Bulls

No doubts: LaHair believes it's about to turn

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No doubts: LaHair believes it's about to turn

PITTSBURGH Bryan LaHair knows the trend line, and understands that what he does will be magnified.

The Cubs first baseman gets that its easy to pick out a bad week or two. Its hard to blend in when youre the cleanup hitter for a team on a 10-game losing streak.

LaHair emerged as a bright spot in April, ending the month hitting .390, and it became a story of perseverance. A former 39th-round pick, he had spent parts of the past six seasons on the Triple-A level, and was willing to go play winter ball in Venezuela.

LaHair woke up on Saturday with 10 home runs, tied with Paul Konerko for the major-league lead among first basemen. But his average had dropped 89 points. He was 1-for-25 in his previous nine games. It hasnt shaken his confidence.

Im not getting it done, LaHair said. Im not going to sugarcoat anything. I havent been doing my job to the best of my ability and its tough to do that for (162 games). These kind of things happen. As soon as the season starts, I accept that theres going to be certain parts where I struggle.

Im prepared for it. Its not something I want to happen. But now the challenge is to get past this and get back on track. I got no question Im going to do it. Theres no doubt in my mind.

LaHair looked relaxed sitting in the chair in front of his locker, and he didnt sound the least bit defensive. He believes in all the work that he put in to get to this point, that its made him more mature, better equipped to handle failure.

Its not like LaHair was putting up numbers in garbage time. Seven of his 10 homers have either tied a game or given the Cubs a lead.

Theo Epsteins front office likes LaHairs overall approach, which is why last winter they reassured the Pacific Coast League MVP that thered be a place for him here.

LaHair has been seeing 4.27 pitches per plate appearance, which ranked eighth in the National League. He reached base safely in 32 consecutive games between April 8 and May 15.

Before LaHair cooled off, the team president explained why this shouldnt be a mirage.

The results probably arent going to be this Ruthian, so to speak, Epstein said recently, but I think the quality of at-bats will remain consistent. Its not a fluke. Hes doing things the right way. Hes recognizing pitches out of the pitchers hand really early. Hes letting the ball travel and get deep. Hes really short and compact to the ball.

Hes hitting the ball hard. Hes hitting it where its pitched and hes covering just about the whole strike zone. So hes going to go through slumps and everything, but its really encouraging. Not just what hes doing, but how hes accomplishing it.

LaHair has come back down to earth, part of the natural regression as the advanced scouting picks up and pitchers learn more about his game. Manager Dale Sveum, a former hitting coach, has been a big advocate, but sees a few holes.

Hes getting to the point now where I think hes starting to guess along with the pitcher (and) you cant do that, Sveum said. Hes just not taking his walks. (Its) swinging out of the strike zone, trying to do too much (or) trying to put all the weight on his shoulders.

LaHair wants that responsibility, and isnt looking over his shoulder at first base, even though top prospect Anthony Rizzo is coming fast. The Cubs will want to find ways to put those two left-handed bats in the middle of the order.

LaHair doesnt have to be Babe Ruth, but he could still be in the All-Star conversation.

The whole point of Epsteins year of evaluation was to open up opportunities for the future, and give someone like LaHair 500 or 600 at-bats to finally show whether or not he belongs.

These guys believe in me, LaHair said. The confidence level as far as every time I walk to the box hasnt changed from the first six weeks. Its just when thoughts creep into your mind (you have to remember) its what happens. Its baseball. Im not intimidated by struggling.

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.