Miami Heat

Should Zach LaVine's minute-restriction make way for the Bulls' winning restriction?

Should Zach LaVine's minute-restriction make way for the Bulls' winning restriction?

The time goes by fast for Zach LaVine, from tip-off to the time he’s subbed out for Denzel Valentine as part of his minute-restriction plan.

“It goes by really quick. I look up, I’m like man, it’s already seven minutes,” LaVine said. “But that’s why I’m trying to make the most of the 20 minutes, think I’m doing a good job so far. I set out to help in every way I can.”

For the damage he does in his limited time, it’s making the Bulls and their winning-restriction plan go to mush, as he put up 18 points with five rebounds, five assists and more importantly, more minutes will be on the horizon sooner rather than later. After the Bulls’ 119-111 win over the Miami Heat Monday at the United Center, one has to wonder if the Bulls are approaching a crossroads for the season—or if unfortunately for the front office, the checkpoint on the long-term plan has already been unwillingly passed to the point of no return.

At 17-27, the Bulls are, in a sense, where they didn’t want to be—straddling the line between going for a playoff spot or getting as bad as possible to get in the best possible position for the lottery.

They’re here because Kris Dunn is playing like a top-half point guard and Lauri Markkanen is performing like a top-three rookie, shooting the three with a volume that would be the best for a first-year player in NBA history—a perfect fit for Hoiberg’s system.

Markkanen is growing perhaps into the superstar they hope to draft in June while LaVine will do everything he can to prove he’s more than a max player but a legit superstar who can play winning basketball along with filling up a box score.

And they’re managing to win close games at a rate experienced teams usually do, playing with a poise and freedom that stemmed from low expectations and a 3-20 start.

“We knew they were on a winning streak and just tried to play hard,” Markkanen said after a 17-point, nine-rebound night. “And play unselfish like we always do. And we had much success, so that tells a lot.”

The Heat was in a similar position last season, starting out 10-31 before making a charge so strong the Bulls had to win every game down the stretch to secure the final playoff spot.

After a so-so start, the Heat are nearly on a 50-win pace with a similar roster and no one with the ceiling of LaVine or Markkanen—along with having to replace Dion Waiters’ scoring and swagger, as he’s out for the season with ankle surgery.

John Paxson took the reins this offseason and firmly made the decision to begin a painful and possibly long, rebuild. But when affordable acquisitions like Justin Holiday starts shooting 50 percent from 3-point range and torches the Heat for seven triples and 25 points, it makes then plan harder to execute.

When Nikola Mirotic sprinkles some pixie dust on his game before the start of the fourth quarter to go from being scoreless to scoring 18 in the last 12 minutes to close out their third straight win, it puts the pressure firmly on the front office to make a big decision, yet again.

“The thing we’re chasing is that we’re trying to continue to grow and get better,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Take steps in the right direction. That’s all we talk about. We’re not talking about what’s at stake.”

Hoiberg is keeping his eyes and ears away from the front office's plans, as it does him no good but to bunker down with his locker room and peck away at this record.

He may not be discussing it with his team, but LaVine said the team is watching the Eastern Conference standings, game-by-game. At six games behind eighth-seeded Detroit, there’s four teams between the Bulls and a playoff spot—while being four-and-a-half games behind the Orlando Magic at the cellar.

And with the Magic rumored to be going all-in on selling before the trade deadline, willing to unload Evan Fournier, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja, according to the New York Times, it’s clear they’re trying to cement themselves at the top of the lottery.

The Golden State Warriors are coming to the United Center in two days, and it’s likely the requisite beating will take place to quell some of the immediate optimism. But after that, the Bulls have some winnable contests that will likely have them right about where they are now, with each passing game lessening the likelihood of plummeting to the bottom.

It leaves Paxson and the front office in a precarious position, as the team is playing with more spirit and togetherness thus leading to praise the front office for its roster construction.

Trading a fourth-quarter performer like Mirotic would go over well in most circles, and although Mirotic is saying all the right things about having the most fun in his NBA career and wanting to play more with Markkanen, he still wants out and he prefers to go West.

One could see the Bulls taking a deal from the Utah Jazz in the form of expiring contract Joe Johnson and a protected first-round pick, then possibly buying out Johnson and letting him go to a contender with the pick being the crown jewel of the deal.

The longer he stays, the more games the Bulls win, the harder this becomes—and one has to ask about the futures of Robin Lopez and Holiday—who would be valuable as a reserve for a playoff team.

But would the Bulls trade anybody for the sole purpose of getting worse in the meantime? Hard to say but hard to envision Paxson doing anything less than what he deems equal value.

This season started with drama, proceeded as planned but took a turn towards something unexpected—and rather quickly.

And like LaVine’s minutes, the Bulls will have to make another decision because deadlines are approaching faster than even they could foresee.

Denzel's career day, Dunn's day to forget, bad timing: Observations from Bulls-Heat

Denzel's career day, Dunn's day to forget, bad timing: Observations from Bulls-Heat

Despite holding the Miami Heat to seven points in the first quarter the Bulls suffered their fifth straight defeat, 100-93 at the United Center Sunday afternoon.

Dunn struggles again: He sat for the final 18 minutes as Fred Hoiberg again chose to ride Jerian Grant down the stretch. Kris Dunn didn’t get his coach much reason to keep faith in him as he missed his six shots and his assist-to-turnover ratio was equal (four each)—not a great sign moving forward.

In his four starts leading up to Sunday’s game, Dunn totaled 17 assists to 16 turnovers, with four turnovers in every game—so at least he’s consistent.

But he looked unsure running the offense and appears to be thinking too much about the reads and plays as opposed to being instinctive, aggressive.

“Kris needs to come out and be an attack player, that’s who he is,” Hoiberg said. “That’s when he’s at his best. He missed a couple early and that can affect his confidence the way it did.”

Dunn graded his play as a “C” since becoming a starter, and had he come back with a roaring performance after getting baptized by Stephen Curry two nights ago it would’ve been a boon for overall confidence in him in the position.

Now, Hoiberg will have to coach him up and it should be a concern moving forward. As if his plate isn’t full enough, Hoiberg will have to be psychologist and point guard whisperer for Dunn.

“The big thing for Kris, you know we love him—he’s had some really good moments for us, we’re going to continue to start him, he’s got to go out there and make the right play,” Hoiberg said.

Grant, for a rare instance, played decisively and with a level of force in scoring a career-high 24 points, hitting three triples in 30 minutes.

“Just being more aggressive. I feel like when I’m out there with the second guys, I have that opportunity more,” Grant said. “Whether I’m starting or coming off the bench, I have to be aggressive.”

Make no mistake, Grant wants to start, even if the team wants to fully invest in his replacement.

“Absolutely. As a competitor in this league, you want to be out there with the first five,” Grant said. “You always want to fight for your spot back but at the end of the day you want a win.”

Valentine shines: Denzel Valentine is quietly putting together a solid sophomore campaign, all things considered. He was the one Bull who was hitting shots when nobody was in that horrific first quarter and has become a trusted playmaker of sorts.

As of this moment, Valentine might be the best decision-maker on the roster. Last year, he saw a lot of openings but couldn’t make decisions quick enough.

This year, he seems to be more judicious in threading the needle and waiting for secondary shots to develop—with the evidence coming in fits and spurts.

It resulted in his best statistical performance with 14 points and career-highs in rebounds (13) and assists (seven), including hitting four of six from the 3-point line.

“I thought he was our best playmaker in the first half,” Hoiberg said. “I thought when he had the ball, he was doing a good job getting Robin (Lopez) the ball, he rebounded at a high rate and shooting with confidence.”

Valentine has earned Hoiberg’s trust at the small forward spot and hopes to keep it when Zach LaVine returns in the coming weeks. He’s been more vocal in practices with his young teammates, and his patience showed when the Heat focused its defense to Valentine.

“Today I think I could’ve scored more at the end but they loaded so much on me,” Valentine said “I told Jerian to take over and he was getting guys open looks. It (stinks) we didn’t finish it off.”

Another (former) Bull strikes again: Friday it was Jordan Bell trolling the Bulls with money signs and swatting shots before asking how “cash considerations” was performing.

This time, it was a player who actually suited up for the Bulls in James Johnson that came back as a ghost of Thanksgiving past. Johnson was a Bull from 2009-11 before being traded to Toronto and bouncing around through other stops, now settled in Miami as a key contributor with his unique skill set.

All four members of the Heat bench who played scored in double figures, including Wayne Ellington hitting five triples for 19 points.

Johnson was a glue, adding seven rebounds and six assists to his 15 points in 28 minutes.

He scored 11 in the fourth as the Heat pulled away—coupled with Goran Dragic scoring 14 of his game-high 24 points in the period. Johnson was seven of nine from the field and enabled the Heat to keep Hassan Whiteside and Dion Waiters on the bench late.

“We have a lot of weapons, a lot of guys who can do it. We’ve all played our roles,” Johnson said. “We’re trending, we’ve been trending in the right direction. You take some bumps and bruises along the way but as long as we’re playing consistent and sticking to our habits everything is gonna fall in our favor.”

On this afternoon, they delivered the bumps and the bruises to the Bulls.

U-G-L-Y, the NBA was the alibi: The 13-7 first quarter score looked more like a Bears-Dolphins tilt, although the Bears would probably lobby for taking 13 points in a game these days.

The Heat shot 11 percent, missing 17 of 19 shots while the Bulls were scorching, shooting four of 24 from the field.

Considering the Bulls have taken huge beatings on the western trip, it would be easy to attribute the ineptitude to recent performances but the NBA should’ve known better on this one.

Scheduling a 2:30 game less than 24 hours after flying cross-country, along with the Bulls having a weird back-to-back in Los Angeles then Salt Lake City, it hasn’t been kind.

“We did not. You want to look into that,” Hoiberg quipped to ESPN’s Nick Friedell.

Perhaps the NBA is trying to help the Bulls along with their “process”.

Lauri Markkanen keeps making history for the Bulls scoring in double figures again

Lauri Markkanen keeps making history for the Bulls scoring in double figures again

Another night, another achievement for Lauri Markkanen.

The Bulls rookie had perhaps his best performance as a pro on Wednesday against the Heat, scoring a career-high 25 points and grabbing eight rebounds. He shot 50 percent from the floor, added two more 3-pointers and even contributed with a pair of steals.

With his performance Markkanen became the sixth Bulls rookie in franchise history to score 10 or more points in each of his first six games.

Check out the video above for the others, and hear from Fred Hoiberg on why he believes Markkanen can be a superstar in the NBA.