Bulls

Around the NBA: Bulls measure up to rivals

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Around the NBA: Bulls measure up to rivals

It's still a bit premature to anoint any team as a prohibitive favorite this early in the season, but based on early returns, the Bulls could, at the least, make a case.

Dogged by injuries all season, the Bulls' depth has been on full display, While nothing as extreme as third-string point guard John Lucas III scoring 25 points and nearly notching a triple-double in the absence of Derrick Rose and C.J. Watson--let alone the fact that another member of the backcourt, Rip Hamilton, was also out and Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and fill-in starter Ronnie Brewer were virtual non-factors Wednesday evening--Tom Thibodeau's repeated message that the team "has more than enough to win," even with key players sidelined, has often fulfilled its prophecy.

Defense has been the key for the Bulls and except for a few hiccups--most notably, the loss to Golden State in the second game of the season and a blowout defeat to Atlanta last weekend--Thibodeau's defense has looked to be in midseason form.

Additionally, an emphasis on pushing the ball in transition and the ability of players other than Derrick Rose to contribute scoring on a nightly basis, something that should be even more potent when shooting guard Rip Hamilton returns to health and gets completely comfortable with his new squad, have also been significant in the team's success.

Various teams that were expected to be league powerhouses this season have got off to slower, more uneven starts, as the likes of the Mavericks, Lakers, Knicks, Grizzlies and Celtics have looked disjointed at times, mostly due to having to incorporate multiple new pieces and injuries.

Cohesiveness, with Hamilton being the only new rotation player, is another area where the Bulls have an advantage, along with squads like the Heat, Thunder and surprising 76ers, coached by former Bulls head coach Doug Collins.

While Oklahoma City, despite dealing with the fallout of the on-court argument between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and Miami were supposed to be the cream of the crop, Philadelphia has shocked many observers.

Collins' Sixers are young, athletic, versatile and while they don't offer much in the way of star power, their defensive mindset, unselfishness and a strong bench enable them to compete on a nightly basis and potentially ride their strong start to an Atlantic Division title.

But the team the Bulls have their eye on in the East is the Heat, who dropped their second consecutive overtime contest Wednesday night to the Clippers. While it wouldn't be fair to compare Chicago's decisive victory over former Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro's bunch to the Heat's loss, which took place after "Lob City" had more time to jell, it's worth remembering for the future.

Speaking of L.A., Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant's back-to-back scoring outbursts--48 points to lead the charge against the Suns, followed by 40 points last night in a win over the Jazz--seem like statement games, showing that despite his advancing age and the Lakers being written off by many, the veteran shooting guard doesn't intend to go down without a fight.

It isn't like he hasn't had to carry a team before, but center Andrew Bynum is a lot more experienced this time around and surprisingly, new Lakers head coach Mike Brown's offense hasn't inhibited Bryant's scoring prowess thus far, while still keeping big men Bynum and Pau Gasol involved.

Rose's eye-popping scoring numbers from last season are down early in the campaign--though his assists are up and the Bulls point guard couldn't be happier about it--and if that trend continues, no matter how successful his team is, a repeat MVP season is probably unlikely.

But how many people thought, before the season started, that Bryant would be the early-season favorite to take home those honors?

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Bulls fail to close another close game in loss to Raptors

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NBC SPORTS CHICAGO

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Bulls fail to close another close game in loss to Raptors

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, Matt Peck, David Watson, and John Sabine react to the Bulls 93-92 loss to Toronto.

0:45 - Reaction to losing another close game

2:00 - Kendall Gill stops by to give Matt Peck a hard time about Derrick Rose

3:30 - On Wendell Carter Jr and wanting more

4:45 - Viewer comment on Bulls shooting 46 three-point attempts

7:20 - Concern over Lauri Markkanen

8:10 - Viewer comment still believing in Lauri

9:40 - Viewer comment on Wendell Carter and Daniel Gafford

12:10 - Viewer comment on running more pick n roll w Zach and Lauri

15:35 - Viewer question on Otto Porter and Hutchison

16:30 - Viewer trade idea: Kevin Love for Markkanen

17:15 - Any comfort in coming close to beating two of the top teams in the East?

20:30 - Viewer comment on losing games

23:00 - Viewer comment on Coby should start

24:05 - Viewer comment pandering to John Sabine

24:40 - Sabine shares his weird dream that involves Jim Boylen

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

In Bulls' loss to Toronto Raptors, Denzel Valentine and Daniel Gafford rejuvenated the United Center

In Bulls' loss to Toronto Raptors, Denzel Valentine and Daniel Gafford rejuvenated the United Center

Monday night, 14,775 fans attended the Bulls' latest in a line of hard-fought defeats: a 93-92 loss to the Toronto Raptors. That's the smallest reported crowd at the United Center for a Bulls game since Dec. 16, 2004.

For stretches, though, it felt like a full house. 

"The UC was great tonight, the fans were awesome," Denzel Valentine said.

The starters carried the team, to start: Of the Bulls' 50 first-half points, 46 were scored by Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter. But it wasn't the usual suspects that pushed the Chicago faithful's decibel count to levels unheard of in the earlygoing of this season.

Thank Valentine and Daniel Gafford, in large part, for that. With the Bulls trailing 61-58 at the 4:45 mark of the third, Jim Boylen turned to a bench-dominated unit of Coby White, Valentine, Thad Young, Gafford and LaVine to spark his group. It was a potential tipping point in the game: The Raptors were in the midst of an 11-3 run and the Bulls' offense was fizzling. White, Valentine, Young and Gafford had four points between them upon entry.

With that move, the fates tilted towards the home side. For a time.

"It was great minutes from them," Satoransky said of Valentine and Gafford after the game. "I think [Denzel] is feeling more himself right now. And DG will always bring that energy. He's one of the most athletic guys I've ever seen, his energy... will always refresh our game."

It certainly did in this one. Gafford blocked three shots and notched 10 points over the game's final quarter-and-a-half. Valentine scored all 13 of his points for the night after that juncture in the third, shooting 5-for-9 from the floor and 3-for-7 from 3-point range. The Bulls finished the night 12-for-46 from 3-point land.

"Just energy," Valentine said, of what that bench unit brought. "We started playing defense. It started on the defensive end, started in transition, getting rebounds. Played with a little bit more life. Playing with each other too. We were moving the ball together."

"We go in, we produce with the minutes that we get," Gafford said. And on what the fans gave back: "There was definitely energy. I was blocking shots, Denzel was knocking down shots, we were getting stops on defense. We were doing everything we needed to do to win the game, and the crowd helped us do that."

Of course, they didn't do it alone. In spite of not scoring, White played a solid defensive game and finished the night with eight rebounds and five assists. Young and Kris Dunn each hit crucial 3-pointers in the third. But watching Valentine and Gafford ignite the home crowd made it even more surreal that neither of them cracked the regular rotation until mid-to-late November.

"We got a bond," Gafford said. "He finds me when I'm open, and I find him when he's open... We just go out and play basketball."

That strategy helped the Bulls build an 85-77 lead with eight minutes left in the game, but the team's good fortunes faded fast from there. After an alley-oop from Valentine to Gafford gave them their 84th and 85th points of the night, the Bulls didn't score for the next five-and-a-half minutes of game action. The Raptors surged down the stretch. The Bulls scrapped, but ultimately faltered when it mattered most.

Both Gafford and Valentine found themselves in the Bulls' closing lineup — Valentine by way of the hot-hand, Gafford in Carter's stead after he fouled out with just under four minutes remaining. A Valentine transition layup, Markkanen 3-pointer and Gafford layup represented the Bulls' only points of the final eight minutes.

"We gotta learn how to put it away. If we can't at the end of the third quarter, we gotta put it away at the beginning of the fourth," Gafford said. "We just gotta learn how to put it away, seal the deal." 

But, as a team, they didn't. And thus, the bottom line doesn't change. The Bulls won a(nother) moral victory or two tonight, but when the final points were tallied, they were on the short end. That's the only stat that matters, especially to those 14,775 that stood behind their team, in person, tonight.

"It’s disappointing when we don’t win games. It’s disappointing when we don’t win home games," Boylen, who has presided over only 10 home victories in his tenure, said. "Nobody is running from that."

"No excuses, nobody cares, we just gotta come out and play hard and learn from our mistakes," Valentine said. "It's tough, because we lose the last three and we were up in the fourth [quarter], I think, in all of those games. So it's tough. But hopefully at some point we'll figure it out."

Gafford and Valentine provided a jolt, but because of the result, they're only would-be heroes — their combined performance amounts to nothing more than an all-too-familiar silver lining. In some ways, that stings even more.

"That's why this game is so frustrating," Satoransky said. "Because I know we were there. Fans were engaged and I think we played very well, and we missed a lot of shots. You know, that always hurts."

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