Bulls

Whether or not Rose plays, Bulls confident with Watson at the helm

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Whether or not Rose plays, Bulls confident with Watson at the helm

BOSTON Derrick Roses status for Sunday afternoons showdown against the rival Celtics is still undetermined, but if he doesnt play, his teammates wont fret. No, C.J. Watson cant equal the reigning league MVPs impact, but as the Bulls 5-1 record without Rose and that one loss, on Martin Luther King Day in Memphis, was Watsons first game back in the lineup after a sprained left-elbow injury attests, the backup point guard is a more than capable replacement.

Watsons mindset when starting for Rose is the same thing when I know hes playing. Go out there and try to be aggressive, try to change the tempo of the game and just push the ball, he said. I can only be myself. I cant be another D-Rose. I have to play my game and do what I do best.

In his first year with the Bulls last season, Watson faced a steep adjustment, in terms of reduced minutes and a completely different style of play after thriving in Golden States run-and-gun system. By the end of the campaign, however, he had earned head coach Tom Thibodeaus trust (in the one game Rose missed last season, with a stiff neck, Watson scored 39 points as a starter in a narrow November loss at Denver, where the Bulls were beaten by a Carmelo Anthony buzzer-beater) and had developed into an astute floor general for the teams potent second unit, The Bench Mob.

Last year he had a really good year. Studying the games from last year, every time we played him extended minutes, he played extremely well. He was terrific in the playoffs. He had a very difficult job last year. He was deserving of more minutes than he got, but he handled short minutes great and hes got great character, and hes a terrific leader, said Thibodeau. Hes done a great job with the second unit, but hes shown he can play with the first unit and when he starts or he plays with Derrick, its just a different weapon we can go to and it gives us multiple pick-and-rolls. It also adds to our shooting, which I thought was a big concern. So, it gives us another three-point shooter on the floor. So, we want to take advantage of that.

Concurred Luol Deng: Were very lucky to have C.J. Hed be starting for a lot of teams. Were not worried when he fills in for Derrick. Were such a deep team that whenever someone goes down, guys are just stepping up and doing a great job.

The soft-spoken, but quietly confident Watson himself acknowledged that hes taken his game up a notch this season and has accepted his role, knowing that its often tough to shine when playing behind the leagues MVP.

This season has been better. Im just trying to go in and play better, play well while Im in and do what I can, and just hope for the best, he said. Watson brings everything, a lot of different stuff to the table. Playing out there sometimes with D-Rose, just trying to up the tempo when Im in the game, make open threes, get to the basket if Im open.

Thibodeau has gone more frequently to a dual point-guard set with Rose and Watson as of late, allowing the Bulls to match up better with smaller teams, as well as push the pace.

Its a good option to have because its a different look. So, we can do it defensively to match up with two point guards and we can do it offensively to add some things that we like, to add more three-point shooting to the floor, more multiple pick-and-rolls, things of that nature. I like it and theyve shown that theyve can play very effectively together, said the coach. In transition, its either or as far as who handles the ball, but Derrick is usually the primary guy, but sometimes its good for C.J. to handle and let Derrick catch off a live ball because its different. It puts, I think, more pressure on the guy guarding Derrick.

Explained Watson: Its fun to play with Derrick, to get out there and run, and get a lot of easy spot-ups with him. Theres a lot of attention on him and its good that we look to get out on the fast break and run when we get the rebound.

Its less pressure to do more stuff and create for yourself, and your teammates. With another point guard with Derrick out there its a lot easier, he continued. Most of the time, he handles it and if the ball comes to me or if I get the rebound, I push it and try to get it to him or whoevers running the break with me.

We just decide on defensive assignments while on the court. It really doesnt matter. Mostly, I guard the point guard and he guards the two-guard. It just depends on foul trouble.

In Roses view, the smaller lineup frees him up to be even more of a scorer, though his opinion of who handles the ball more differs from that of Thibodeau and Watson.

C.J., when hes in, my job is usually spot up or driving to the hole because he handles the ball the majority of the time or hes coming off pick-and-roll and I can spot up, and shoot the ball. But I love playing with someone that can handle the ball, he said. Its weird. It feels weird sometimes, knowing that I dont have to come back to get the ball after we get the rebound. I can just run down the court and get in our play sets a little bit early.

While Thibodeaus been pleased with how Watson has run the show, his teammates are happy with how the shoot-first point guard has been distributing the ball and his defense has also rung up accolades, the Las Vegas native is himself disappointed in one part of his game. Prior to last Wednesdays blowout win over the Hornets, Watson was shooting 49.1 percent from three-point range, but since then coincidentally, just as a push to get him in the leagues All-Star weekend three-point contest began although hes played well in other aspects of the game, hes been ice-cold from deep.

My agent pushed it first and ever since then, I havent hit a three, so Im just going to stop. No more Tweeting it for me, no mentioning, so Im just going to shoot the ball, he joked. After that, it was downhill.

Zach LaVine's conditioning at '70 percent' but still on schedule

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USA TODAY

Zach LaVine's conditioning at '70 percent' but still on schedule

Everybody saw the play, that awkward instance where Zach LaVine looked ready for his second dunk of the season but was fouled from behind by Atlanta’s Taurean Prince.

It looked as if LaVine was ready for liftoff but one of his jets misfired, sparking at least the thought of his recovery from his ACL injury being a bit off—but he laughed at the thought.

“I don’t know why everybody keeps talking about it,” LaVine said Sunday at New Orleans’ Smoothie King Center, where the Bulls held practice. “The dude stepped on the back of my foot, so I couldn’t get off the ground. Everybody’s wondering if I’m okay, yeah. I just missed a fouled layup.”

The adrenaline from his first two games have worn off a bit, and he missed his first four shots from the field Saturday before hitting a couple in the start of the third quarter in the Bulls’ 113-97 win over the Hawks.

He looked winded a few times during his stint and admitted his conditioning isn’t where it should be—as expected given he’s missed 11 months of real basketball. He said his conditioning is at about “70 percent”, and you can certainly see it in his jump shot not being as fluid as it was last season in Minnesota.

“It was feeling good in practice but in games it’s seventy,” LaVine said. “Playing defense, getting back, running the break, just getting used to it.”

Add to it, the Bulls cover the most halfcourt ground of any team in the NBA with their set offense and Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has long said he’s not slowing down his offense while LaVine is in.

The shooting guard will have to catch up to the pace, and it’ll probably be better for him in the long run.

“I think it’s just ‘okay’ and rightfully so,” said Hoiberg about LaVine’s conditioning. “It’s impossible to simulate game action in practices when you’re doing individual workouts. Every time he plays that conditioning will ramp up. As he plays, it’ll get better and better. And he’s such a good and natural athlete, it’ll come back quickly.”

Hoiberg isn’t concerned about the variances in LaVine’s performances. He came out the gate with such force and adrenaline in his debut against Detroit and two days later against Miami, but it’s tailed off against Golden State and then Atlanta.

“I think Zach’s doing great,” Hoiberg said. “You look around the league where players have come back from significant injuries, he’s gonna be up and down. His first two games he’s been unbelievable. A couple games he hasn’t shot the ball great. He played unselfish basketball last night.”

LaVine’s minutes has been extended to 24 from 20, and he’ll still practice in the off-days as the Bulls want to keep his rehab on schedule as opposed to having him play heavy minutes initially.

He’ll be re-evaluated after Wednesday’s game in Philadelphia and could see his minutes rise before the Bulls host the Lakers Friday at the United Center.

“I should just get used to it,” LaVine said. “Just getting used to the swing of things. It takes a second for your body to get adjusted to it.”

Three Things to Watch: Bulls visit Pelicans

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Three Things to Watch: Bulls visit Pelicans

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Bulls take on the New Orleans Pelicans tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Pregame Live.

1. Anthony Davis

The five-time All-Star just continues to improve. While he's not averaging career-highs in any major category, no one's going to scoff at his 26.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 2.1 blocks in 36 minutes per game. He's shooting nearly 56 percent from the field and is on pace for a career-best in 3-pointers made, which is a pretty impressive statistic. Lauri Markkanen will have his hands full, and it may be in the Bulls' best interest to get Nikola Mirotic some early minutes to try and get physical with Davis. There's no real way to slow him down.

2. DeMarcus Cousins

And if the Bulls should so happen to get lucky and slow down Davis, there's another All-Star starter waiting alongside him. Boogie Cousins has been every bit as good as Davis this season, averaging 25.3 points, 12.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists in 36 minutes. He's certainly not as efficient as Davis (47 percent from the field, 5.0 turnovers) but is deadly inside. He's shooting a career-best 52.8 percent on 2-pointers this season, and his 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks make him a serviceable defender (although the Bulls could certainly stretch their offense to make him work more).

3. Rajon Rondo

Rondo hasn't been great in his first season with the Pellies, but perhaps he's turning things around. Beginning with his absurd 25-assist game just after Christmas, Rondo is averaging 7.4 points, 8.2 assists and 1.0 steal per game. He's allowed Jrue Holiday to play more off the ball, and while his defense is nothing to write home about he's logging solid minutes for a Pelicans team woefully short in the backcourt.