environment within the team. Last season's chemistry approached the level of cohesion usually only found on the high school and college levels, so with that level of comfort, ever-burgeoning leadership skills, motivation from the sting of losing and a mental maturation as a thinker of the game, Rose undergoing a (pardon to the Chicago faithful who believe uttering the following phrase is blasphemy) Jordanesque evolution -- from being able to dominate a game physically to being able to simply will his team to victory because he's out-thinking the opposition -- wouldn't be a shock.

The Bulls are now Rose's team. And with their best player and leader not feeling anywhere close to satisfied, there's a strong case to be made that expectations should be higher, regardless of what additions the front office does or doesn't make.

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.”