Bulls

With Cutler back, season on the line in next three games

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With Cutler back, season on the line in next three games

The Bears expect to have Jay Cutler back as their starting quarterback after reportedly being cleared by an independent neurologist checking for concussion symptoms lingering from the head blow he took against the Houston Texans.

On the other side, the Minnesota Vikings wont have wide receiverkickoff returner Percy Harvin, unable to practice all week because of an ankle injury.

Make those two significant personnel positives tilting in the Bears favor. Harvin leads the Vikings with 62 catches, nearly double the next-highest total of 34 for Kyle Rudolph, and leads NFL with a return average of 35.9 yards.

But the Cutler return is a game-changer, literally, both for what it brings to the offense in production and in presence. Put another way, the Bears believe theyre a good team with Cutler.

And right now they need to feel something positive on offense, after two games with a combined one touchdown, two offensive-line demotions,

Cutler for his part had a week off to observe (at a distance since he did not make the team flight to San Francisco) and presumably gain a small bit of urgency from not being able to help teammates in a dire situation.

Its different because I really didnt take part in the meetings or practice, Cutler said. It was kind of like a bye week. When you get hurt its an isolated feeling. Your identity with the team is gone and its a helpless feeling not being able to help them and not be where you want to be, out there with the guys.

Now hell have that chance.

Three and done?

Cutlers return comes at a pivotal juncture. The remaining six games are all against NFC teams, four of the six against NFC North opponents.

As much as coaches and players point to the fact that the Bears are still 7-3 after consecutive losses to Houston and San Francisco, only once in franchise history (1979) has a Bears team lost three straight games and reached postseason.

And that team needed to win seven of its last eight to get in. Since this team doesnt have eight, only six, this game becomes a borderline absolute must whether the Bears like it or not.

We have three losses, coach Lovie Smith said. Must? Theres nothing about must when you have three losses. Its a game we want to win in the worst way. We look at every game, its about this week and we need to get a win in the worst way. But big picture it doesnt really say that.

Its Minnesota, a division home game and we havent played well in a couple of weeks. We need to win.

Viking struggles

The Vikings will say the same. They defeated the Detroit Lions last week but lost their two before that to approach the brink of sinking into the mass of mediocrity.

Coach Leslie Frazier is 0-3 against his old team and none of his Vikings units scored more than 14 points against the Bears.

The past is the past, insisted running back Adrian Peterson, who has been less than dominant after demolishing the Bears in 2007-08 as a young Viking. Its different guys they have on their front. Theyve got different guys offensively. Were looking to turn things around.

Turnaround Tice?

Peterson and the Vikings are not the only ones in search of a turnaround or at least major course correction.

The anticipated progress of the offense under first-time coordinator Mike Tice with new weapons like Brandon Marshall and a line returning No. 1 pick Gabe Carimi has not happened. The Bears are 30th in yardage per game (299.4) and are 31st in passing.

Tice is pointing thumb, however, not the finger.

After watching the San Francisco debacle, Tice had some of his harshest criticisms for himself.

It was hard to watch, Tice said. It should have been hard to watch yourself, because thats your resume. And right now my resume is not very good. Im the one calling the plays. Im the one leading the offense and I have to do a better job. I have to find a way to do a better job for us, for all of us, the players, and for my peers that I work with and for the fans.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Will Kris Dunn build off career night?

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Will Kris Dunn build off career night?

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill, and Kevin Anderson react to a breakout game from Kris Dunn against the Hornets Friday night. They’ll discuss his development and how it impacts rookie Lauri Markkanen. Plus just how long will both the Wolves and Bulls be judged on the Jimmy Butler trade? Is Dwight Howard a hall of famer? And a new era in Philly with Simmons and Embiid. That and more on this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast.

Observations from Bulls-Hornets: Kris Dunn, a sigh of relief and hack-a-who?

Observations from Bulls-Hornets: Kris Dunn, a sigh of relief and hack-a-who?

Kris Dunn did it: You can’t play that position without an edge, without some form of “basketball killer” in you. Kris Dunn showed at the very least, he has that in his DNA in his best game as a Bull with a career-high 22 points, seven assists and five rebounds.

Leave it to Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg to point out a forgotten stat: one turnover in 26 minutes.

“That’s the biggest thing I’m proud of,” Dunn said. “Everyone knows I’ve had a lot of careless turnovers in the season. It’s one thing I’ll take credit for.”

Dunn scored 13 with six assists in the fourth quarter alone as the Bulls outscored the Hornets 40-28 for the comeback victory. More than anything, it was his competitive spirit and aggressiveness that stood out. Kemba Walker stood across the way and gave Dunn—and the Bulls—every bit of 47 points.

“He tested my conditioning, for sure,” Dunn admitted. “He’s a great player. He’s been in the league for so long. It was good to go out there and compete with him.”

It could’ve went a different way had Walker not been bothered by Lauri Markkanen’s challenge at the rim, blowing a layup that would’ve given the Hornets the lead back with seconds remaining but he missed it and the narrative changed at least for a night.

And when teams are talking about learning experiences, it’s good to have them in a win every now and again. Markkanen’s challenge at the rim followed by his closing free throws right after, along with a quietly effective 16 points and seven rebounds, proved huge on this night.

Dunn finally having a confidence booster was imperative.

Dunn scored but it wasn’t an easy 20 or a smooth 20. It was an attacking 20, a necessary 20. He did hit some elbow jumpers, especially in the fourth as the defense laid off him.

But his biggest basket was a slithering drive to the rim for a layup with 2:24 left, because he attacked and was under control.

“That’s huge growth for Kris,” Hoiberg said. “He made the right play darn near every time he had the ball in his hands. Rose up with confidence, knocked down huge shots. Defensively got them going, got steals.”

What a relief: Nobody wanted to say it, but it bore out on the floor, the sheer desperation the Bulls played with.

Coming in with a five-game losing streak and headed out west to for four games in the next week, they were staring in the face of a possible double-digit losing streak to end November.

Confidence was sparse after three bad losses, and it’s a dangerous time for a team that will struggle to win games all season.

The United Center crowd got into it, particularly late when the Bulls began climbing back into contention to start the fourth quarter. The fans wanted this win too, even with the eyes being on a larger prize coming in mid-2018.

The relief was written all over Hoiberg’s usually-stress ridden face and he even cracked a couple jokes that weren’t aimed in his direction, as self-deprecation is normally his escape of choice.

“It is important but I asked the guys: is it hard to play with that type of effort? When you play with that type of energy and effort and swagger, it’s fun,” Hoiberg said. “When you play low energy and hang your head, it’s a drag. It’s hard to play at this level with that mentality.”

Starting change: Justin Holiday returned after his quick leave with his wife delivering a baby girl recently and his game-high 27 points showed he missed the Bulls as much as they missed his shooting, hitting four triples and going 10 for 15 from the field.

“Guys were serious about getting their jobs done,” Holiday said. “It was a lot of energy, a lot of energy, competitiveness. That’s how we have to play every night for our team to do well.”

Denzel Valentine, although he didn’t want to say it, wants to be a starter. Hoiberg chose Quincy Pondexter over him recently and then made the change Friday to insert Valentine for more scoring.

Valentine scored 18 with six assists and five rebounds in 32 minutes of run—and with those two starting as scoring options, the Bulls surpassed that seven-point first-quarter mark really early and scored 26 overall.

He hit a big triple in the fourth with 2:49 left to give the Bulls a 110-109 lead on a set play the Bulls actually executed between Valentine, Dunn as a setup man and Robin Lopez as a screen to pop Valentine open.

If he continues to hit 3-pointers at a 40 percent clip, especially with the way the Bulls have struggled to start games, he’ll have the right to feel he belongs in the first five.

“It’s definitely more confidence,” Valentine said. “You feel you’re an NBA starter, you get to go in and feel it out for a second and bring some energy to start the game.”

He didn’t mince words about starting, with a little honesty saying, “I think it’s huge being a starter.”

When asked if he felt validated by his performance and the result being a high-scoring win, it was just as telling.

“I think I deserve…I think I deserved a starting role,” Valentine said. “At the same time it’s different combinations, different people that need to be on the floor at certain times, so if he feels like I don’t need to start, I won’t start. But I feel very comfortable starting as well.”

Hack-a-Dwight: It could be Hack-a-Dwight, hack-a-Drummond, hack-a-Wilt or Shaq or Charles Shackleford.

The Bulls went to it and Howard went two of four from the line but it took a little rhythm from the Hornets and probably slowed Kemba Walker down just enough before he got cooking in the last 90 seconds and almost pulled a win out of his keister.

But…

I hate it. Get it out of the game completely.