Bulls

Observations from Bulls-Hawks: Markkanen clutch, Lopez taking the reins, Nwaba hits the glass

Observations from Bulls-Hawks: Markkanen clutch, Lopez taking the reins, Nwaba hits the glass

Lauri Markkanen had gone nearly 47 minutes without making a jumper, but he didn’t hesitate when the opportunity presented itself to seal the Bulls’ first win.

He put the six straight misses from 3-point range behind him, slipped out to 25 feet and nailed a triple with 48.5 seconds left to put the finishing touches on the Bulls’ first win, a 91-86 triumph over the Atlanta Hawks at the United Center.

“I guess you could say it worked out perfectly,” he deadpanned. “We knew how they were going to guard the pick and rolls. I slipped in there and was wide open.”

It wasn’t his prettiest performance but one of his most telling through four games, achieving yet another double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds in 30 minutes.

“Lauri was reading the way the defender was guarding him, so he slipped outside,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “It was a great read. Not only did he have the shot but he had driving lanes.”

His jumper abandoned him, so Markkanen left it where it was to start the second half, going to the basket with a layup from a Euro-step and then a 3-point play following a dunk.

He seemed to enter the second half with a more aggressive mindset, not just with the drive but also going to the glass, using his length to get inside position. The vast difference in the Bulls’ offense when Markkanen is making shots, as he was in Cleveland, compared to early Thursday, when he wasn’t, shows the dependency the Bulls have on him four games in.

“When you can play through a 20-year-old kid like that, it’s pretty impressive to have a game like that when his shot wasn’t falling,” Hoiberg said.

But the fact he was willing to take the shot along with Hoiberg drawing up a play in the last seconds for his young player shows a level of progress that won’t show up in the win-loss column but will aid in Markkanen’s in-season growth.

“Hopefully,” Markkanen said about being a go-to option. “That’s why I’m working on my game. Hopefully I can be that one day.”

Apparently he has the backing of his teammates very early in his tenure.

“That’s big time. We weren’t surprised by that,” Robin Lopez said. “He knows what he can do out there. We all believe in him. He has the utmost confidence in himself, which is awesome. I’ve seen those shots go in in practice. We know it’s gonna go in more often than not.”

Ugly win: Of the games the Bulls will win this year, many of them will be of the pretty variety where 3-pointers will be flying for 48 minutes. This will be one of the few where the Bulls are grinding out a win, outrebounding the Hawks 62-40—even though the Bulls only got up five more shots.

Markkanen, Justin Holiday and David Nwaba grabbed at least 10 rebounds, which was necessary considering the Bulls shot just seven of 32 from 3-point range and just 36 percent overall.

“What did we make, like 22 percent? It shows how much we fight,” Markkanen said. “We rebounded the ball, we found other ways to score the ball.”

To illustrate their offensive struggles, Lopez was essentially the only offensive option early with 10 shots (making five) in the first quarter. He can’t even make the claim to get that kind of attention in grade school.

“I’m trying to do what I can to help the team. I’m taking a bigger role,” said Lopez, who’s scored in double figures in every game this season, as he finished with 16 points and eight rebounds.

Unexpected and bloody energy: Coaches will always find a place in a rotation for guards who play tough and are unafraid to get dirty or even take a shot to the mouth, as well as teams looking for tough-minded guards who’ll challenge everything.

Enter David Nwaba, who’s taking his opportunity for more minutes in the absence of Kris Dunn and more recently Paul Zipser (late scratch), giving the Bulls a lift with 15 points and 11 rebounds in 23 minutes for his first double-double in 24 career games.

He played with the Lakers last season and the Bulls like his energy and athleticism here, so he had no problem using all 209 pounds of his body to take contact and give it as a way to prove himself with his chance.

“David was terrific,” Hoiberg said. “In the first half we couldn’t get anything going. He got us a couple fast-break baskets, got us an and-one just by rebound and taking off in transition. He’s always going to give you a hard defensive effort.”

Holiday made note of Nwaba blocking Cavs sharpshooter Kyle Korver in a preseason game a couple weeks ago as a mark of Nwaba’s tenaciousness, and a bloody lower lip courtesy of an inadvertent elbow from a Hawks player is another example of a tough player trying to make a name for himself in the league.

“What I plan on bringing is energy,” Nwaba said. “Looking to push in transition, get to the basket. We have a lot of shooters so it’s important somebody attack the basket.”

Whether it’s here or anywhere else, he knows eyes are watching and he’s forming his own identity for how he’ll be evaluated around the league.

“Majority of guys at my position are usually shooters,” Nwaba said. “I try to help the team as much as possible whether it’s rebounding or driving to the basket. Try to do the little things to help the team out. It’s important for every team to have guys like that.”

Tough road ahead, the win was necessary: When players and coaches say they don’t look ahead to other games on the schedule, they’re lying.

The Bulls have played high-level playoff teams and on the horizon are teams with aspirations on getting beyond round one of the playoffs. To say a win was needed for overall team morale considering everything swirling around the Bulls isn’t overstating it.

A game against the Hawks, a team that has the same aspirations for lottery balls the Bulls do, won’t rank up high at the end of the season but for the moment it was critical to team sanity.

Oklahoma City, Miami and Orlando are up next, with Miami and Orlando being on the road.

“We expect to win those games, too,” Holiday said. “With the games we’ve had to this point, this was one we wanted to start that confidence and get going. Hopefully we can move this to Saturday and surprise them.”

After the Hawks got up 86-85 with 1:48 left, Holiday slipped backdoor from Kent Bazemore for a layup that restored order, a change from his usual drifts to the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

Count Lopez among those impressed with the team’s approach and lack of panic.

“They got up on us late in the fourth quarter so to have that mental fortitude, make the plays and get the stops, win the game, that’s big for us,” Lopez said. “Nobody has been able to question our effort so far.”

Steve Kerr stays positive, keeps perspective with new Warriors' challenge

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USA TODAY

Steve Kerr stays positive, keeps perspective with new Warriors' challenge

Kevin Durant chose to leave for the Nets in free agency. Klay Thompson faced rehabilitation after tearing his left ACL during Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

Yes, Steve Kerr knew this Warriors season would be different.

But nobody knew that Steph Curry would break his left hand and be sidelined until likely after the All-Star break at the earliest. Nobody knew D’Angelo Russell, the Warriors’ prized offseason acquisition, would miss nine games with a sprained right thumb.

But just as he kept perspective and an even keel throughout the Warriors’ dynasty, which produced three championships and five straight trips to the NBA Finals, the ever-grounded Kerr is doing the same with a team that lugs a league-worst 4-19 mark into Friday’s meeting with the Bulls.

“I’m enjoying coaching the young guys and going through the details of what they need to learn and helping them develop,” Kerr said in an interview following Thursday’s practice at University of Illinois Chicago. “I basically survived my whole career. I was never really in a position where I felt like, ‘OK, I’ve made it.’ From year to year, it was just survival. So I can relate to a lot of these young guys and I can relate a lot of experiences to them. That’s a satisfying process when you see them do well.”

That said, Kerr is a competitor. There’s a broken clipboard and some bloody towels from last Wednesday’s home victory over the Bulls to prove it.

So the teaching element may be rewarding. The losing?

“It sucks. It sucks,” Kerr said, repeating himself for emphasis. “We’re 1-8 in close games. That’s part of having a young team, learning how to close games. That part of it is a struggle.

“You want your players to feel rewarded when they play well. We had a stretch of two weeks where we played well every night and we had one win to show for it. And that was Chicago. It’s frustrating to walk in the locker room and see guys with their heads down because you know how hard they’re working and how much they want it.”

Kerr experienced a dynasty as a player with the Bulls and as a coach with the Warriors. Invariably throughout last season, he’d remind anyone willing to listen to savor how special those times are.

Does he think people listened?

“No,” he said, laughing. “It’s human nature to think we’re going to win it again and we’re going to keep going forever. Life changes quickly.

“I talked not only to the media and our fans but to our team. Last year there were several times when I said, ‘This is going to be our best chance to win a championship.’ We’ve got an incredible opportunity that may never come up again. That’s something that’s important for everybody to realize---fans, management, players. It is lightning in a bottle. You can do everything perfectly and you still may not get to where you think you might be.”

The Warriors’ dynasty may be over. But with Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green still under contract, an attractive young piece in Russell and a huge trade exception from the Andre Iguodala deal, the Warriors are solidly positioned for the future.

And if this season produces a lottery pick, well, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Until then, Kerr keeps coaching and teaching. Thursday’s film session and practice stretched to the 2 1/2-hour mark.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys. Draymond has been fantastic, basically helping coach the team and talking guys through different situations. They’ve been thrown in the fire every day. It’s not easy. But they’re doing a good job,” Kerr said. “We have to figure it out as a staff: How much do you throw at them? Too much information sometimes can be a bad thing. And so we have to find the balance. We also can’t not give them the information that they need. It’s just maybe doing it sequentially and maybe finding the right order and plugging holes as you go.

“The NBA game is so different. These days, players come in at such a young age. There’s just an awful lot of fundamental stuff you have to break down on a daily basis as a young team. That’s the biggest difference for us as a staff between having a young team and having vets. It’s a different daily routine for sure.”

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With attendance waning, Bulls focused on 'making their own energy'

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USA TODAY

With attendance waning, Bulls focused on 'making their own energy'

Last night, the Bulls announced 15,017 fans in attendance for the team's 106-99 victory over the Grizzlies. That figure is more than 4,000 people below their season-average of — after last night — 19,099 fans per contest.

That scarcity was eminent and didn't go unnoticed, especially by players on the court.

"I was telling us in pregame, we're gonna have to bring our own energy today," Zach LaVine said after Thursday afternoon practice. "We got out on that 10-0 run, I was really excited about that, but it was uh, it was a scarce crowd, it was a little quiet in there. But we made our own energy but sometimes that's just what you have to do."

After 11 home games, the Bulls are fourth in the NBA in total attendance (210,090) and sixth in average attendance — both fine marks by the standards of most, but underwhelming for a major-market franchise with their illustrious history. The real kicker: The team is tied for 22nd in the league in percent capacity (91.3) with the Indiana Pacers. Just ahead of that No. 22 slot are the 5-17 Atlanta Hawks, just behind the Phoenix Suns.

Per ESPN's NBA Attendance Report, the Bulls have not finished a regular season outside the top three in total attendance or average attendance since the 2002-03 season. Before last year, they ranked first in both nine seasons in a row. They were also top two in percent capacity for eight straight years before finishing 17th last season. As mentioned, their ranking in that category has dipped even further this year. 

The 2019-20 Bulls currently own a 4-7 home record. Last night was only the Bulls' tenth home victory of the Jim Boylen era, which spans back to Dec. 3, 2018. No one is naiive to the impact those types of results can have. 

"We haven't been a winning basketball team the last couple years, so you know, it makes sense," LaVine said. "Once you start winning that the crowd gets back into it and gets more lively. I understand that, I understand professional sports. So we don't take it personally."

From shootaround to gametime in advance of the Grizzlies game, Boylen stressed the importance of the Bulls getting on a roll on their home floor. According to Boylen, momentum in that respect has to come by way of fast starts, and that came to fruition last night. The Bulls jumped out to a 13-2 lead early in the game and led by as many as 22 in the first half, holding the Grizzlies to 0-for-15 3-point shooting while hitting 8-for-18, themselves. Those numbers stabilizied as the game wore on, but in the locker room afterwards, LaVine was adamant that the team's energy wasn't the issue.

In fact, Boylen and his players seem to have taken ownership of sparking themselves. 

"I want our guys to play hard and compete, and we have to bring our own energy, and we have to play with physicality and effort and all those types of things," Boylen said. He added: "We have the best fans in the league."

They'll have another chance to begin re-establishing a homecourt advantage Friday night agaisnt the lowly Warriors. For the time being, the team's focus is on controlling the things they can control: Results. The rest will come later.

"Obviously you wanna win. We're not going out there to win for, you know, to get more attention, we're going out to win to try to make the playoffs," LaVine said. "So, you know, I think the crowd will come, and they'll get behind you."

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