Kyrie Irving

NBA Buzz: 2018 brings hope for Bulls fans that rebuild could progress faster than expected

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: 2018 brings hope for Bulls fans that rebuild could progress faster than expected

With another dismal Bears season now in the books, it’s time for the return of my weekly NBA Buzz column featuring analysis on the latest news and happenings around the league.

Let’s start right here in Chicago, where the Bulls' sudden turnaround has drawn a lot of national interest. Since the return of Nikola Mirotic from the injuries he suffered in the training-camp fight with Bobby Portis, the Bulls have put together a 10-4 record, which is even more impressive since it directly followed a 10-game losing streak that dropped the Bulls to a league-worst 3-20.

So, what are we to make of the amazing change of fortunes? First of all, let’s give credit to Fred Hoiberg and his staff for remaining positive and continuing to work hard on player development during the rough start. The Bulls lost a number of close games early in the season that could have destroyed the confidence of a young team. Instead, the coaches focused on working to improve every day, which included tweaking the systems on offense and defense to better suit the talent on the roster.

Secondly, credit Mirotic and Portis for putting their differences aside to work together on the court, in the process helping the Bulls develop one of the highest-scoring second units in the NBA. Mirotic came back from nearly seven weeks of inactivity with his strength and conditioning from an intense summer of weight training surprisingly still intact. And even more significantly, his entire mental approach to the game has changed with a newfound confidence and decisiveness we didn’t see during his first three NBA seasons. Sure, 14 games is a relatively small sample size, but it appears that Mirotic finally understands what he needs to do to be successful at this level, which should ensure a long and productive NBA career.

Portis also deserves credit for adjusting so quickly to the backup center role in place of Cristiano Felicio. Portis’ ability to score in the post and step out to the 3-point line makes him a valuable commodity in the modern NBA game. And some of the best stretches of offensive basketball over the last 14 games have come with Portis and Mirotic on the floor together, which no one would have predicted after their fight two days before the season opener.

The other major factor in the Bulls' turnaround has been the play of second-year point guard Kris Dunn. Since taking over as the starter, Dunn’s confidence and play-making ability has returned to the level he displayed as an All American at Providence. The 6-foot-4 guard has emerged as the Bulls’ closer, ready and willing to take the big shot down the stretch in close games. Sure, he’s had some failures, including Monday night in overtime against Portland, but Dunn’s emergence as a potential high-level point guard is probably the most significant story from the 2017 portion of the season.

So, what does 2018 hold? A lot depends on which direction the front office decides to go leading up to the trade deadline in early February. If John Paxson and Gar Forman decide to trade Mirotic, Robin Lopez and/or other rotation players in hopes of improving their chances in the draft lottery, the wins will come less frequently. Paxson told reporters the night of the Jimmy Butler trade the Bulls would be patient in the rebuilding process and focus on improving through the draft. That leads me to believe the Bulls will sacrifice some short-term success for a better shot at one of the potentially franchise-changing talents at the top of the 2018 draft.

Bulls fans can also look forward to the return of dynamic shooting guard Zach LaVine in the next couple weeks. The two-time Slam Dunk Contest champion is in the final stages of his rehab from ACL surgery last February, and his return will give the Bulls' coaches another athletic wing who can create his own shot in close games. Don’t forget, LaVine was averaging nearly 19 points a game and shooting 39 percent from the 3-point line when he was hurt last season, and despite the injury, NBA general managers voted him the third most athletic player in the league in the annual preseason survey. The 22-year-old LaVine was the centerpiece of the Butler trade, and you can count on the Bulls signing him to a long-term contract this summer with hopes of future All-Star appearances.

Bottom line, 2018 offers Bulls fans some exciting possibilities and hope for the future. It’s no longer just about trying to "secure the Bagley" or "lose every quarter for Porter." The Bulls have already identified three foundation pieces in LaVine, Dunn and rookie Lauri Markkanen, plus some useful role players in Justin Holiday, Denzel Valentine, Portis and Jerian Grant. And they should get a high-quality player in the draft, with ample cap room to spend in free agency in July. With a little luck in the lottery, the Bulls rebuild could progress a lot faster than most people expected.

Around the Association

Tuesday marks the return of All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas from a serious hip injury suffered during last season’s playoffs. Thomas finished third in the NBA scoring race a year ago, averaging 29 points a game on the way to leading Boston to the Eastern Conference Finals. But despite his heroic play, Danny Ainge decided to trade Thomas to Cleveland as part of a package to acquire arguably one of the top 10 players in the league, Kyrie Irving.

How the ball-dominant Thomas fits with LeBron James will be one of the most intriguing storylines of 2018. James is the de facto point guard for the Cavs. The ball is always in his hands with the game on the line. Irving chafed at being asked to go stand in the corner and space the floor for James, and my guess is Thomas won’t be thrilled with that role either. Adding to the drama is the fact Thomas will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, anxious to show the other 29 teams that he’s fully recovered from his hip injury and worthy of a max contract in a year when very few teams have significant cap space.

The James-Thomas-Kevin Love experiment could provide the Cavs with the additional firepower they need to dethrone Golden State in June. But if it fails, James and Thomas could be looking for greener pastures in July, sending the Cavs into rebuild mode.

Speaking of which, did you see the Lakers held a team meeting last week, giving players the chance to air out their grievances? The Lakers have done a nice job of accumulating talented young players through the draft, including Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. But apparently, some of the young guys are looking over their shoulders with all the media reports Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson is looking to make a hard push to sign James and Paul George as free agents this summer.

A couple of those young players might be traded elsewhere to free up cap space, and Randle in particular has been unhappy with the erratic playing time he’s been given lately by head coach Luke Walton. Meanwhile, Los Angeles has been sinking towards the bottom of the Western Conference standings after a solid start, and they won’t have a first-round pick this year because of a previous trade. We know Johnson is popular with current NBA players and has a ton of charisma, but if he can’t convince James or George to come to L.A. this summer, the return of the Lakers to contending status might turn out to be fake news.

Finally, NBA fans have been treated to another exciting rookie class for 2017-18. Bulls fans have enjoyed the sweet-shooting stroke and better-than-advertised athleticism of the 20-year-old Markkanen. He could be a future All Star in the East.

Utah guard Donovan Mitchell has been drawing rave reviews at every NBA stop with his spectacular dunks and 3-point shooting range, and the same can be said for Kuzma, who looks like the steal of the draft as a late first-round selection the Lakers acquired in the D’Angelo Russell trade with Brooklyn.

Jayson Tatum has been a Day 1 starter for a championship-contending team in Boston, ranking among the league leaders in 3-point field-goal percentage. Dennis Smith Jr. is sparking a recent upswing by the Mavericks with his off-the-charts athleticism and play-making ability. Ball gets a lot of unfair criticism because of his father’s antics, but he looks like the type of point guard who can make his teammates better in the Jason Kidd mold. Former Indiana Hoosiers star O.G. Anunoby has come back strong from knee surgery and is showing off his two-way skills as the starting small forward for a very good Toronto team.

Add in the exciting potential of high lottery picks Markelle Fultz, Josh Jackson, De’Aaron Fox and Frank Ntilikina, and you can see why the NBA is in such a good place right now with probably more talented players under the age of 25 than we’ve seen in the long history of the league.

Quote of the Week

I mentioned the stunning transformation of Mirotic's confidence level. That confidence has also carried over to his postgame interview sessions, where he now routinely refers to himself in the third person and isn’t afraid to detail all his accomplishments. Here’s what Mirotic had to say after knocking down eight of 16 3-point attempts in last Friday's win over Indiana.

“My son actually told me before the game, ‘Daddy, I want you to make five 3s.’ I told him I will try. I can’t promise. But I made eight actually. So I’m sure he’s very happy. And he was at the game, too.”

Keep going Niko. Keep going.

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.”

Kris Dunn gets his biggest confidence test yet against Kyrie Irving

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USA TODAY

Kris Dunn gets his biggest confidence test yet against Kyrie Irving

The biggest difference in Kris Dunn has been the overwhelming confidence he’s played with, helping spur this new brand of Bulls basketball.

The biggest attribute Kyrie Irving has in his bag is the overwhelming ability to embarrass his opponent with his trick bag of dribble moves, quickness and tricky shots around the rim.

Safe to say, Dunn’s newfound confidence will be tested against the Celtics—one can surmise it’ll either be validated as real or doubted as some form of anomaly. Irving missed the Dec. 11 matchup with the Bulls due to injury but he’s been on a tear in the six games since.

Irving is averaging 30.2 points and 5.3 assists on 48 percent shooting and 41 percent from 3-point range. In the last eight games Dunn’s numbers represent the best sample size of his career, with 15.8 points, 8.3 assists and 4.9 rebounds on 46 percent shooting.

Dunn doesn’t deny looking forward to the matchup.

“For sure. He’s one of the best point guards in the league,” Dunn said after the Bulls beat Orlando earlier this week. “I’m a competitor, I want to compete against all the best guards.”

While the point guard position is as deep as it’s ever been in recent memory, Dunn hasn’t had to go against the top players at his position in this streak. Charlotte’s Kemba Walker is a fringe All-Star who gave the Bulls big time problems last month, scoring 47 points in a close Bulls win.

But Dunn helped hold Walker to just 5-for-16 shooting, including 3-for-10 from 3 in the streak-starting Bulls' win on Dec. 8.

Since then it’s been a who’s who of “who” opposing Dunn, which makes the matchup with Irving in Boston so interesting.

“It’s a great opportunity for Kris to see one of the best players in the game right now,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “So again (he’s) got to go out and play solid basketball, can’t go out and make it a personal one on one matchup, Kyrie Irving you’re going to have to have full team awareness, you are not going to stop him one in one; for Kris continue to go out, grow and get better but it’s a great opportunity and challenge for Kris tonight.”

Irving can score 30 in his sleep, and even a good defender like Dunn can only provide so much of a defensive challenge. One key will be watching Dunn’s body language if Irving gets it going early—the boisterous and emotional Dunn hasn’t had to tone it down during this streak so if he carries that defeated look it may not bode well for the long run.

“He’s a completely different basketball player,” Hoiberg said. “He’s confident, he’s got a swagger to him; he’s getting into the paint and making plays; he’s shooting his three at a high clip, the best of his career, so he’s doing a lot of things well. The biggest thing we always talk about with Kris is consistency in everything he s doing, offensively, defensively, and he’s again continuing to grow and get better and he still has a very high ceiling.”

It’s easy for Hoiberg to say it isn’t personal, and Dunn isn’t going to make it personal but to put up numbers or to have a positive effect on winning against a player of Irving’s caliber is what coaches want their players to have.

“Always. When you go against the best guards, you have to step your game up to a whole nother level,” Dunn said. “You know they’re gonna go out there and compete. You gotta go out there and battle against them.”

He’ll see Washington’s John Wall, Portland’s Damian Lillard and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry in a four-day stretch starting Dec. 31, point men who can embarrass in different ways.

This stretch hasn’t yet put Dunn on the radar for those guys, but he’s desperate for a measure of respect.

“It’s all about the respect thing. That’s what I’m trying to play with,” Dunn said. “I still have to put a lot more work in. This NBA, it’s not easy. It’s a lot of good guards out there. I have to keep working each and every day.”