NBA

Observations from Bulls-Bucks: Closer Dunn, Defender Nwaba, Niko and Hoiball(!)

Observations from Bulls-Bucks: Closer Dunn, Defender Nwaba, Niko and Hoiball(!)

Dunn, the closer: It was an amazing sight but one that isn’t all too surprising if you’ve seen Kris Dunn play over the past few weeks—attacking a defender late in a game for a layup.

Except the defender was one of the longest and perhaps most athletic player in the game, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Dunn repeatedly attacking Antetokounmpo when they were matched up in the fourth quarter, as opposed to ceding to Antetokounmpo’s length.

Rocking the ball from right to left, he gathered momentum toward the rim and finished with his off-hand for a creative finish with 53.8 seconds left to give the Bulls a 111-104 lead.

“I feel like I had the matchup,” Dunn said. “I wanted to be aggressive the whole game. He’s long and athletic, but I thought I could get at his feet and that’s what I tried to do.”

The intelligence in that statement, realizing if there’s a place to attack a player like Antetokounmpo, it would be his feet. It helped complete perhaps one of Dunn’s most complete games as a pro, with 20 points, 12 assists, four steals and two blocks.

Dunn had four turnovers, but three of them occurred in the first quarter—a period where he had six assists. With a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, it’s a lot easier to swallow—in fact, the turnovers mean next to nothing when you take care of the ball late and finish the way he does to close out games.

“He didn’t settle,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I thought he did a good job of attacking and getting into the paint. He had really good finishes tonight.”

More important than helping the Bulls win their eighth game in 10 tries was the way he bounced back after their Saturday night loss to the Celtics in Boston. He took the loss on the chin and instead of it spiraling to a place where bad performances repeat themselves, Dunn washed it away.

“We’re resilient,” Dunn said. “Each and every game we’re trying to improve as a team.

“Me trying to be a leader, I had to show them I could be positive. I can’t have my head down. This team believes in me. I’m gonna keep being aggressive.”

Nwaba, the stopper: Antetokounmpo had two fouls midway through the second quarter and was playing with fire, barreling into David Nwaba on a fast break, hitting him square in the stomach.

The officials swallowed their whistles as Nwaba was doubled over catching his wind after Antetokounmpo’s layup.

The superstar calls are a way of life in the NBA and Antetokounmpo has earned that treatment. Nwaba will have to make his living absorbing plays like that, knowing the benefit of the doubt won’t go his way in most cases—while still having to crowd the superstar wing men of the league to make life difficult.

“It’s exciting, so I enjoy it,” Nwaba said. “It’s nothing I need to prepare for. I just need to know what I can bring to the table and know I have to lock in.”

Nwaba’s lock-in turned to a lockdown of the NBA’s second-leading scorer in the fourth quarter. Antetokounmpo made his first five shots from the field and scored 24 in the first three quarters, but didn’t register in the score sheet in the fourth until there was 2:11 remaining—and the Bulls led by 9.

“People don’t realize how strong he is,” Dunn said. “He’s a muscle-head. Props to him for taking on that role and trying to make it difficult for him.”

It didn’t go unnoticed by Nwaba’s coach, either.

“Nwaba does a good job, you’re not going to complete stop (Antetokounmpo),” Hoiberg said. “Giannis is going to be in the MVP talk all season long. But David isn’t going to back down from anybody.”

Niko, again? Yes, again: The pump fake was back, although Nikola Mirotic wasn’t using it on every single possession. But the relentlessness remained and the confidence is overflowing from Mirotic, who led the Bulls with 24 points.

Eight of those came in the fourth when the Bulls outscored the Bucks 32-23. Mirotic hit a couple back-breaking jumpers from ball movement, unbothered by Antetokounmpo running out at him.

“All this work is from practice. We’ve been practicing great as a team,” Mirotic said. “You can see the chemistry of the team is a little different. Everybody knows his role, knows what he needs to do. Defensively we are improving.

“We are finally learning how to play with each other. This has a lot to do with Fred. Calling the right call each time. The team is executing very well.”

Averaging over 18 points and nearly eight rebounds, it mitigates the regression of rookie Lauri Markkanen, who watched the critical moments of the fourth quarter from the bench.

Markkanen, who used to be the lone dependable starter, was now the only starter not in double figures, going one of seven in 20 minutes. But Markkanen grabbed seven rebounds and had his first taste of being defended by Antetokounmpo.

He’ll learn.

Wait, what?

So let’s see: The Bulls had eight turnovers to the Bucks’ 20—and four of the Bulls turnover came in the first quarter….

Five Bulls scored in double figures and none of them were named LaVine or Markkanen…

Their best plus-minus performer didn’t score in double figures and according to the advanced stats, makes everyone better around him (Bobby Portis)…

It was Portis who grabbed Kris Dunn and kept him from getting into it even more with Bucks swingman Khris Middleton when both got tangled up in the final minute, going to the floor…

“Peace and love, that’s what I’m all about,” Portis said with a smile….

It was also Portis who swatted a shot into the expensive seats after a whistle had been blown, Kevin Garnett-style, prompting a smile from Hoiberg on the bench…

Was that Jerian Grant playing aggressive in the fourth quarter against Eric Bledsoe?...

And this Bulls team, being scrappy, playing confident, tough and sharing the ball to the tune of 26 assists—averaging 26.1 assists in their last 10 games?

That’s Hoiball.

Bulls-Celtics observations: Good Kyrie/bad Dunn, C's second half blitz, heads down

Bulls-Celtics observations: Good Kyrie/bad Dunn, C's second half blitz, heads down

The third quarter: The Bulls were overwhelmed, blitzed by the Celtics. A two-point game at the half blew open in a matter of minutes as Kyrie Irving and Al Horford keyed a 13-2 run that effectively ended matters as the Bulls never seriously challenged the Celtics after that.

Not only are the Celtics one of the best teams in the NBA, their offense is among the most diverse, with an athlete like Jaylen Brown on the wing along with a budding scorer in rookie Jayson Tatum to go with a scorer in Irving and a playmaker in Horford.

It was on full display and the Bulls had little in reserve. Tatum scored just 13 but was all over the floor, and Brown—while not as offensively gifted as Tatum—was explosive from the corners and in the open floor, scoring an easy 20 points on just 10 shots, hitting four triples.

Look, part of this was predictable. The Bulls gave them a 23-point whipping almost two weeks ago in Chicago. Payback was necessary.

“They’d lost two in a row, we knew they would come out with great energy,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “For 24 minutes, we matched it. They came out in the third, threw the first blow and we never recovered. We shut it down for a stretch. You can’t do this. Against a team like this, you can’t shut down.”

Even their hustle plays, like David Nwaba crashing the glass for an offensive rebound, went unrewarded. He tried to kick it back outside to reset the offense except no one was in that space, as it trickled out of bounds on the other end.

They mustered up just 34 points in the second half after 58 in the first.

Just one of those nights.

Bulls offense, what Bulls offense: Irving missed the first meeting between the two and it resulted in the Celtics’ worst loss of the year. Well clearly he wanted to return the favor as the Celtics led by 23 midway through the fourth after Irving’s fifth triple.

His counterpart, Kris Dunn, couldn’t engineer the Bulls’ offense to the same effect. Dunn played his worst game in ages, going one for 12 for two points and seven assists in 25 minutes. He still got inside the paint but couldn’t convert much of anything, unable to combat Irving’s tricky pick-and-roll game.

Without that element to the offense, one that Celtics coach Brad Stevens called “the best in the NBA” over the last 10 games, the Bulls were easy to defend.

“Those are my shots. Shots I work on, shots I hit,” Dunn said. “Plenty of good looks. They didn’t fall today. I’ve had plenty of bad games like that, Look at the film see what I can fix. I’m not gonna get down on myself, still gonna be confident. We got a lot of good looks, just didn’t hit.”

Dunn wasn’t the only one to struggle. Bobby Portis had a loud, impactful first half with 15 points and seven rebounds before mustering just two points and one rebound after.

Nikola Mirotic had his most humble game to date with nine points and nine rebounds, hitting just three of 10 shots.

The Celtics defense confused the Bulls for long stretches and unlike their game in Cleveland, they couldn’t respond in the second half, shooting just 31 percent and turning it over 12 times.

Dunn baptism: Every point guard goes through nights like Dunn had. Great ones, bad ones, mediocre ones. Irving had been on a mission coming into Saturday’s game and Dunn wasn’t going to get in his way.

Irving can say some pretty amazing things—as in weird—and he can match those words with on-court exploits.

“Just our pace, staying on the boards, making sure we were communicating what we needed to do to extend the lead as best we could,” Irving said of the third quarter where the Celtics outscored the Bulls 38-18.

It was an easy 25 that felt like it could’ve been 40 if Irving really wanted to send a message. Which is why in a way, it was a message to the second-year point guard.

“You know he’s good. Ain’t no secret to that,” Dunn said. “He shoots the ball well, try to make it difficult for him. You know he’s gonna take 20 shots. Try to make it difficult. The only thing you can do.”

Perhaps Dunn was trying too hard to get it back, a hard temptation to resist with the freedom Irving plays with nightly. Combined with being close to home for the first time this season, he had to take this lesson on the chin—even though he went down swinging in trying to take the game to Irving.

“Nah, you got to. You have no choice,” Dunn said. “Good players, if you just let them be aggressive, they’ll be so comfortable they’ll do anything on the court. You gotta bring it back to them, wear them down.”

His attitude is important considering how many point guards will come his way on a nightly basis, as well as his struggles coinciding with the team’s offense sputtering.

That’s no coincidence.

“He had a tough night, no doubt about it,” Hoiberg said. “He had a really good stretch of basketball. Again, we’re not going through the season without bumps in the road. We’ll battle back, get Kris’ confidence up, which he will. I’m confident of that.”

Heads down: Some of those ugly habits started to appear in the second half, habits many thought were long gone in this new and improved version of Bulls basketball.

The body language was bad, they kept their heads down for extended periods and didn’t stay with the game plan—even though it’s tough to hang in with a team that shot 70 percent for most of the first half and you’re hanging by a thread with crowd-quieting jumpers.

At some point, the thread was going to snap and we were all going to be reminded this team is in the early stages of a rebuild.

“They just had more edge than us, specifically in that stretch of the third quarter,” Robin Lopez said. “Seems like we conceded a lot, they seemed pretty comfortable out there, especially on offense.”

Dunn could see it, but things were already headed downhill in the first 90 seconds of the third quarter and it continued for the entire 24-minute second half. It shouldn’t be chalked up to mental weakness; the Celtics just had more to play for than the Bulls did, and have better personnel.

“The ball wasn’t going in for us, heads went down,” Dunn said. “We didn’t fight adversity. The first half we did a good job defensively, they still made tough buckets. It’s one of those days. Credit to them.”

As long as this stretch doesn’t continue—they haven’t had a loss like this since Dec. 4 when the Cavaliers came into Chicago and beat them by 22—it can be written off as anomaly.

“We’ve been pretty good about not getting down on ourselves these stretch of games,” Lopez said. “We reverted a little tonight. I don’t think that’s gonna be a problem going forward. The mental makeup of our guys has been pretty fantastic. That bit us tonight.”

NBA Draft Tracker: Oklahoma PG Trae Young

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USA TODAY

NBA Draft Tracker: Oklahoma PG Trae Young

When the college basketball season began, not many fans knew about Oklahoma freshman guard Trae Young. He was nowhere to be found in early mock drafts done by the national websites.

Now, the 6'2 Norman, Oklahoma native is the talk of the college basketball world after matching the Division I record with 22 assists in the Sooners' win over Northwestern St. on Tuesday. He also scored 26 points in that game, becoming the first player in nearly two decades to record at least 20 points and 20 assists in the same game. Young currently leads the nation in scoring and assists, averaging 28.5 ppg and 10.2 apg.

But it's more than just the raw numbers that make Young such an intriguing prospect. His ball-handling skills, quick release and unlimited shooting range remind scouts of a young Steph Curry. And, while it's always dangerous to compare an undersized freshman to a two-time league MVP, remember how undervalued Curry was coming out of Davidson because of concerns about his strength and durability.

If you want to see Young for yourself, he'll be playing against Chris Collins' Northwestern team Friday night at 6 p.m. in a nationally televised game. Watch how easily Young is able to get his shot off, using elite dribbling skills and step-back moves to create separation from defenders. He's got range well beyond the NBA 3-point line which often catches college guards flat-footed, and he's quick enough to blow by defenders for easy baskets in the paint.

Young's passing ability was on full display in that blowout win over Northwestern St. on Tuesday. He's got the full arsenal of no-look passes, with his ball-handling skills allowing him to get into the teeth of an opponent's defense and still find an open teammate.

How does he potentially fit with the Bulls? Well, if they continue on their current hot streak, the Bulls could find themselves picking in the 5-10 range, instead of at the top of the draft. Young was recently listed as the No. 9 pick in a mock draft done by Basketball Insiders, and he should continue to climb up the ladder if he maintains his current numbers against a tough Big 12 schedule.

If the Bulls drafted Young, they could potentially pair him with Kris Dunn in a smaller backcourt, with Dunn taking on the defensive responsibility against taller shooting guards. Zach LaVine would have to slide to small forward in that line-up, but in today's position-less NBA with more teams utilizing guard-heavy line-ups, a Dunn-Young-LaVine trio could work.

Nothing has changed at the top of the draft, where Marvin Bagley, Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic are still the top prizes, but keep an eye on Trae Young throughout the college season. The similarity in his style of play to Curry is pretty remarkable.