Vincent Goodwill

Laugh now, cry later: Jabari Parker's comeback tour stifled in ice-cold performance

Laugh now, cry later: Jabari Parker's comeback tour stifled in ice-cold performance

MILWAUKEE— Jabari Parker could say returning to Milwaukee for the first time was just another game, but anyone with a set of working set of eyes could see otherwise before and during the game.

The crowd at the newly-minted Fiserv Forum didn’t see him walk in with a T-shirt featuring the rapper Ice Cube on the front with the saying “laugh now, cry later” on the back.

“You know about Cube...it’s subliminal,” Parker told NBCSportsChicago.com after the game. “You know the story.”

For the uninitiated, the rapper-turned-actor hadn’t realized an album in nearly six years before churning out a project in 2006, tabbed as a comeback album.

Hence, the parallel with Parker’s return to Milwaukee.

Turns out the laugh was barely a chuckle and the tears were all night along, all across the board for the Bulls as they looked disjointed, out of sorts and at times disinterested in a 116-82 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night.

Parker made his first shot, a driving layup over former teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo. That was the highlight for the Bulls and for Parker, who had eyes on the rim all night.

It would’ve been a welcome sight if the new rims at Fiserv Forum returned the affection, as Parker missed his next 11 shots, repeatedly forcing the action as he tried to prove the Bucks made a mistake by letting the former No. 2 pick walk without compensation to his friendly confines of Chicago.

“I played like doo-doo, but it’s fine,” Parker said. “I just have to get back and in another couple games make up for it and learn from it.”

For Parker, the effort was understandable.

“I try to see what I could’ve done better and go into the next game,” Parker said to NBCSportsChicago.com after the game. “(Former UCLA coach) John Wooden (said) you can’t be caught up in praise or criticism. It’s a weakness to get caught up in either.”

Enduring through injuries after being hailed as a franchise savior coming out of Duke, only to have Antetokounmpo become everything in stature he believed he was destined to be, couldn’t have been easy to take.

“I think it was a good fit,” said Parker to NBCSportsChicago.com on Tuesday. “You have those talented guys together, something good is gonna happen, regardless of what is in front at the moment.”

Parker had stops and starts, re-starts and setbacks through his time in Milwaukee, tearing his ACL twice in four years. It halted the promise he could’ve made as a primary player, let alone a supporting piece next to Antetokounmpo and fellow emerging star Khris Middleton.

There was plenty left on the table, more terrain to possibly be explored but timing and the brutal reality of basketball got in the way.

“Well, that's how it's always gonna be,” Parker said to NBCSportsChicago.com on Tuesday. “I think we got set back when I hurt myself, Khris came back, and even before that, Khris hurt himself when I was back, right? We didn't have a lot of time to figure it out.”

Antetokounmpo, an early favorite for MVP, made lunch meat of Parker and any Bull who dared step into his path. It didn’t take long for Antetokounmpo’s engine to match Parker’s early fury, yet Antetokounmpo had the juice.

Plowing through anyone wearing red on the break and in new coach Mike Budenholzer’s set offense, he seemed perfectly at home in his first preseason game in a building he’ll have afire for the foreseeable future.

His 19 points, 13 rebounds and five assists were accomplished by barely breaking a sweat—as he showed only a pinch of the devastating effect he’ll have on opposing defenses once the games count.

Having trouble with the likes of a matchup problem like Antetokounmpo is nothing to hang your hat over, but everything else seemed to be a problem for the Bulls.

The basics, like moving the ball to open shooters and going through progressions offensively seemed to be a problem, along with the simple task of getting back on defense was too much to ask on this night.

“I was upset with everything,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, who promised a tough practice Thursday. “We weren’t getting back, we let our lack of shot-making affect our overall game as far as edge and effort. Our transition defense was not good and we weren’t getting matched up coming back.”

Hoiberg was clearly miffed at the way his team was executing, repeatedly taking timeouts in the second quarter as the lead ballooned to 20 at the half, capped off by an Eric Bledsoe triple at the buzzer from half court.

The Bulls again struggled from deep, shooting just 17 percent, but it extended to the other parts of the floor as they just shot 32 percent—and mind you, this is a preseason game where intensity on defense hasn’t been ramped up.

“I think in the first quarter, we felt really good,” Zach LaVine said. “In the second quarter we looked like a tired team. They looked good, like they had their legs. They looked like us our first game. It’s good adversity for us when it hits.”

Airballs were more common than good shots and aside from a spurt from Bobby Portis, not too many wearing red could say they brought a game on that two-hour bus ride from Chicago to Milwaukee.

“Transition, they did a good job of getting it up there,” LaVine said. “They were the more aggressive team and, like I said, we looked like a tired team. We need to come out better.”

LaVine was kneed in the thigh in the third quarter and limped to the bench. It was deemed a right thigh contusion and he didn’t return, as from a distance it looked like he was limping on his right knee.

“It felt like a charley horse,” LaVine said. “I could’ve come back into the game but it was no need to. I’m OK. I’m a little tight now but I’ll be alright.”

Too bad he couldn’t say the same for his team with the same assuredness.

Kris Dunn learning the balance between aggression and danger

Kris Dunn learning the balance between aggression and danger

Turning his brain off and letting his instinct lead the way has been fruitful for Kris Dunn, but if he didn’t quite realize it can be a detriment on occasion it smacked him in the face early in the preseason opener.

Diving for a loose ball, he found himself facing the scorer’s table Sunday night against the New Orleans Pelicans.

There’s been plenty of rightful conversation surrounding the expected shortcomings on defense and Dunn is one of the few who qualifies as a plus defender. And with coach Fred Hoiberg lauding so much praise on Dunn during the Bulls’ best stretch of the season last year, it’s easy to see Dunn wanting to lead by example with some of the things that aren’t so glamorous.

But even he realizes he has to exercise some discretion, especially since the games don’t actually count yet.

“When I did it in my mind I said, ‘What the (bleep)! It’s a preseason game, calm down,’” Dunn said at practice Monday. “But I don’t know why. I’ve only got one speed and that’s to play hard, and I’m working on it. I hope there’s no more fluke injuries.”

The cringe-inducing facial injury he suffered last season against Golden State, landing awkwardly after a breakaway dunk essentially finished his season. He lost a tooth and suffered a concussion that had lingering effects in what could’ve been valuable playing time alongside Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen.

And considering Markkanen is out for the foreseeable future with a right elbow injury, the Bulls can’t afford to lose any more impact players—especially their point guard.

He hopes his aggressiveness on defense permeates to the rest of the team, especially LaVine, his backcourt mate. LaVine has come under scrutiny for his defensive play, which he has acknowledged was a point of focus this offseason.

And adding Jabari Parker to the first five will do nothing to dispel the belief the Bulls will be a top defensive team—or even a competent one.

“To Zach, you know I feel like he has the athletic ability and the speed to be a good defender,” Dunn said. “And I tell him all the time, ‘You know you can easily do it.’ It’s just a focus thing, a pride thing. {Sunday] night he got a steal and that’s something he can do very often because he is athletic and has the speed.”

Dunn was one of the league leaders in steals last season while possessing the length and instincts to be disruptive as a whole. And while that’s his calling card he also has to keep the two main scorers, LaVine and Parker, in a comfortable rhythm until Markkanen returns.

“I’m a pass-first point guard. I like getting assists, I like getting guys open, and I like when my guys stay good,” Dunn said. “It’s going to make the game easier for me, but at the same time there’s a lot of good point guards. You’ve got to keep them honest and you’ve got to be aggressive.”

Aggressive, to a point, though.

Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker bond over common injury and hip-hop, and will have to share shots

lavine-and-parker.jpg
USA TODAY

Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker bond over common injury and hip-hop, and will have to share shots

Who knows when the texts between Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker went from simple check-ins and bonding over grueling rehab to recruitment but LaVine wasn’t gonna let the world know if he was tampering last season.

“Umm… right after the season. I know what I’m doing,” LaVine said about when the nature of their conversations turned to the prospect of being teammates.

“I was talking him all last year, man. Talking to him, communicating with him. We’re starting to build a friendship. I talk to him every morning.”

The draftmates from the 2014 class share plenty in common, from the unfortunate timing of their 2017 ACL injuries—LaVine’s was on Feb. 3 while Parker’s second ACL tear was five days later—to their love of old-school hip-hop and LaVine’s infatuation with Parker’s classic cars.

“He’s a real cool dude. Real laid back, an old soul,” LaVine said. “We already have some connections.’’

Their biggest connection to date is the knowledge only a few men in their position can claim—coming back from a debilitating injury and the dark days that occur between surgery and a return.

“He’s had two of them, so I can’t even understand the type of struggles. Because it takes a toll on you,” LaVine said. “I went through one and it’s tough. I think we were both having career years, both averaging around 20 points a game and had some All-Star votes, stuff like that, coming into our own. Then something happens and it takes it all away from you, and it sucks.”

The glimmer in LaVine’s eye and sly smile belied the confidence he feels in his new teammate and a growing friendship among the two highest-paid Bulls along with being the guys who can get their own shots outside of the flow of the offense.

He already feels he and Parker can be two of the leaders on a young Bulls team hoping to surprise folks as the expectations have been modest at best.

“I think it’s the main guys – me, Lauri (Markkanen), Jabari, Kris (Dunn), the main guys on the team that have already established themselves as the main role guys,” LaVine said. “But we’re not going to start this thing on who is the Alpha and things like that. We’re going to need more than one Alpha on the team. That’s how teams are now.”

If Parker’s offensive capabilities are as complete as his short dossier suggests—being quick off the bounce and explosive for his size—then he, LaVine and Markkanen can play off each other to make the Bulls a versatile group on offense.

Usually, though, someone has to take a backseat, especially as Markkanen is expected to take more of a central role this season.

“There’s going to be some games where one of us doesn’t get as many shots as we did the game before or get as many points as we did the game before, but I think as long as we win we’ll be OK,” LaVine said.

But if the results aren’t coming as fast and furious as young teams expect it to, then comes the questioning of the sacrifices that will be made.

“Then something’s got to change. That’s always the point,” LaVine said. “I think we’ll be alright though. I think we’re all unselfish, we all understand each other’s game and where the ball is supposed to go. I think we’ll be OK. We’ll figure out through preseason.”

Playing with pace is objective number one for Fred Hoiberg in this new abbreviated preseason, where the regular season begins about 10 days earlier than usual, so getting the players on the same page will feel like a crash course compared to previous years.

“It’s probably not going to be one guy,” Hoiberg said. “You say this is the player we’re going to go to tonight. It’s hopefully based on getting the ball up the floor quickly and attacking the defense early. We have a lot of guys that are capable of putting up big numbers. You’ve got guys that have averaged 20 points in this league.”

Hoiberg said it’s a trust factor that will come into play, and while many believe the head coach must establish the pecking order, LaVine feels the players must decide amongst themselves who’ll eat first and eat most.

“I mean the coaches are going to make their opinions and assumptions, but I feel like it comes from the players as well,” LaVine said. “We’re the ones playing, we understand each other’s games.”

And of course, that comes with more accountability on the floor with each other when things go awry. LaVine said he’s prepared and hopes his growing friendships around the team can aid in that area.

“I’ve never been one of the most vocal guys,” LaVine said. “I’ve always tried to lead by example and hard work, things like that, but to become a better leader you have to show your voice, so I’ve been trying to do that a bit more.”