Bulls

Bulls sense something building after productive September: 'The mentality of this organization changed'

Bulls sense something building after productive September: 'The mentality of this organization changed'

There’s a chance we’ll look back at September 2019 as the turning point of the Bulls’ rebuild.

It’s obviously too soon to say – the Bulls have still won 49 games in two seasons and have the NBA’s second youngest roster – but the unanimous sentiment around Media Day on Monday at the Advocate Center was that there’s a fresh breath of air throughout the organization.

Last season wasn’t rock bottom, but it felt like it at times. Core pieces of the rebuild missed significant time with injuries, there was a midseason head coaching change, the players walked out of a practice, the Bulls suffered eight home losses of 23 or more points, and they struck out in the Lottery for a second consecutive season.

But the front office quietly put together a strong summer, nabbing two key veteran free agents and drafting a point guard with much-needed versatility. Jim Boylen took it upon himself to spend time with each key piece of the roster. And perhaps most importantly, there was near-perfect attendance inside the Advocate Center during the final month of the offseason.

And it was in that month of September that the Bulls say they began to see a shift. With six new faces – seven including Otto Porter, who played just 15 games for the Bulls season – the team meshed in those September workouts, leaders were formed and the intensity increased. All getting-guys-in-our-building jokes aside, the Bulls believe that month of time together will push them forward as they enter Year 3 of the rebuild.

“A lot has changed. I think the mentality of this organization changed. Since I’ve come here, just what we want to do here has changed. With that being said, I think everybody’s on the right page, I think with all the talent that we have, we’ve come early to put in that extra work to get to know everybody, every piece in here, even in the front office, because we want to do something special here.

“And I think it starts by coming together, being around each other. I think that’s what starts it. And then working together on and off the court. Playoffs is a definite achievement that we want to accomplish.”

Porter noted a handful of players flying to Las Vegas to watch the rookies in Summer League, four different 1-on-1 tournaments that the Bulls held in those September workouts, and complete buy-in from everyone that formed chemistry and bonding that wasn’t there a year ago.

There’s a reason that everyone who spoke Monday said the Bulls have playoff aspirations. It’s a significant shift from April’s end-of-the-year press conferences when there was cautious phrasing about what the future looked like. The famous “P” word was not uttered once.

“You can just see the vibe that’s just happening in this building as far as the camaraderie with the new guys, the old guys, as far as a belief system in just putting in the work,” general manager Gar Forman said. "And the last thing I would say is that the job Jim and his staff have done, watching them throughout the draft process, through Summer League, through individual workouts, through what they’ve done in September, to me has been top notch.”

Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen have bought into the leadership roles they’ll need to take on as the Bulls’ 1-2 punch. Adding a veteran in Thaddeus Young who has both experience with rebuilds and on playoff contenders has also done wonders, and he’s already taken it upon himself to be a vocal leader in the locker room. Tomas Satoransky led the Czech Republic national team to a surprising sixth place finish in their first ever World Cup before arriving in Chicago, and Wendell Carter fully recovered from the core muscle surgery he underwent earlier in the summer.

“We had full attendance,” Boylen said on what made the September workouts so special. “I think the energy that they brought and the dedication to being here is a statement. It’s a statement that they want to be here and they want to win.

“We can’t start camp with a limited camp, with the shortness of camp, five preseason games, behind. We talked about that. And they made the commitment to come in and work and care. I feel we’re starting camp in great shape.”

It also helped that the Bulls were – knock on wood – healthy. The only injuries of note are Chandler Hutchison (hamstring) and Luke Kornet (turf toe), who both will miss the first week of training camp. Denzel Valentine (ankle) and Carter (core) will be monitored in the early going but both are expected to be ready to go when practice begins Tuesday afternoon.

But that’s when it really begins. The Bulls weren’t the only team to have a productive summer or buy-in from their players in the lead-up to training camp. This is still a team with significant question marks on the wing and a handful of rotation spots up for grabs. There is no room for slip-ups if their goal is to make the postseason, which would in all likelihood require a 20-win jump from a season ago. The roster is improved, they have a whole offseason under Boylen and their core pieces are healthy, but the proof will be in the results.

A successful September only matters if it leads to a successful October and November.

“The commitment our guys made this last month to be here when they don’t have to be, to get together, to form some camaraderie, has something that has been a powerful thing around this building,” VP John Paxson said. “We know as well as anyone that we have not done anything. For us we know we have to evolve into a very good basketball team, but we like our talent level and we like what we have in this building.”

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Four observations: Bulls play Miami tough, but lose in a heartbreaker

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USA Today

Four observations: Bulls play Miami tough, but lose in a heartbreaker

The Bulls scrapped, but fell to the Heat 110-105 in a hard-fought overtime showdown in Miami. Observations from a defeat, snapped from the jaws of a potentially season-turning victory:

Bulls got off to fast start

The last time these two teams met, the Bulls played themselves out of the game early, allowing the Heat to jump out to a 15-0 lead in the first four-and-a-half minutes of the first quarter. Not so tonight. The Bulls came out of the gates locked in defensively and (for the most part) hunted good looks on the offensive end:

They held Miami to 4-for-15 (26.7%) shooting and forced five turnovers en route to a 25-16 lead after one. Of course, the Heat punched back, making nine of their first 10 shots in the second, but the Bulls clung to a 49-47 lead at the halftime break.

Boylen emptied the bench (again)

By the 3:13 mark in the second quarter, all 12 available Bulls had seen game action. Last week, Jim Boylen said that he had intentionally begun to lean on the starters over the course of the team’s recent west coast swing, but him emptying the bench early in games has continued.

Part of that occurring tonight had to do with early foul trouble for Daniel Gafford, who picked up three fouls in a two-minute span in the first quarter. Luke Kornet logged three largely unproductive minutes early in the second quarter, presumably in Gafford’s stead.

Overall, though, the bench brought just about everything you could ask of it for most of the night. Denzel Valentine and Thad Young combined for 23 points and stroked a couple timely 3-pointers to keep the Bulls in the game in the second and third quarters. Coby White shot only 3-for-9, but finished the night with a career-high (!) eight assists. Even Shaq Harrison had a couple feisty moments.

Late-game adjustments were made, but similar mistakes persisted

After Friday’s loss to Golden State, Jim Boylen faced questions about his decision to roll with his starters for the game’s final eight minutes. Tonight, he adjusted, closing the fourth quarter and overtime with Coby White on the floor over Tomas Satoransky.

The Bulls’ general execution, though, remained spotty. There were positives: Before fouling out late in OT, Kris Dunn had seven points and two steals between the final two periods. Lauri Markkanen — after coming alive with a 13-point spurt in the third quarter — had a gorgeous take and finish to put the Bulls up 95-94 with under a minute left in the fourth. White had a couple dazzling moments, and Zach LaVine’s two free throws with 2.8 seconds left in regulation were a necessary response to what could have been a game-ending Tyler Herro 3-pointer seconds before.

 

But there were too many mental lapses, once again. Zach LaVine made one field goal between the fourth quarter and OT, and committed three turnovers (he shot a dismal 5-for-19 for the game). Defensive breakdowns popped up at inopportune times. On one, Bam Adebayo positioned himself as if to set a screen for Herro — when the Bulls blitzed, Adebayo slipped, and ended up finishing an and-one layup over a scrambling Carter (the Bulls gave up two Draymond Green-initiated alley-oops late in the Golden State game on similar plays).

Then, on the Heat’s final possession of regulation, the Bulls switched the pick-and-roll, but a soft help by Kris Dunn (attempting to aid Shaq Harrison guarding Jimmy Butler) left Herro wide open for a 3-pointer that gave the Heat a 97-95 lead. Herro broke the Bulls’ back on a number of occasions in this one — he had 18 points and shot 4-for-8 from 3-point range in the fourth quarter and overtime.

This was just an outrageously fun game — but the taste left from it is undeniably sour

We may look back at this game as one of the foundational performances of White’s rookie campaign. As mentioned, he didn’t shoot particularly well, but him closing out the game’s final 17 (!!) minutes — and scoring six points with three assists in doing so — will assuredly prove valuable to his development. He wasn’t perfect, but he validated Boylen’s trust in him.

And until Herro caught fire late, the Bulls did an overall good job maintaining their defensive intensity and not allowing any of the Heat’s ancillary flamethrowers to get going. Butler wore them down — accumulating 21 free throw attempts in the game — but the Bulls can hang their hat on holding him to 3-for-14 shooting and not allowing him to beat them down the stretch.

Ultimately, the pain behind this loss — which you could see in the players’ on-court reactions at the final buzzer — is more about what has come before. On the heels of the Warriors game, pulling this one out could have been a season-changer. But they came up short. There were abundant silver linings, but also the familiar tropes of stagnant late-game offense, costly turnovers and defensive lapses.

The Bulls get back to work in Chicago tomorrow night against the Toronto Raptors. 

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What to watch for: Bulls hit the road to take on Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat

What to watch for: Bulls hit the road to take on Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat

The Bulls visit Miami to take on the 16-6 Heat in the wake of a disappointing loss to the Warriors in Chicago on Friday. The game tips off at 5 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago – until then, here's what to watch for:

Heat’s last five (4-1)

  • Dec. 6 — W vs. Wizards: 112-103

  • Dec. 4 — L at Celtics: 112-93

  • Dec. 3 — W at Raptors: 121-110

  • Dec. 1 — W at Nets: 109-106

  • Nov. 29 — W vs. Warriors: 122-105

Storyline(s) for each team

At 16-6, the Heat enter tonight the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and one of the league’s best teams — explosive offensively (second in the NBA in eFG%, per Cleaning the Glass), yet defensively-oriented (top 10 in defensive rating, eFG% against, turnover rate and defensive rebounding rate). Two things that should especially worry the Bulls: This game is in Miami and the Heat are coming off a day of rest after beating the Wizards 112-103 on Friday. The Heat are 9-0 at home this season and four of their six losses have come on the second night of back-to-backs. With fresh legs and their home crowd behind them, they’ll be tough to beat.

The Bulls, for their part, are coming off a momentum-crushing loss to the 5-19 Golden State Warriors on their home floor Friday, and on the first night of a road-and-home back-to-back — they’ll face the Raptors at the United Center on Monday. Both teams have already blown the Bulls out early in the season — the Heat 116-108 (it wasn’t that close) on Nov. 22, the Raptors 108-84 on Oct. 26. Since the start of last season, the Bulls are 7-48 against teams with winning records. To put it diplomatically, the next two nights will be an uphill battle.

Player to watch: Jimmy Butler

It’s the easy answer, but it’s also the right one. The Heat employ a dynamic cast of characters around Butler, but he’s the lifeblood of this team. The offense runs through him, the defense feeds off him (along with, of course, legitimate DPOY candidate Bam Adebayo as the anchor) and you can bet he’ll get up to face his former team. As Miami’s role players have endured up-and-down stretches, here are Butler’s numbers in his last eight games (i.e. since Nov. 22):

Per game: 22.8 points, 7 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 47.3% shooting (14 attempts), 9.5 FTA

And against the Bulls in his career:

Per game: 29 points, 5.3 assists, 5 rebounds, 3.7 steals, 48.1% shooting (18 attempts), 11.7 FTA

Even in a game the Bulls could find themselves overmatched in, perhaps we’ll get a fun Butler-Zach LaVine matchup this time around. Since being traded for each other after the 2016-17 season, the two have had some battles — before the Nov. 22 no-contest (LaVine, remember, was pulled by Jim Boylen early in the first quarter and only tallied 16 points in a blowout), they were each averaging over 30 points per game when facing each other.

LaVine bounced back from that aforementioned pseudo-benching with a 49-point, 13 3-pointer outing in Charlotte; maybe another historic performance is in store after an underwhelming fourth-quarter showing on Friday against Golden State.

Matchup to watch: 3-point shooting

Miami is a heat-check factory. Their movement-based offense is effective at creating a plethora of open long-range looks per game and even though some of their ancillary weapons can be streaky, there’s so many of them that you can bet at least one will burn you on a given night.

For evidence, look no further than that Nov. 22 matchup. Before most Bulls fans had scanned their tickets and found their seats, the Heat ran out to a 15-0 lead in the first three-and-a-half minutes of the game, buoyed by four early 3-pointers (three from Kendrick Nunn, one from Duncan Robinson). Per Cleaning the Glass, the Heat take 36% of their field goals from 3-point range (13th in the NBA) and make 39.2% of those looks (3rd in the NBA). They have five rotation players shooting over 38% on threes, and only one of those is on fewer than 3.9 attempts per (Meyers Leonard, shooting 53.8% on 1.8 attempts). Robinson, notably, is hitting 42.8% of his 3-pointers on 6.6 attempts per game.

The Bulls were 10-for-30 (33.3%) from 3-point range in their last game against the Heat, but four of those came in the final 2:15 of the game in a too-little-too-late comeback bid. They’re feast-or-famine in this department, but will need to keep this matchup close to have a chance tonight. 

Injury/miscellaneous updates

Nothing new here as far as the Bulls are concerned, barring a surprise injury or Chandler Hutchison status upgrade. Boylen has indicated he’s progressing, but hasn’t offered a concrete timetable for return, as of yet. Thad Young rejoins the team tonight.

The Heat will be without Goran Dragic (16 points, seven assists, 3-for-5 from three on Nov. 22), who is currently dealing with a groin issue. Justise Winslow and Adebayo are both currently listed as questionable.

Winslow missed time earlier in the season with a concussion, then returned for five games, but missed Friday’s game with a lower back strain. Adebayo hasn't missed a game since 2018; losing him would severely impact Miami's defensive versatility and rebounding. He had 16 points and 14 rebounds in these teams' first matchup.