Bulls

Bulls observations: Kobe commemorated, and Bulls edge out Spurs

Bulls observations: Kobe commemorated, and Bulls edge out Spurs

An emotional night at the United Center ended with a 110-109 Bulls victory. Some observations:

Remembering Kobe Bryant

The Bulls organization and fans have collectively showed out to honor Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna from Sunday through the start of this one. A short summary:

 

 

 

 

Before Monday's game, the Bulls aired a short tribute video commemorating Bryant, followed by a 24-second moment of silence:

 

‘Kobe!’ chants broke out when each team took respective 8- and 24-second violations to start the game off:

The team picked Zach LaVine up

But there was a basketball game to be played, too, and it started — understandably — slow. The Spurs led 28-21 after one and held significant advantages shooting the ball (52.6% from the field to the Bulls’ 39.1%) and on the glass (15-8).

The Bulls closed all those gaps in the second quarter thanks to a welcome stretch of solid bench play. At the half, the Bulls’ reserves had 23 points to the Spurs’ 25, led by Coby White (10 points, 5 rebounds) and Denzel Valentine (7 points, 3-for-4 shooting). Five offensive rebounds in the second was a highlight.

After an opening two quarters in which Zach LaVine scored just four points on 1-for-8 shooting, the Bulls led 50-48. That’s encouraging in and of itself, given some of the Bulls’ role players’ propensity for inconsistency (and the team’s general short-handedness).

The third quarter cometh

It was another third quarter that saw a game nearly slip away from the Bulls. The Spurs won the period 37-25 behind 16 third quarter points from DeMar DeRozan, who took the game by the reins for stretches. Patty Mills also notched 11 points coming off a 12-point first half. He finished the night with 25.

The Bulls entered play with the 27th-ranked third quarter point differential in the NBA (-1.5) — a number which will now sink further into the red. They didn’t shoot phenomenally well in the period (44% from the field; 3-for-8 from three), but it was the defense that slipped. The Spurs hit all six of their looks at the rim and all four corner 3-pointers they attempted in the period, which, alone, is 24 points to the 25 the Bulls scored. Jim Boylen won’t be happy with 13 Spurs free throw attempts, either.

A fourth to remember

But the Bulls shook off the third quarter rust with as memorable a fourth quarter as this arena has seen in quite some time.

Both teams came out sharp from long-range; Valentine hit two early 3-pointers to tie a season-high with 16 points, making a strong case for re-entry into the rotation (he finished with 19 minutes and seems to have usurped Shaq Harrison). Then, from the 6:54 mark to the 4:54 mark, the Bulls staged a 12-1 run that flipped a 95-89 deficit into a 101-96 lead. 

The UC was loud.

From there, the Spurs pulled back level at 101, and the two played tug-of-war for a tad, with the Bulls employing a little 'hack-a-Poeltl' (the Spurs' starting center finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds, but made just one of four free throws down the stretch, 2-for-8 on the game). A Thad Young 3 put the Bulls ahead 108-104 with 2:29 remaining, followed by a personal 4-0 DeRozan run to knot the game 108-108.

And the ball was in Zach LaVine’s hands.

He ripped through three Spurs on the Bulls’ ensuing possession, and ended up with the benefit of a late whistle to send him to the free throw line with 2.1 seconds left. He sunk both. After DeRozan was then fouled on the other end (I know, nuts), he bricked the back-end of two free throw attempts. The one he missed would have been his 37th point of the evening. Bulls win. And Jim Boylen moves to 2-0 in his career against Gregg Popovich.

LaVine entered the fourth quarter with just nine points. He finished with 23, scoring 14 in the period on 4-for-8 shooting. He even came up limping on one possession after appearing to roll his ankle. Didn’t matter. It’s hard not to think of Bryant — whom LaVine said earlier today is part of the reason he wears the No. 8 — in reflecting on that outing.

Take anything from this, an emotional game, with as many grains of salt as you wish. But it was a thrilling, short-handed win against a solid team (albeit without LaMarcus Aldridge). On to Indiana Wednesday.

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How Bulls' potential front office revamp could impact Jim Boylen

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USA Today

How Bulls' potential front office revamp could impact Jim Boylen

Here’s what Bulls coach Jim Boylen said at Media Day back in September:

“Our goals for the season are to make the playoffs. And every day to prepare like we’re a playoff team. Every day to work like we’re a playoff-bound team. I’m excited for that. I think that’s the only way to do it. There’s no way that we were going to stand up here and say, ‘Hey, I hope we can win 10 more games or we hope we can be better.’ We want to get to the mountain top.’’

Here’s what Boylen said Tuesday night:

“It is a win-loss league, but that’s not the only thing that gets evaluated. Are we establishing a style of play? I think we have. Have we cleaned up our defense that needed to be cleaned up? I think we have. Have we established a shot profile that’s top five in the league? I think we’re three right now in the shots we get compared to other teams. So those are all positive things,” he said. “And then you can look at the what-ifs, which I don’t do very often. With our shot profile, what would Otto Porter do in that shot profile? He’d be pretty successful. And Lauri Markkanen and right on down the line.

“I’m not worried about my personal record or my win-loss record. I’ve been asked to establish a style of play, to have a disciplined approach and develop a young group of guys. And in my opinion, we are doing that. Case in point – Coby White’s improvement, Daniel Gafford’s improvement. Cris Felicio, I think, is doing a heckuva job for us. So play the guys you have and hopefully make them better.”

There’s both some moving of the goalposts and truth to what Boylen says.

Yes, the Bulls have suffered an inordinate amount of injuries. Yes, they had a top-10 defense, which is impressive for such a young team, before injuries to crucial defenders like Kris Dunn and Wendell Carter Jr. occurred. Yes, they continue to play hard most nights, including Tuesday’s 124-122 loss to the Thunder in which injuries forced the rotation to prominently feature Cristiano Felicio, Adam Mokoka and Shaquille Harrison.

But the Bulls began the season at full strength, playing mostly non-playoff teams and came out of the gate at 3-6 before Porter went down first.

“It is hard for me. But that’s not my calling. That’s not what they ask me to do,” Boylen said about how difficult the reality of the won-lost record is. “Nobody in this organization said to me, ‘You got to win this many games.’ Nobody said to me, ‘Hey, we’re going to talk about wins and losses all year.’ Not one time have they said that to me. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to win. It doesn’t mean we’re not trying to win, but nobody said that to me.

“I have to honor the organization with trying to do this thing the right way. If we do that and if we can get healthy, I feel good about it.”

As has been written and said plenty, ownership and management first hired and then extended Boylen because they saw a teacher who held players accountable. So, yes, the full evaluation of Boylen moves beyond won-loss record.

And that’s why Boylen answered confidently when asked if it would surprise him if management used the Bulls’ poor record against him.

“Yes, it would,” he said. “I don’t foresee that happening.”

But here’s the rub: However the Bulls end up restructuring the front office this season, there will be at least one new prominent voice in basketball operations. So Boylen’s future won’t merely be decided by who is currently employed by ownership.

In fact, while executive vice president John Paxson will remain with the organization, the biggest new hire is expected to have significant autonomy in basketball operations. While it’s unknown at this point whether this hire would be able to solely determine Boylen’s future, that prerequisite likely would be a priority for most attractive candidates.

This story isn’t over yet.

To Boylen’s credit, he’s staying true to what he believes in, including currently keeping Coby White in a reserve role despite loud outside noise to start him. White is playing electrifying and historic offense these days, piling a career-high 35 points tonight on top of back-to-back, 33-point games.

White is the first rookie in NBA history to post three such games off the bench.

“I keep getting this question and I’m just going to answer it one more time: Coby is in a good place. We’re going to keep him in a good place,” Boylen said when asked about starting White. “I understand what you’re trying to ask. But let’s let Coby keep playing and keep developing and keep him in a good spot. That’s my goal right now.”

Boylen has other goals and they all stem from staying true to his beliefs. Time will tell if that’s enough for him to return.

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Bulls observations: Zach LaVine and Coby White nearly lead epic comeback

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USA TODAY

Bulls observations: Zach LaVine and Coby White nearly lead epic comeback

After a lackluster first half, the Bulls nearly staged the comeback of the season behind 76 points from Zach LaVine and Coby White. But ultimately, the Thunder prevailed 124-122. Observations:

Daniel Gafford needs to stay out of foul trouble

Jim Boylen again stressed at shootaround this morning the importance of the Bulls defending without fouling. As a team, they entered play dead last in the NBA in opponent free throw rate, and conceded 28 charity stripe trips to the Thunder when they met on Dec. 16. 

Daniel Gafford has been among the biggest culprits in that area. Since re-entering the regular rotation (from injury) after the All-Star break, Gafford has averaged 4.8 fouls per game, including a foul-out in 16 minutes against Charlotte in his first game back. Tonight, he picked up two in the first three minutes of the game and a third early in the second quarter en route to just five first-half minutes (and 14 total). He finished the night with four personals. 

That’s a problem for a Bulls team thin on the front line and struggling defensively. In Gafford’s stead, Cristiano Felicio played 33 minutes, and though he posted an admirable six points and nine rebounds, most would agree — for the sake of both development and staying competitive — Gafford minutes are preferable. As a team, the Bulls committed 25 fouls and sent the Thunder to the line 30 times, though that was boosted by having to play the foul game late.

The sweet life of Zach and Coby rolls on

Another game, another torrid combined performance from Zach LaVine and Coby White. This one was especially fun.

LaVine poured in 41 points on 19-for-35 shooting, White a new career-high 35 points on 13-for-21 (6-for-9 from 3-point range). As the Thunder rained hellfire from long-range and otherwise picked the Bulls’ defense apart early, those two kept the team afloat on the other end. Then, they keyed a whirlwind of a comeback in the third. 

 

In that third quarter, LaVine notched 19 points on a preposterous 9-for-11 shooting; White had three timely 3-pointers — each eliciting exponentially louder roars from the United Center crowd. Play them together as many minutes as humanly possible down the stretch of the season… When they’re ‘on’ in unison, it’s downright electric.

Also worth mentioning is this is White’s third 30-point game in a row. He’s set, matched, then re-set his career-high scoring totals in each of the last three games. That type of momentum is immensely encouraging in what had been a tumultuous rookie season. 

This time, it was the Bulls’ turn for a comeback

The Thunder put on an absolute offensive clinic in the first half — canning 11 of their first 15 3-pointers, assisting on 19 of 26 made buckets and committing just five turnovers. Danilo Gallinari was en route to a career night (he had 17 points on 5-for-5 from 3 in the game’s first six-and-a-half minutes) and the Bulls’ defense again looked woefully undermanned. 

But that third quarter swung the game for a bit. The Bulls won the period 38-19 behind the aforementioned contributions from LaVine and White, and also four Oklahoma City turnovers. The hosts held the Thunder to 36.8% shooting from the field (1-for-8 from deep) in the period after they shot 63.4% in the first half.

In these teams’ first meetup of the season, the Bulls coughed up a 26-point lead late on the Thunder’s home floor. Tonight, it was their turn to flip the script — that is, until the end.

Ultimately, not a bad loss

The Thunder eventually ground out a nail-biter of a 124-122 win behind a litany of crucial plays by Chris Paul (19 points, nine assists) down the stretch. With the loss, the Bulls drop to 20-39 on the season and 1-9 in their last ten. But against a really good Thunder team — they’re now 36-22 and have won nine straight on the road — this isn’t one to hang heads about.

LaVine catching fire — and nearly pulling off a Charlotte-esque barrage in the game's final minute — another scorcher of a game from White, and clawing back after such a lackluster first half is enough to take solace in given where we are with this team. Let’s enjoy the ones we can and take the silver linings as they come.

Next up: The Knicks in New York on Saturday.