Bulls

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.

Finding homes for Thad Young, Denzel Valentine if Bulls' season goes south

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USA Today

Finding homes for Thad Young, Denzel Valentine if Bulls' season goes south

The NBA’s Feb. 6 trade deadline is fast approaching, and the Bulls have decisions to make.

Their quandary isn’t an enviable one. With just over half of their games played, the Bulls have underwhelmed relative to preseason expectations in almost every phase. Yet, somehow, at 16-28, the playoffs are not yet an impossibility — even if the team’s current 1-17 record against teams with above-.500 records makes it seem so.

Thus, the Bulls aren’t likely headed for a big splash at the deadline. They simply aren’t yet competitive enough to risk parting with potentially valuable draft capital in pursuit of ‘one last piece’ to make a playoff push, but they’re also not quite out of it enough to sell off portions of their core, especially given how much the organization has recently invested in Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Coby White.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any movement at all. 

Based on how each of their seasons have played out so far, it’s fair to wonder about Thad Young and Denzel Valentine’s long-term fits with the Bulls. Young was brought in on a three year, $41 million deal in the offseason for his veteran leadership and two-way versatility, but through 43 games, he’s averaging the second-lowest minutes total of his career (22.3) and shooting more than eight points below his career field goal percentage (41.7%). Valentine started the year out of the rotation after missing all of 2018-19 with an ankle injury, then re-entered for about a month with Chandler Hutchison sidelined, but has logged three DNP-CDs in a row. He hasn’t played more than three minutes in a game since Jan. 2. 

To be clear: This is no Dewayne Dedmon scenario. Young and Valentine have remained professional through the ups and downs and no trade requests have been publicly filed (though Young has spoken about his desire for more playing time). But both also might benefit from a change of scenery and certainly have the potential to help a contender if the Bulls' season goes south.

The Clippers, as an example, have been repeatedly linked to Young, and a framework built around Moe Harkless makes as much sense as any hypothetical deal out there. Even with Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell in tow, recent reporting from Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report indicates the Clips might be on the hunt for a defensive-minded big to add to their rotation that wouldn’t sacrifice their offensive versatility. Understandable with the Lakers (with LeBron James and Anthony Davis), Nuggets (Nikola Jokic) and Jazz (Rudy Gobert) surrounding them atop the West.

(via TradeNBA)

If one or two second rounders, or a project like Jerome Robinson, in place of that first is more amicable, so be it. Harkless is a tough, switchable, solid-rebounding wing that would help the Bulls on both ends of the floor — especially if the team continues its recent endeavor into small-ball. Plus, he’s on an expiring deal. 

The two guaranteed years remaining on Young’s current contract might be a hurdle for the Bulls to clear, but if the playoff dreams melt away, it could ratchet up the motivation to move him for both sides. Young has been inconsistent this season, but perhaps a jolt of energy in a winning situation with more talent around him would be just what the doctor ordered. He certainly profiles as exactly what the Clippers could be reportedly seeking in a deal.

The Nuggets, Celtics and Miami Heat could make sense as candidates for Young’s services, too, all being contenders with need on the interior. But marrying salaries and value becomes tricky with them.

Valentine’s value league-wide is tougher to gauge, given his sporadic playing time with the Bulls. But with him set to enter restricted free agency this summer, it would behoove the Bulls to avoid potentially losing him — a former lottery pick — for nothing if his days of consistent playing time are done. 

Teams short bench scoring such as the Rockets or 76ers make a modicum of sense, and Valentines $3.3 million salary is simple enough to match:

(The Rockets could absorb Valentine’s salary using a trade exception created when they traded Brandon Knight to the Cavaliers last February)

Bring back Tyson Chandler! The second round pick would be the real haul, but if this move was made in contingency with a Young deal, Chandler slides nicely into a mentoring role for Carter and Daniel Gafford.

Not the most exciting swap (Bolden and Milton are also projects), but perhaps the Sixers (35.3% from three as a team, 17th in NBA) could use Valentine’s shotmaking (39.2% from three this season) and playmaking off the bench. Philadelphia ranks 27th in the league in bench scoring, getting only 29 points per game from their reserves. The Rockets bench is dead last with 26 points per contest.

The Bulls have eight games remaining before the deadline, beginning with the Bucks tomorrow. Three of those are against winning teams (Bucks, Pacers, Raptors), with two others (Spurs, Nets) against technically sub-.500 squads with the ability to play above that level on a given night.

That stretch is sure to, once and for all, instruct us on what to expect from this season. If it’s an unfavorable one, transactions on the fringes of the roster may begin.

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Zach LaVine continues All-Star push with historic outing against Cavaliers

Zach LaVine continues All-Star push with historic outing against Cavaliers

Forget statement games, Zach LaVine is having a statement month. 

In 10 January games, the Bulls’ 6-foot-6 messiah is the fourth-leading scorer in the NBA, averaging 30.6 points on 50% shooting (22.8 attempts). 

To borrow a word from Jim Boylen, his latest installment — 42 points on 19-for-31 shooting in a game the Bulls clawed back from down 19 in the second half to topple the Cavaliers 118-116 — was “herculean.”

“If that's not an all-star performance I don't know what is,” Boylen said. “He’s been a monster, man. He’s been a monster.”

To LaVine, there isn’t much supernatural about these types of nights; he’s been preaching his confidence and readiness to carry this team since day one. LaVine scored 21 of his 42 points in the fourth quarter, and on a night he conceded his legs were a tad worn, he attempted only six 3-pointers, instead finding most of his offense in the midrange and at the rim.

“Make or break time, we're not gonna get back in the game by just playing nicely. So I'm gonna attack their body, try to make them make a call. Had some tough finishes, made some tough shots, but I take that upon myself,” LaVine said. 

“Just playing the right way,” he added of his recent torrid streak. “I expect to. I put the work in for it.”

But All-Star berths and widespread acclaim aren’t dolled out based on individual point totals, alone, regardless of how effortless LaVine’s prolificity looks at times. And LaVine knows that. Casting the 42 points aside, he also finished the night with a team-high six rebounds, five steals and three assists. He was all-encompassing. Michael Jordan is the only player in Bulls history to post a line with those minimums in a game.

His contributions to a tightly clamped Bulls defense in the fourth were note-worthy for a player that's often advertised his motivation to grow as a two-way, all-around player. And most importantly, the game ended in victory.

“He [LaVine] wants to win. And he knows in order to win you gotta do multiple things in this league and I feel like he did that tonight,” Kris Dunn said. “He was guarding today, scoring the ball, getting rebounds, getting guys involved. We need that from him.”

LaVine lauded the Bulls’ new-look closing lineup of he, Dunn, Tomas Satoransky, Chandler Hutchison and Lauri Markkanen. The Bulls ventured to switch pick-and-rolls with that lineup late, as opposed to their usual blitzing, and outscored the Cavaliers 31-14 in the final period while forcing 10 turnovers.

“We made a lot of defensive stops, we got in transition. Chandler [Hutchison] came in and made some really big plays. Kris Dunn on the defensive end was incredible,” LaVine said. “And that helped me even recently get in some passing lanes. We put it together in the fourth.”

Tonight marked LaVine’s third 40-point game of the season and tenth straight with more than 20. His 31 field goal attempts were a season-high, three more than he hoisted in his record smashing 49-point night in Charlotte. Night in, night out, the on-court production and responsibility acceptance is there. But behind the scenes, he’s ever-improving, as well.

“He's been talking in the huddles, he's been chattering, he's been locked in,” Boylen said. “He's bouncing back from maybe a poor moment or a bad stretch. He's bouncing back now, he's not playing backward at all. And that's what the great ones do.”

“I stepped into this year from the get-go using my voice more, and you know, I've never been a real vocal person but you know, when I say something I think my voice carries weight,” LaVine added.

LaVine isn’t getting ahead of himself. He called this win — however exhilarating — an “ugly” one and lamented the familiar lackluster play that dug the Bulls their 18-point halftime deficit to begin with. Miracle comebacks shouldn't be necessary to beat a now 12-30 Cavaliers team on their last game of a six-game road trip.

Still, the statements are piling up. If his overall outing wasn’t enough, LaVine offered another one to the United Center crowd after his final bucket of the evening, an and-one finish through Collin Sexton with 16 seconds remaining to put him over 40 points and the Bulls ahead by four.

What did he say?

“You want the explicit version or the PG-13?” LaVine said with a chuckle. “This my stuff.” 

Continuing to stuff stat sheets, as he has been, is going to make All-Star jurors’ lives that much more difficult.

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