David Nwaba

Fred Hoiberg sees energetic Bulls improving and 'taking steps in the right direction'

Fred Hoiberg sees energetic Bulls improving and 'taking steps in the right direction'

It’s not exactly a skill, which is good considering the makeup of the Bulls’ roster. And it’s tough to measure, so there’s no way of knowing exactly where they rank among other teams. But its results can be easily seen, and in a year where the Bulls have swapped out talent for youth, they’re discovering an energy and passion that’s suddenly resulting in unexpected victories.

The Bulls moved their winning streak to three games on Monday night against a tired and depleted – and yet still far more talented – Celtics team, earning a decisive 108-85 victory that displayed just how much this team still cares. Granted, caring alone and playing with energy won’t have them playing in May or June, but good habits being formed by young players give some optimism for the future.

It was everywhere on Monday night. A letdown of sorts from the Celtics could have been predicted. Boston was playing its third road game in four nights, and the first two (San Antonio on Friday, Detroit on Sunday) were anything but easy. MVP candidate Kyrie Irving was resting a quad contusion and even Al Horford (knee) wasn’t cleared to play until about 20 minutes until tip.

But talent alone still could have pushed the Celtics ahead against an inferior Bulls team. With young wins Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, a backcourt of Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier, and 30 minutes of Horford the Celtics were still equipped to get by a Bulls team that entered Monday with the league’s worst record.

But it didn’t happen. The Bulls were far more aggressive, contested jumpers that Boston wouldn’t, played passing lanes and went after loose balls that the Celtics watched more often than not. Boston took 40 3-pointers even without Irving (and Marcus Morris), and they committed 15 turnovers. It was sloppy throughout, and the Bulls took advantage.

Nikola Mirotic, starting in place of Lauri Markkanen (back), scored 24 points on 9-for-14 shooting. Kris Dunn was solid again, and the bench scored 30 first-half points that allowed the Bulls to lead by as many as 18 on a team that hadn’t lost a game by double digits all season.

Bobby Portis scored 23 points on 10-for-15 shooting, David Nwaba continued his stretch of stellar play with 13 points, six rebounds and a steal, and Jerian Grant chipped in nine assists in 23 minutes off the bench. The Bulls were solid across the board, holding the C's to their lowest point total of the year and shooting 48 percent with 12 3-pointers against the most efficient defense in the league. 

“This is third game in a row now that everybody that’s stepped on the floor has made a positive contribution for the team,” Hoiberg noted.

Those habits are something Fred Hoiberg has seen all season, and his comments sounded more genuine than simple coach-speak. These Bulls players, a majority who are fighting for their spots in the league and their futures, have had the right attitude every night. The talent in the league is the result of a 6-20 record, not the effort.

“Even when we were going through the (10-game) losing streak our guys were coming in and continuing to work. They were very attentive in practice and film sessions,” Hoiberg said. “They kept their head down, kept grinding, and it’s paying off for us with the way these guys are going out every night and competing.

“We’ve come in every day and talked about, win or lose, taking steps in the right direction.”

The Bulls are still headed for the Lottery, and the truth is the majority of these Bulls working every day won’t be on the team when it’s time to contend for titles. But in a season where the Bulls had lost 15 and 16 without much of a direction, a three-game winning streak shows that this team is heading in the direction Hoiberg wants and that better days are coming because of it.

Bobby Portis returns to Bulls with clean slate

Bobby Portis returns to Bulls with clean slate

Bobby Portis’ eight-game suspension is over and the assimilation process back into the land of the living will begin Tuesday night in Toronto.

While Nikola Mirotic continues to recover from the damage Portis’ punch caused, Portis will make his season debut and seemingly everybody is curious as to what type of player will step on the floor at the Air Canada Centre.

He’s been practicing with the team through his suspension and considering his incident with Mirotic was an act of aggression, it’s understandable to wonder if he’ll try to curtail that attribute when he comes off the bench.

“He’s been the same player as far his energy is concerned,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Every time he steps on the floor and need a jolt of energy, he can provide that for us. He needs to continue to do those little things that have made him successful when he’s been on the floor his first couple years in the league.”

Hoiberg intimated Portis has a clean slate and the situation won’t be held against him in terms of playing time. Hoiberg was asked if he had mixed emotions personally to have Portis back while Mirotic is still weeks away from stepping on the floor—if he even wants to do so in a Bulls uniform.

“Again guys, this is something that unfortunately, it happened. There was an altercation, and Bobby served the eight-game suspension,” Hoiberg said. “It was something that was thought a lot about as far as what the punishment would be in collaboration with the league. They felt that this was the right punishment. He sat out his games and he was able to stay active and practice with us. Now we’ll put him back on the floor. And again, we welcome him back.”

Portis hasn’t developed much of an identity in terms of production in his first two years but energy is the first thing that would’ve come to mind when Portis’ name was brought up—before his incident with Mirotic days before the season tipped off.

He’ll back up Lauri Markkanen at power forward and perhaps play alongside Markkanen at center for stretches, depending on the lineups the Raptors deploy.

[MORE: With Jahlil Okafor on trading block, is a Chicago homecoming imminent?

The circumstances, the wait and Portis’ general fervor for the game means he’ll probably be a bag of nerves before checking in. Since the incident and subsequent suspension, he’s had to leave the arena two hours before gametime so it’s been quite awhile since Portis has been around a meaningful basketball game.

“That’s human nature coming back from an eight-game layoff, suspension,” Hoiberg said. “I’m sure there will be some nerves. There are always nerves associated with the first game of the season. The biggest way to combat that is to go play with energy and do the things that have made him a successful player.

“Keep it simple. Focus on defending and rebounding. Don’t try to do too much early in his return. I’m sure he’ll be going 100 MPH his first time out there. But just give us great energy.”

They’ll need it from somewhere, in part due to David Nwaba’s right ankle injury keeping him out two-to-four weeks, according to Hoiberg. Portis was long mentioned as a top worker during the summer, spending a lot of time in Chicago in preparation for the season.

Tuesday will be step one in the process of having his name associated with something else besides punching a teammate.

“I’m definitely anxious to see what he has to bring,” Robin Lopez said. “I know he’s been putting in a lot of work, he put in a lot of work this offseason. I know there’s been some interesting situations going on, but I think we’re all excited to have him back on the court.”

David Nwaba is having a block party and the whole NBA is invited

David Nwaba is having a block party and the whole NBA is invited

David Nwaba probably isn't the Bulls' longterm option at guard, but he's certainly making the most of his starting opportunity. 

Signed this offseason in a move framed as Gar Forman and John Paxson taking a low-risk flyer on an athletic defender, the 24-year-old Cal Poly alumnus has impacted games with his high energy and all-around floor game. 

Case and point: Friday's feel-good, 105-83 road win over a surprisingly solid Orlando Magic squad, where Nwaba finished with 16 points, five boards, two steals while posting a game-high plus-21. 

Maybe the most eye-opening moment of the Bulls' second victory of the season, though, was the block party invitation Nwaba hand-delivered to Magic forward Wesley Iwundu:

It caps a solid road trip for the second-year pro, who's played in only 27 career NBA games. In the Bulls' loss to Miami on Wednesday -- Nwaba's first start of the season -- he snagged 11 rebounds and rejected two shots. 

And while there are clear limitations to Nwaba's offensive game (see: outside shooting), his high motor, pressure defense and, you guessed it, ridiculous blocks have been welcoming sights for a team with a penchant to miss assignments and allow the more-than-occasional blow by. 

"I don’t expect you to know who I am," Nwaba wrote in a Player's Tribune essay just after being claimed by the Bulls. "I’m just thankful to have the chance to tell you."

It looks like he's done telling us now, opting instead to just show us: 

Nwaba will lose minutes to Zach LaVine once the Bulls' top talent recovers from ACL injury, but as of now, he's played himself into a future rotation.