Bulls

Three keys for Bulls against Pistons: Casey brings direction to talented Pistons core

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USA TODAY

Three keys for Bulls against Pistons: Casey brings direction to talented Pistons core

When last we saw the Pistons, Blake Griffin forced Zach LaVine to lose the ball as he was attempting a potential game-winning 3-pointer in the home-opener on Oct. 20, and yes, close losses have become a disturbing trend during the Bulls’ 5-17 start.

But while basketball fans in Chicago anxiously await the return of three of the team’s top six players from injury (Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis), fans in Motown are looking forward to a return to postseason play under first-year head coach Dwane Casey.

In case you haven’t noticed, the Pistons currently own the No. 5 seed in the East with an 11-7 record and they’ve won seven of their last 10 games. Blake Griffin seems to have fully embraced his move to the Midwest and is determined to re-establish himself as a top-20 player in the NBA, averaging 25 points, nearly 10 rebounds and five assists per game.

Similar story with co-stars Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson. Drummond appears to be headed to his second straight All-Star Game, leading the league in rebounding with 16 per game, while also averaging 18.7 points. Jackson is 100-percent recovered from an ankle injury that wrecked his 2017-18 season, averaging 16 points and 4.2 assists per game.

Casey has been forced to juggle the other spots in his starting lineup because of an injury to second-year guard Luke Kennard, but Reggie Bullock has done a solid job at shooting guard with athletic wings Stanley Johnson and Glenn Robinson III holding down the fort at the small forward spot.

Detroit might not have the deepest roster in the East, but Ish Smith has been giving Casey quality minutes at the back-up point guard spot, and with two likely All Stars on the roster, the Pistons should easily be good enough to claim one of the conference’s eight playoff spots.

In that first meeting at the United Center, the Bulls put up 116 points, led by LaVine’s 33 on 12-of-21 shooting from the field. Justin Holiday chipped in 19 points, while Cam Payne added 17 in a starting role.

Problem is, none of the Bulls’ point guards could do anything with Smith, who scored all 15 of his points in the second half, including the game-winning basket on a blown defensive coverage with the score tied and only 5.4 seconds remaining.

So, how can the Bulls flip the script Friday night in Detroit?

1. Defend the 3-point line. The Pistons really hurt the Bulls from beyond the arc in the first meeting, hitting 18 of their 40 attempts, including a 5-for-7 effort from Griffin, who has dramatically improved his long-range shooting over the last couple seasons. Detroit’s point guards, Jackson and Smith, combined to go for 7-for-12 on 3s, as well.

2. Keep Drummond off the glass. Drummond seems to have some of his best rebounding games against the Bulls, including a number of 20-plus efforts. Wendell Carter Jr. has struggled to stay out of foul trouble over the last half dozen games, so look for Robin Lopez to get more playing time against Drummond on Friday, especially after his season-high 17-point performance in Milwaukee.

3. Archie plays Motown. All of a sudden, Ryan Arcidiacono has emerged as a solid complementary scorer to LaVine in the Bulls’ backcourt, with back-to-back career-high 22-point performances. Arcidiacono became only the third Bulls player to record five made 3-pointers and five steals in a single game, with Nikola Mirotic and Brent Barry the other members of the unlikely trio. Archie will try to get the better of his matchup with Jackson on Friday night.

It will be an early 6 p.m. start, so we hope you’ll join Kendall Gill, Will Perdue and I for Bulls Pregame Live at 5:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago and the My Teams by NBC Sports app. Then after the game broadcast ends on WGN, flip back to NBC Sports Chicago for reaction and analysis on Bulls Postgame Live, followed by the always entertaining Bulls Outsiders.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.

Bulls observations: Zach LaVine steals the show in runaway win over Cavaliers

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USA Today

Bulls observations: Zach LaVine steals the show in runaway win over Cavaliers

The Bulls got back in the win column with a 118-106 road victory over the Cavaliers, and Zach LaVine is ridiculous. Here's some observations:

Zach LaVine did it again

Whatever happens over the rest of this Bulls season, don’t put it at the feet of Zach LaVine. If you take one thing away from this one, make it that.

LaVine was simply tremendous tonight. He finished with a cool 44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in 39 minutes of play, and shot 16-for-30 from the field (5-for-12 from three; 7-for-8 from the free throw line). After the Bulls fell to the Kings on Friday, LaVine said he was fully prepared for any amount of advanced opportunity that might come his way. He proved that tonight. The Cavaliers threw the kitchen sink (and Tristan Thompson, for a couple possessions) at him, and it didn't matter.

"Just playing the game the way it should be," LaVine said of his performance. "Third quarter they switched up their defense and I felt like I had to be a little more of a facilitator, there was a lot of attention.

"I try to address the game the way they’re playing me but still keep my aggressiveness scoring the ball cause I know that breaks down defenses."

LaVine entered the fourth quarter with 39 points, nine rebounds and eight assists but was unable to clinch his first career triple double. He did make a modicum of history, though: 

Yeah, getting those last two assists would have been a cool milestone. But Bulls fans will take the sublime scoring performance — and victory — and run with it. LaVine’s fourth 40-point outing of the season doesn’t hurt his All-Star chances, either.

"I ain’t have one before," LaVine said when asked if he was aware of how close he was to a triple double. "Literally like two minutes to go I was like alright maybe I should get a couple assists, but the game got out of hand. I’ll get one eventually."

A bunch of good things happened in the third quarter

I’ve harped on it more than a few times this season, but the Bulls are not a good third quarter team. Their 27th-ranked -8.3 third quarter net rating proves it.

Tonight was different. The Bulls pounded the Cavaliers 40-19 in the third period, extending a two-point halftime lead to 23 entering the fourth.

To put it simply: Everything went right. The Bulls turned eight Cavaliers turnovers into 13 points, shot 16-for-21 (76.2%) from the field, 3-for-5 from three and slung 10 assists in those 12 minutes, alone. And though LaVine carried the load in the first half, the Bulls got 28 points in the third from the non-LaVine contingent of the team — a positive development.

"We’ve struggled in the third [quarter] as you all know. I was happy with the way we played in the third, I thought the ball moved, I thought we made good decisions, we finished plays," coach Jim Boylen said.

Notably, Tomas Satoransky finished the night with a fully-stuffed stat line of 19 points, six assists, six rebounds and three steals on 8-for-11 shooting. The Bulls’ second-scorer problem is still a pressing one, but we’ll put it aside for another night. 

Let’s have fun with this one

This win doesn’t assuage most any of the darkest clouds hanging over the Bulls. The Cavaliers are a disastrous team — rated in the bottom eight of the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, and with the league’s highest turnover rate (Cleveland committed 21 cough-ups tonight). And yet, they shot 50% from the floor, 43.3% from the 3-point line and both outrebounded and out-assisted the Bulls. 

But given the mounting adversity facing this team, this game is one fans can afford to have some fun with. The Zach LaVine Show marches on, and will continue to be worth watching.

"I said before the game that our team was frustrated after last night’s game [against Sacramento] and I thought we responded. And I’m really happy for that," Boylen said. "We felt we left some stuff on the table and that we could’ve played better, and we talked about that and we moved on."

Next stop: the UC for the Spurs on Monday.

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Jim Boylen standing firm at moment of reckoning in Bulls' season

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USA Today

Jim Boylen standing firm at moment of reckoning in Bulls' season

It’s no secret that the Bulls’ season hangs in the balance. At 17-30, the team is at once three games out of a playoff spot and slated ninth in the current lottery standings. 

To hear head coach Jim Boylen and co. tell it, a playoff berth remains the more desirable of those two timelines. But according to Basketball Reference, the Bulls have the third most difficult remaining strength of schedule in the East. And worse, they’ll have to face the (immediate) future without Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and Daniel Gafford.

The loss of Markkanen — the most recent of that group to go down — has tipping point potential. In the Bulls’ first game without him, they mustered just 81 points at home against a swooning Sacramento Kings squad, shooting 8-for-37 from 3-point range in the process. The team’s need for secondary scoring outside of Zach LaVine glared

But, as Boylen has maintained all season, the Bulls are not going to change the way they play. They just need to play better.

“We gotta play faster, we gotta move the ball. I thought we had a couple possessions where the ball stuck. The ball can’t stick. We gotta move it, we gotta drive it,” Boylen said of the loss to the Kings before the Bulls’ Saturday night matchup with the Cavaliers in Cleveland. “I also think we missed some opportunities that we need to make.

“Our margin for error is not great. We have to make the plays we can make and make the shots we can make.”

For now, at least, the starting lineup won’t change (sorry #StartCoby crowd) — though Boylen said he’ll keep his rotation fluid. As for outside reinforcements being brought in?

“We have not talked about that. Doesn’t mean we won’t,” Boylen said when asked if the Bulls could actually pivot to ‘buying’ at the trade deadline, given their relative proximity to a playoff spot. “We’re in the middle of a really tough stretch of games, and a lot of games, so my focus has been on that.

“I love the guys we have,” he added. “And we’re gonna keep coaching and teaching the guys we have. I’ve got a good group, a coachable group.”

Absent from those adjectives was ‘interchangeable’ but that word has been ever-present in Boylen’s vocabulary through the ups and downs of this season. In his first full year at the helm, his primary goal remains clear.

“Because we’re establishing this system,” Boylen said when asked why, through thick and thin, the team’s playing style hasn’t changed, as it did last season after Boylen was hired. “Last year, we were tearing it down and then establishing it. Now we’re gonna keep establishing it.”

Attention Dish and Sling customers! You have lost your Bulls games on NBC Sports Chicago. To switch providers, visit mysportschicago.com.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.