Bulls

Thibodeau balances end of regular season, playoff preparation

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Thibodeau balances end of regular season, playoff preparation

CHARLOTTE With five regular-season games left until the playoffs begin and his team in position to have the leagues best overall record and thus, home-court advantage throughout the postseason one might expect Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to feel at ease. However, after a shocking home loss to the lowly Washington Wizards and his two All-Stars, ironman Luol Deng and reigning league MVP Derrick Rose, both ailing, there is also reason for him to be concerned.

But in true Thibodeau fashion, the second-year NBA head coach and frontrunner for unprecedented back-to-back league top-coaching honors, put things in perspective.

Its a compilation of things. One, your health is critical and you want to be playing well. This will be unique this year. Its different. We end on the 26th and we begin on the 28th for the playoffs, so basically, its a continuation of the regular season. Youre trying to tie all those things together, explained the coach, who left unspoken another issue, the fact that not only does he not have control of whether Rose or Deng suits up, hes sometimes in the dark about whether or not theyll play up until close to game time, as was the case Monday, according to a source familiar with the situation. But health is a priority. Playing well is a priority. Youd like to have a set rotation, where guys are comfortable knowing when theyre going into a game and things of that nature, so all of the above and youre trying to shore things up and improve as you go along.

Ideally, you try to put as many things in your favor as possible, so is home-court advantage a must? I always think if you can get it, you get it and if not, whatever your circumstances are, you make the best of those circumstances. Were young and I want us to continue to improve, learn how to win. Last year I thought home court helped us a lot, but if you dont have home court, you dont and you have to win more on the road, Thibodeau went on to say prior to the Bulls Wednesday-morning shootaround at Time Warner Cable Arena. Last year was a lot different. Last year we won our last nine going in, so I thought we hit the ground running. This year its a different season entirely. You dont have nearly as much practice time, not nearly as much rest and youre not going to have nearly as much time to prepare when you go into the playoffs. Basically, its one day and youre playing, and were going to have to be ready when it comes.

While Thibodeau has an eye on the playoffs whether or not he admits it he also would like to see his team play with more urgency in the present, despite knowing pulling off occasional miracles, playing short-handed and the squads focused, defensive-oriented and intense style has worn on them during the lockout-shortened season, something that was clear in Mondays contest.

You learn from every situation, hopefully we have. I believe we were up 11 with 10:43 to go in the game. Your fourth quarter, you want that to be your best quarter and it wasnt. We were outscored 30-21. We gave up 11 points in basically a little over a minute. We allowed three three-point plays, two threes and one conventional three-point play. During that time, I also believe we had three turnovers, said Thibodeau, who delivered some of his more pointed comments during his postgame press conference. In a minute, a game can change and we have to understand that.

Still, it would be foolhardy to think the ultra-prepared coach isnt already simultaneously managing current concerns with future plans.

The advance guys are preparing now. You have to, especially with the way the playoffs are structured this year. Youre only going to have one day between the end of the season and the playoffs. They know what their job is. Theyll have everything ready. For us, I just want them focused on the next game, he said recently. Where you are in the season, too, right now youre going head to head with a lot of the teams youre going to be facing or you have the possibility of facing. That helps in some ways, too.

Zach LaVine cleared for contact practice

Zach LaVine cleared for contact practice

The Zach LaVine comeback is one step closer as the shooting guard was cleared for contact practice after checking with his doctors in California. 

LaVine will go through a step by step process over the next few weeks and the Bulls will gauge his progress to see when the best time for his return will be. 

But, given the nine-month process from his ACL injury he suffered in February, he's right on track and there doesn't appear to be any setbacks. 

"There’s no real timeframe, I guess," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said at practice Monday. "It’s really going to be on how he feels. We’ll try to do a little more every day with him. We did a little bit, got him some light contact today just to get the process started.

"He’ll be able to play a little two-on-two with not a lot of practice time these next 10 days. But we’ll throw him out there and continue to try to get him feeling better. There’s going to be a mental hurdle that he’s going to have to clear as well. I know he’s excited. His teammates are excited and the coaches are obviously excited as well."

LaVine's recovery has gone as planned since his arrival in Chicago from the Jimmy Butler trade on draft night. Targeting a mid-December return seems realistic but of course, the Bulls will take every precaution to make sure he's healthy for the long term, both for LaVine and the franchise, as he's a restricted free agent this summer--and they have no plans on letting him walk. 

LaVine told NBC Sports Chicago recently that he wants to get on the floor immediately but the Bulls know they'll have to protect him from himself in the meantime. 

"He’s going to have to string together a lot of really good days, and he knows that," Hoiberg said. "He understands that. The important thing is he’s right on track from where it was said after the injury. He’s been doing a great job with his rehab. He’s on time. He’s doing everything that’s asked of him. His strength numbers are where they’re supposed to be. I’m confident he’s going to keep making progress. But we’ll absolutely monitor it daily and hopefully it’ll just continue to get better."

The Bulls aren't sure if they'll send LaVine to the G-League but it's certain they have plans on not only how to use him when he steps on the floor but also a regimen they've stuck to, to ensure there are no real setbacks. 

Hoiberg has been salivating over having a true scorer at that position since trading for him, and LaVine has been eager since his arrival to prove to the Bulls and fans that he is a franchise player. 

Prudence in the moment of progression, though, appears to be the approach taken by both sides. 

Just as we all predicted, two rookies stole the show in L.A.

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USA TODAY

Just as we all predicted, two rookies stole the show in L.A.

There's not often hype surrounding a game between two of the NBA's worst teams, but Tuesday's Bulls-Lakers matchup was intriguing to many because it offered a chance to see a pair of top rookies compete. 

Oh, but you didn't think we meant Lonzo Ball and Lauri Markkanen, did you?

Nah, it was two different, less-touted first-year players that ended up stealing the spotlight at the Staples Center. 

Kyle Kuzma and Antonio Blakeney may not be household names, but they sure played like they were in the Bulls' 103-94 loss. 

Kuzma, the Lakers rook drafted 27th overall, has been a spark for Luke Walton's squad all season long. Boasting a terrific scoring arsenal, the Utah product carried the load for the Lakers' offense in the first half, dropping 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting. He finished the game as L.A.'s leading scorer with 22 in 40 minutes. But if you still need a more in-depth scouting report on Kuzma, just let Lonzo break it down:  

More importantly for Bulls fans, though, was the play of their undrafted guard who's signed to a two-way deal. 

Blakeney, the unofficial Summer League MVP, came off the bench on Tuesday and immediately left his mark on the game. The 21-year-old out of LSU posted 15 in the first half, finishing through contact as well as connecting on outside jumpers. 

Blakeney's shooting isn't reliable quite yet, but his energy has clearly influenced Hoiberg's rotation. The guard went from playing one NBA minute in the Bulls' first 11 games to playing 75 in the last four. Given that his two-way deal allows him to only spend 45 days with the team, it'll be fascinating to see how creative Gar Forman and John Paxson will get with his contract if this type of production continues. 

In a season that's obviously going to have its share of rough moments, an offseason flyer hitting is a huge plus for the rebuild. 

As for the recognized rookies, Lonzo's shooting woes persisted and Markkanen had maybe his worst offensive performance of his young Bulls career. Combined, they finished 7-for-30 with 21 points. Not ideal.