Bulls

Toothless, lifeless Bulls dominated by Pacers

Toothless, lifeless Bulls dominated by Pacers

INDIANAPOLIS — The Bulls had the look of confusion on defense, again.

They failed to get back after misses and allowed wide-open 3-point shots, again.

Too many times they tried getting in the passing lane and compromised their defense for guard penetration or easy opportunities, again.

So it should be no surprise, again, to see the Bulls lose their third straight game, this time at the hands of the Indiana Pacers, a team they beat at home one week ago by a decisive margin.

The payback was served cold at Bankers Life Fieldhouse with a 111-94 Pacers win, making it three straight defeats for the Bulls, bringing them back to a .500 mark after they were one of the biggest surprises in the NBA with a 3-0 mark.

Not even Paul George’s ejection late in the third quarter would be nearly enough to spark a team playing in quicksand on the second day of a back-to-back, coming off the heels of Friday’s emotion-filled loss to the New York Knicks.

“I thought tonight we looked like a tired basketball team right out of the gate,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “They opened up with a 16-point lead and that’s a tough hole to dig yourself out of.”

George lightly booted a ball into the stands after being called for a foul against Jimmy Butler near the basket stanchion. The ball found its way to the face of an unsuspecting fan with less than two minutes left in the third quarter with George immediately walking over to the fan to apologize. The two hugged and exchanged pleasantries but the damage was done as the officials sent George to the locker room with two technical fouls.

[RELATED: All-Star Paul George ejected against Bulls for kicking ball and hitting fan]

Before that even took place, Saturday looked like an instant replay of Friday in terms of the slow start. The turnovers piled up along with the defensive miscues that are either gameplan mistakes or a matter of effort, although it’s probably more of the former than latter.

Switching on defense seems to throw them out of whack, leading to too many opportunities for other teams to exploit. The Pacers racked up 31 points and had a 17-point lead as they shot 58 percent.

“I think we do. Some guys switch who aren’t supposed to switch,” Butler said. “That’s not in the gameplan, I can tell you that. I know who’s supposed to switching and who’s not supposed to be switching.”

A bigger issue has been the lack of execution on offense, which could possibly lead to the ineffectiveness on the other end. In the first three games, the Bulls jumped on their opponents early. Now, the tables have turned and it puts the responsibility squarely on the starters.

“We do have to play better, start better,” said Dwyane Wade, who missed his first eight shots after a 35-point night Friday. “The starters have to do a better job, the onus is on us individually. Once you get down like that versus teams in this league, it’s hard. You give guys confidence and it’s a wrap.”

Wade finished with four points in 21 minutes. Butler and Bobby Portis scored 16 each, although Portis’ production came essentially in garbage time.

Butler believes he has to take more of an aggressive role to prevent the Bulls from taking the first punch. He had his hands full with George, who made all four of his shots in the first for 10 points — most of them in transition.

“It comes to me leading the charge when it comes to coming out with the right energy, making sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to do on both ends,” Butler said. “I can’t come out lackadaisical.

“I don’t think I’ve started out as aggressive as I should. I should be the most aggressive one coming out the gate. That’s what I was the first two games.”

The damage was done with the Bulls playing catch up the rest of the way, not making the Pacers sweat even when George was tossed after scoring 13. And the player who took his place on the floor continued having a banner night. CJ Miles hit a couple more triples before the end of the quarter, and hit a couple more for good measure, giving himself 20 points on the night.

Second-year center Myles Turner scored 16 and former Bull Aaron Brooks scored 10 off the bench.

“It starts with turning the ball over,” Hoiberg said. “It’s going out there and imposing your will as that ball is thrown up for the opening tip and we’re obviously capable of doing it.”

Jeff Teague had a miserable night when the two met a week ago, and he made up for it in spades, dominating his matchup with Rajon Rondo. Teague helped control the pace, as the Pacers hit 11 triples and shot over 50 percent for the entire night.

The ball movement wasn’t as prevalent as even Friday night against the Knicks, as the turnovers kept coming from everywhere and the smoothness with which the Bulls played has disappeared.

“It’s kind of what happens when you get down, it’s a will game that we play,” Wade said. “It’s the nature of us, to will it. When you’re moving the ball it becomes contagious and when you’re down early on, you wanna make the play instead of trusting the game. We’re all guilty of that, not just this team but other teams I’ve been on. The ball stops. The blueprint’s there, we just gotta get to it.”

In the first 10 minutes of the game, the Bulls committed seven turnovers and were never really competitive throughout, missing on defensive gambles and showing very little in the way of actual fundamentals.

If last Saturday was the best played game of the Fred Hoiberg era, chalk this one up amongst the look of last season as the Bulls go back to the drawing board, back at .500.

NBA Playoffs' youth movement makes clock on long rebuilds tick quicker than ever

NBA Playoffs' youth movement makes clock on long rebuilds tick quicker than ever

New blood has injected life into the opening week of the NBA Playoffs as youthful newcomers have found the bright lights just to their fitting.

For those on the outside looking in, half-decade rebuilding plans appear tougher to sell to fan bases and ownership groups watching players on rookie scale deals outperform their contracts.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown weren’t expected to lead the Boston Celtics this season, but they’ve been thrust into leading roles after Gordon Hayward’s season-ending injury on Opening Night and Kyrie Irving’s knee troubles shut him down weeks before the postseason.

But they’ve shown there’s no need to be treated with kid gloves, that redshirting is for the minor leagues. Tatum hasn’t gotten the extra publicity of Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, but he’s not to be forgotten about in the playoff equation.

Brown had the benefit of being a rookie for the Celtics last season, and was more bystander than active participant.

But he’s still 21 years old, months younger than Mitchell and Simmons.

The two frontrunners for Rookie of the Year are certainly franchise players, and although they have major help on their respective rosters by way of veterans or fellow phenoms, one could argue the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers would have made the playoffs regardless.

The playoffs used to be a place reserved for the veterans, a higher plane of air that young lungs weren’t yet prepared for.

But Simmons is posting numbers that have statisticians scrambling for box scores from the tape-delay era for reference, while Mitchell is showing the teams who passed him up they should check their scouting and decision making.

And even though we could be in store for more of the same in the Finals if LeBron James’ Cavs meet Stephen Curry’s Warriors in June, the road to get there will be filled with so many new faces sure to be more than potholes in the years to come.

Recent NBA history can’t be written without the San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder having significant ink. But each is on the verge of going fishing, trailing 3-1 after four games.

Instead, the 76ers are now darlings, the Celtics are chugging along without main cogs and the Jazz aren’t far away from catching the attention of casual fans to become must-see TV.

There’s a shift going on in the NBA, with slow-moving franchises hoping for a traditional clock on a rebuild taking the risk of being passed by those more determined, more opportunistic and unbothered by job security in the pursuit of winning now.

If you have something close to a unicorn, your house better be in order. Of the rising stars who have a level of establishment in the league’s hierarchy, only Kristaps Porzingis’ New York Knicks and Devin Booker’s Phoenix Suns are sitting on the outside of the playoff party. Porzingis is recovering from an ACL injury suffered midseason, otherwise the Knicks would have likely been in contention for a playoff spot.

The Suns, well, they’re a mess.

And it’s no coincidence both franchises are on the hunt for new coaches.

The talent pool in the NBA is so vast, its players seemingly so prepared for the transition to the professional game that the clock on franchises to wait on its players ticks louder than it ever has.

Factoring in booming salaries with young players poised to cash in on restricted free agency, franchises need answers on its young players—and they need them in the form of impact, in the form of wins.

Short of the Philadelphia 76ers’ sham and scam of the league’s rules by tanking for half a decade, it’s tough to envision a team duplicating the strategy with lottery reform on the horizon.

If done right, turnarounds can happen quicker than saving yourself a seat at the draft lottery four or five years in a row.

A correct mix of scouting, coach selection and veteran influence can put teams back in the playoff hunt quicker than before—as opposed to having similarly talented players making big money without having proven much.

For some fan bases, it represents hope.

For some front offices, you wonder if a shudder of fear is seeping into their buildings, knowing their clock is ticking.

NBA Buzz: Should the Bulls pursue Paul George in free agency?

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: Should the Bulls pursue Paul George in free agency?

Anyone who watched the Oklahoma City Thunder implode in Game 4 of their first-round series against Utah Monday night probably had the same thought run through their mind. “Paul George is so out of there.”

Speculation about George signing a max free agent deal with his hometown Lakers has been running wild since the All-Star forward forced a trade out of Indiana last summer. And, who can forget the scene of George’s parents sitting in the front row at Staples Center cheering on their son as he played a strong game against the Lakers earlier this season?

But if we’ve learned anything through the years watching top level free agents make decisions on their future, it’s that it’s almost impossible to predict what factors will turn out to be most important.

Take the George free agency for example. Sure, he’s talked openly about his desire to play in southern California and his love of the Lakers and Kobe Bryant through the years. But what if LeBron James decides to take his talents to L.A. this summer? Will George be happy playing secnd fiddle to “the king” in his own hometown (if the Lakers can create cap space for a second max contract), or will he look for a better option to showcase his game and his brand?

That’s where the Bulls could come in.

John Paxson said in his season ending news conference it’s unlikely the Bulls would be major players in free agency this year, but he also said he never wanted to go through another season like the one his team had just endured, and that the front office will always be on the lookout for opportunities to add a star player to the mix.

With Zach LaVine’s cap hold and the salary slots included for the sixtth and 22nd picks in this year’s draft, the Bulls would have around $73 million in salary commitments for next season, leaving them just enough space to fit in the first season of a max contract offer for George. And even if they wind up just a little bit shy of a max slot, they could easily create more space by trading one of their back-up point guards or another reserve player.

Would George be receptive to a Bulls offer? Hard to say. The Lakers are obviously his first option and he might also consider the Clippers and 76ers. Doc Rivers would have to do some salary cap gymnastics to make a run at George, but Philadelphia will be in position to sign a major free agent outright, and the thought of George joining forces with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons would be scary for the other Eastern Conference contenders.

After years of toiling in Indianapolis, it’s hard to imagine George being interested in joining a rebuild in Chicago, but as I mentioned earlier, stranger things have happened in free agency.

The assumption in league circles is the Bulls will wait until 2019 to make their big move when players like Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving could be on the market, and might consider signing with the Bulls after watching another year of development from LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn.

But Paxson couldn’t have been more transparent in describing the mental pain he endured watching his team play for the best possible draft position during a 27-55 season, so he’s not going to pass up on a chance to add a franchise player if one suddenly becomes available this summer.

Paul George signing with the Bulls is an extreme long shot, but it’s not totally impossible.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

The biggest surprise in round one of the playoffs has to be the Pelicans’ 4-0 sweep of Portland. After losing DeMarcus Cousins to a season-ending injury, not many people expected New Orleans to even make the playoffs, much less win a series.

But Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry designed a new offensive system, utilizing a three-guard offense of Jrue Holiday and former Bulls Rajon Rondo and E’Twaun Moore to get the ball to superstar big man Anthony Davis, with another ex-Bull, Niko Mirotic providing floor spacing as a third scoring option.

Add to that the almost annual transformation of Rondo into an elite playoff performer, and all of a sudden the Pelicans are dangerous. Granted, they’ll probably come up short in the next round against Golden State, but casual basketball fans are finally getting a chance to see just how good Davis is playing on a national stage. He’s a top 5 talent, who has consistently pledged his loyalty to the organization that originally drafted him.

Assuming the Pelicans re-sign Cousins this summer, it will be interesting to find out what the ceiling might be for this team that seemed to be treading water just a few short months ago.

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On the other side of that series, losing four straight playoff games could signal major changes ahead for Portland. The backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is one of the league’s best, but the Blazers are capped out and have to make a decision on signing restricted free agent center Jusuf Nurkic.

Portland was one of the biggest offenders in the Wild West free agent chase in 2016 after the new tv contracts ushered in a $20 million spike in the salary cap. The Blazers signed Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe and Myers Leonard to ridiculously inflated contracts and then overpaid free agent forward Mo Harkless the following summer.

General Manager Neil Olshey was able to unload Crabbe’s contract in a deal with Brooklyn, but the Blazers are already over next year’s projected salary cap with the contracts already on the books, making it extremely difficult to improve the team’s frontcourt.

So, would Portland consider trading McCollum or Lillard for a package of young players and picks? Lillard just had his best season and is a fixture in Portland, so it’s unlikely he would be moved. But if Olshey decides the current roster has maxed out, he might explore trading McCollum to bring in the reinforcements the Blazers need to contend in the brutally tough West.

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Similarly, what’s next for Tom Thibodeau and the “Timber-Bulls” after they get eliminated by top seeded Houston in round one?

It’s been fun watching Derrick Rose re-kindle memories of his MVP past with his end to end attacks and twisting finishes at the rim. Rose has averaged around 15 points off the bench in the series, probably earning an invitation back to be a rotation player for Minnesota next season.

But what about the uneasy alliance between Jimmy Butler and the TWolves young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins? Butler has one guaranteed season left on his contract, but in an interview with the Sun-Times' Joe Cowley, Butler admitted it’s been tough watching players who don’t share his passion for winning and constantly working to improve their games. Don’t be surprised if Jimmy isn’t already planning his exit strategy with an eye towards Los Angeles.

Butler also said in the Cowley article he has a lot of love for the Reinsdorf family and wouldn’t rule out finishing his career in a Bulls uniform. Now that sounds like an even bigger long shot than my Paul George idea, but after all this is the NBA!

Just visualize Kevin Garnett screaming in his on court interview after the Celtics won the NBA title in 2008. “Anything’s possible!”