Bulls

Short-handed Bulls ready for surprising Hawks

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Short-handed Bulls ready for surprising Hawks

One of the most impressive teams thus far in the NBA season has been the Bulls opponent Tuesday, the Hawks. Atlanta, who are 4-1 after Monday nights remarkable comeback win at Miami, didnt drastically remake their roster following a second-round playoff ouster at the hands of Chicago last spring, but some subtle changes, particularly the addition of former All-Star Tracy McGrady, have sparked a nice start to the young campaign.

Theyre a tough team. Theyre playing as well as anyone in the league. Theyre deep. Joe Johnson, their bigs power forward Josh Smith and All-Star center Al Horford are versatile, quick. Marvin Williams gets overlooked all the time; hes a tough matchup. Former Bull Jannero Pargos playing well for them, Willie Green, forward Vladimir Radmanovic is a range shooter. Backup center Zaza Pachulias a real tough, hard-nosed big. Theyre really good, said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, who coached McGrady -- who scored 16 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter, against the Heat -- in Houston. McGrady is a great player, has been a great player in the league for a long time. He was derailed some by injury the last couple years, but hes a complete player. Everyone always talks about his scoring; I think the best part of his game is his decision-making. Great pick-and-roll player, great passer, hes got the size, hes got great vision, extremely smart and like I said, the only thing that slowed him down was his injuries. This guy put up huge numbers in the league and theres nothing he cant do. He can play defense, he can pass, he can shoot, he can post, he can pick-and-roll.

Added Bulls swingman Ronnie Brewer: I wouldnt say that he lost it. He was battling injuries; thats the only thing that I can put a finger on. Hes been a playmaker his whole entire career, a prolific scorer. He may not be able to drop 30 points per game like he used to, but he can definitely still put the ball in the basket, so we have to give him a lot of attention.

Brewer acknowledged that he was aware of the Hawks win over the Heat the previous night, but insisted that it didnt sway the teams opinion of Atlanta.

In my opinion, anybody can win a game or lose a game. I dont see anybody going 66-0 this year, so when a team loses, you dont say, Oh, thats the team to beat, because they beat a team thats got a lot of talent, like the Miami Heat, said Brewer, who scored 17 points, along with snatching seven rebounds and doling out five assists in the Bulls New Years Day rout over visiting Memphis. You have to take every opponent seriously. I think Thibs prepares us for that, night in and night out, and we just have to ready for that, so theyre definitely on our radar.

Brewer may start in place of the injured Rip Hamilton again Tuesday, as Thibodeau said the shooting guard, who suffered a groin injury against the Clippers in L.A. last week and sat out of the Grizzlies win, will be a game-time decision.

Rip did some shooting today, said Thibodeau. If he feels better, then well make the decision.

An injured Bulls guard who definitely won't play Tuesday, C.J. Watson, had an MRI on his sprained left elbow, suffered while diving for a loose ball Sunday, after Monday afternoons practice. Thibodeau was cautiously optimistic about the backup point guard's progress.

C.J., hes day-to-day, basically. His injury, theres no surgery involved. Basically, once we can get the swelling out and the pain subsides, then hell be ready to go, said the coach, who said Watson wasnt wearing the sling he was seen sporting after Sundays game on a full-time basis anymore. Hes a pretty tough guy, so I expect him to be back fairly shortly.

I think the fact that its also his left elbow, I think that helps, so we were fortunate in that regard, continued Thibodeau, who said it hasnt been decided yet whether Watson will travel to Detroit with the team after Tuesdays game, in case the flight could aggravate his elbow. His legs are fine, so he can ride the bike. He can do all that stuff.

Replacing Watson as Derrick Roses primary understudy will be third-stringer John Lucas III, who Thibodeau is familiar with from coaching with the Rockets, as well as coaching under Lucas father, a former NBA player and coach.

I have a lot of confidence in John. Hes already demonstrated that he can do it. He did it for the Rockets when I was there, played well in stretches. He stays ready and prepares himself well, smart player, so I expect him to do well, said Thibodeau. John, whenever hes been called upon, hes done well. C.J. was playing at an extremely high level. C.J.s size, of course, allows him to play multiple positions. C.J. gives you a lot of versatility.

However, Thibodeau noted that the Bulls could opt to use Brewer at the position on occasion while Watson is sidelined.

Actually, we did that quite a bit at the end of last year, where we used Ronnie handling the ball and brought Derrick off screens and Ronnies done it some in practice, too, so its another option that we have, he said.

Concurred Brewer: In our offense, if somebody gets the rebound, if its the big guys throwing it to Lu or myself, were able to push the ball, initiate the offense and kind of go from there, so if need be, if D-Rose needs a break, I can definitely initiate the offense and off that.

Brewer, whos got off to a strong start to the season in his role as a reserve with the cohesive Bench Mob, explained that his health has been the key to his improved play, which has featured him finishing opportunities in transition and getting to the basket as both a cutter and off the dribble, as well as knocking down open mid-range jumpers and even shots from beyond the three-point arc.

To me, its a huge confidence shift. Last year, I came in here with a lot of high hopes, with an opportunity to try to win the starting job and tweaked his hamstring right before working out here, and had to try to work my way into shape, learning the plays and its a different speed, playing with D-Rose and the level of defense that Thibs preaches. It kind of takes a little getting used to, but this years a little different. I came in a lot better shape, healthy, working on my shot and just been playing with a lot of confidence so far, he said. D-Rose gets a lot of attention, Booz gets a lot of attention and especially Lu, when he cuts, and whenever they make the pass, youve got to knock down shots for them to keep dishing the ball, so thats all Ive been trying to do.

Its still early; its not like Ive accomplished so much. Ive still got to get better every day. Thats why I continue to work with Coach Griff Bulls assistant coach Adrian Griffin, Brewer continued. Thats what youve got to continue to do in this league, so if I have a shot, Ive got to continue to shoot it with confidence and if I do that, my teammates will continue to find me.

Three Things to Watch: Bulls visit Raptors in season opener

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Three Things to Watch: Bulls visit Raptors in season opener

Here are Three Things to Watch in the Bulls' season opener against the Toronto Raptors tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live.

1. Pace and Space

The Bulls offense had a distinctly different feel to it this preseason than in years past. Yes, the lack of Jimmy Butler certainly had something to do with that. But it’s evident that Fred Hoiberg is getting closer to coaching the brand of basketball he’s most comfortable with. The proof is primarily in the 3-point shooting. To put it lightly, the Bulls have been chucking from deep.

Here are some of the raw numbers. The Bulls averaged 32.8 3-pointers per game in the preseason, which ranked fifth in the NBA. And it wasn’t just one or two players taking outside looks. The Bulls had seven players attempt 3.4 triples or more per game. They ranged from point guard (Grant) to shooting guard (Valentine) to small forward (Zipser and Holiday) to power forward (Mirotic, Portis and Markkanen). These long-distance shots are coming from all over.

That could be a reason that the Bulls’ pace was way up from last year’s regular season. Now, pace (how many possessions a team averages per game) doesn’t necessarily mean a team is running fast breaks and hoisting shots at the earliest opportunity. But what it does mean for the Bulls is they’re getting quick open looks from beyond the arc. Their pace in the preseason ranked 12th in the NBA, but at 105.2 possessions it was much quicker than a year ago (97.72). It’s still preseason, so all paces are up around the league, but you can tell this Bulls offense looks different.

2. The Holiday Season

You’ll probably be sick of “holiday” puns by the end of the month, but it’s Opening Night so let us slide by just this time. There was optimism when the Bulls signed Justin Holiday that the 28-year-old could be a rotation player and a fill-in while Zach LaVine recovered from ACL surgery. Never an efficient offensive player, the Knicks were much better defensively with him on the floor last season, and on a Bulls team losing Butler there was a need for a wing defender.

And if the preseason proved anything it’s that Holiday is going to be more than a rotation player. That’s not saying all that much on a Bulls roster void of premier talent, but Holiday is likely the Bulls’ best healthy player at this point. He was stellar in the preseason, averaging 17.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals. He shot 57 percent from beyond the arc and averaged a team-high 29.3 minutes. Holiday simply looked the part.

Expect Holiday to lead the Bulls in field goal attempts most nights, and expect him to defend the opposition’s best player (DeMar DeRozan tonight). Again, this isn’t to say he’s necessarily a building block for the future or is going to make fans forget about Jimmy G. Buckets. But it’s nice to know the Bulls seemed to have hit on a free agent this offseason. Holiday enters the regular season with plenty of confidence.

3. Looking for progress

Unless he explodes in a good way, it’ll be too early to tell this year whether Lauri Markkanen is a piece of the future. He’s 20 years old and needs to put on muscle and learn the NBA before we decide what he’ll be. The same can’t be said for the other Bulls’ first-round picks.

Valentine is just in his second season, but he’ll also be 24 years old in less than a month. Drafting a college senior in the first round means he needs to be ready to play right away. Thus far, that hasn’t been the case. Valentine had an up-and-down preseason: He made 46.2 percent of his 3-pointers, but he only took 16 2-pointers in 112 minutes, showing a lack of diversity to his game. The speed just isn’t there. Perhaps Kris Dunn’s injury will allow him to facilitate some. Defensively, he still needs to show improvement. This will be a big year for the second-year guard. Now is his time to show he can be part of the rebuild.

Lastly, Jerian Grant wasn’t a Bulls first-round pick but when you deal Derrick Rose (albeit the non-MVP version) you need to have something to show for it. Grant looked the part in preseason and probably would have won the job over Dunn even if Dunn didn’t dislocate his finger. But Grant, as a combo guard, could be part of the team’s future as a reserve that gives Hoiberg options in the backcourt going forward. He was good in the preseason and will get his chance to shine in a starting role. What he does with it will be something to watch for, and he gets a big test tonight against Kyle Lowry.

Looking for culture reset, Bulls find themselves in the middle of more drama

Looking for culture reset, Bulls find themselves in the middle of more drama

It was supposed to be an uneventful and culture-resetting season for the Chicago Bulls, but that ended the moment Bobby Portis’ hand connected with the sweet spot on Nikola Mirotic’s face.

Now a light is shining on an unwilling franchise and rightful questions are again being asked about what led to the event, rather than the result.

Mirotic will be out four-to-six weeks with facial fractures and a concussion to boot and Portis was suspended for the first eight games of the season, leaving rookie Lauri Markkanen to man the power forward spot against the likes of Serge Ibaka and LaMarcus Aldridge his first two games.

Welcome to the NBA, kid.

It’s likely he received his wake-up call when he saw his teammates exchange friendly fire, though, considering the witnesses said Mirotic and Portis had been at it for awhile before Portis took one swing to conclude matters.

“Both players owned responsibility in the incident itself but only one player threw a punch. And that punch connected. For us, that is inexcusable,” Bulls Vice-President John Paxson said. “It’s not who we are.”

But when there is no discernable identity, and there’s a coaching staff who’ve witnessed these two go at it for well over two years you have to ask if this is who the Bulls are.

Not in the way of fighting but a team that collectively stands by idly while a situation builds and builds before it explodes, then is forced to clean up the carnage while having to explain and react to an unnecessary event.

Jimmy Butler, gone. Ditto for Derrick Rose. Tom Thibodeau? Dumped too before he picked up what the Bulls didn’t want in Butler on draft night, jump starting this process of the Bulls headed to Parts Unknown.

All have been blamed at some point for the state of affairs. Rose’s knees, Butler’s mouth, Thibodeau’s unwillingness to bend.

Butler took a tongue-in-cheek shot directly across the bow of his former franchise when asked about the incident involving his former teammates, saying “All I know is I’m not to blame for this one”, a nod to the narrative surrounding his trade to Minnesota.

Now who’s left to blame and what happens from here is anybody’s guess.

“When’s the right time to step in? I saw it on the best teams I played on, where you had that competitive spirit,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “You have to have it to have any chance at all. So sure, looking back on it, would we have handled the situation differently? Maybe. I don’t know.”

Both Paxson and Hoiberg expressed the rightful disappointment in Portis while also saying Mirotic had a hand in what occurred. Portis will ultimately bear the responsibility, with his eight-game suspension coming at the worst possible time as his option for next season hasn’t been picked up yet, as it’s hard to see he and Mirotic sharing the same space in a locker room whenever Mirotic returns.

And if he is still around, it’ll be on the players to keep a team from splintering — as if the expected losing won’t be depressing enough.

“As teammates, we're certainly supporting Bobby and supporting Niko,” said Robin Lopez, a de-facto leader on a young roster. “We're going to let them know that what they did, the way they messed up, wasn't right, but we're definitely supporting them.”

Lopez, along with many others, said the confrontation has been brewing for some time, that the pushing and shoving wasn’t anything new. From a human standpoint it’s understandable to sense tension as Portis has been itching for playing time for two years after playing behind veterans, anxious to cement himself on a team that drafted a player at his position four months ago.

Mirotic came in as a golden boy of sorts, handed a starting spot by Hoiberg two years ago and given every chance to snag a starting spot last year before Taj Gibson aggressively stepped in.

His up-and-down performances were rewarded with a $12-plus million deal this offseason and although players usually don’t count each other’s money, they take note of who’s favored and who isn’t.

Mix in competition and ego days before the season began and it’s not surprising something was on the horizon.

But it’s up to a coaching staff to step in, as assistant coach Randy Brown did before the parties were separated in the hope things would settle down.

They didn’t, and now Hoiberg will start yet another season having his aptitude to coach a professional team questioned before he can call an official play or lay out a rotation — because Portis laid Mirotic out on the Advocate Center floor.

Hoiberg desperately wants to change the narrative surrounding his first two years, eager to prove his system can work and that he’s capable of commanding a team that plays hard and organized on a nightly basis.

Whether this is an omen or a random event, it certainly doesn’t bode well for Hoiberg to his detractors.

He stood to the side while Paxson addressed the media, appearing both bewildered and shocked he was having to address such a rare situation a little more than 24 hours before his season-opening cleanse was to occur.

“I’m very disappointed in what happened,” Hoiberg said. “Now, my job is to not let this moment derail us. My job is to get these guys prepared to go out and fight and play as a group, and I’m confident our guys will do that. They’ve shown that going all the way back into late August.

“I’m confident our guys will rally around each other. I’ve seen how much these guys care for each other, and we’re going to go into Toronto tomorrow as a group. We’re going to learn from this. We’re going to grow from this. We’re going to compete, I promise you that.”

It’s clear the Bulls want to extricate themselves from the past couple years and now recent events, but when things are swept under the rug they have a funny way of reappearing at the weirdest times.