Bulls

Ask Aggrey: Are the Heat or Thunder a bigger threat?

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Ask Aggrey: Are the Heat or Thunder a bigger threat?

The minds of Bulls fans might still be on Sunday's humbling loss to the Thunder in Oklahoma City, the basketball world as a whole is focused on Monday night's NCAA Championship game between Kansas and Kentucky. For NBA purists who aren't fans of the college game, this could be the year to watch, given that Kansas has one of the top individual talents in the nation in junior All-American power forward Thomas Robinson, while Kentucky has a whole host of future pros, led by Chicago native Anthony Davis, a freshman, odds-on favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft and the national Player of the Year. I'm not necessarily the biggest advocate of Kansas coach Bill Self, but he did a masterful job in what was supposed to be somewhat of a rebuilding season, leading a team featuring no McDonald's All-Americans and arguably only the third-most talent in its own conference (behind Baylor and Missouri) to the title game.

However, the Jayhawks' run will probably end Monday, as the sheer talent and athleticism of the Wildcats should get Kentucky coach John Calipari his first national championship. In addition to Davis, Kentucky features an overwhelming supporting cast, including fellow freshmen Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (a high-motor wing who could be the No. 2 pick in the draft) and Marquis Teague (the younger brother of Atlanta Hawk Jeff Teague is a likely first-round pick in a weak draft for point guards), sophomores Terrence Jones (a versatile forward, the team's leading scorer and a projected lottery pick) and Doron Lamb (the guard is one of the best shooters in the country and another probable first-rounder) and senior swingman Darius Miller, who's the squad's sixth man and also should play in the NBA next season. I won't be able to see the game because of the coinciding Bulls-Rockets game, but I'm going with Kentucky by a dozen. With that, on to this week's edition of the mailbag.
Who should the Bulls be more afraid of - the Heat in Eastern Conference Finals or the Thunder in the NBA Finals? -- Mark H.
Mark, "afraid" isn't the word I'd use, but certainly after Sunday's outing, the Bulls are probably more wary of the Thunder. Keep in mind, they played without their starting backcourt, but the Bulls' lack of fight was somewhat disturbing, as that just doesn't occur under Thibs. That said, it's just one game and a regular-season one at that. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook really had it going and as good as they are, they won't have games like that every night against the Bulls' defense and even if they did, the Bulls' offense endured one of its worst performances of the season. But the Bulls aren't a team to, in Thibs' words, "skip steps," so with two more regular-season matchups against the Heat looming, they're certainly more concerned about Miami at this point. That's the team that ousted them from the playoffs last season and all signs point to an Eastern Conference Finals rematch this spring, so even if the Thunder advance to the NBA Finals -- which isn't a guarantee, no matter how dominant they looked Sunday -- the Bulls won't put the cart before the horse.
Would last year's Bulls team would have had as much success WITHOUT Derrick Rose than the team this year is having? -- Pablo T.

Pablo, no way. Last season's team was still getting used to Thibs' system and if you recall, Derrick bailed them out of several games individually. Even in games when they got a solid collective effort, it took MVP heroics to win. This season, even with Derrick in the lineup, they've been much more balanced. Another major reason the Bulls have been able to weather the storm without Derrick is that the frontcourt has been relatively healthy. It was the opposite last season, with Joakim and Carlos being out for long stretches, while the starting perimeter trio of Derrick, Luol and the departed Keith Bogans missed one game combined. But now, with the system ingrained and the bulk of the players back from a year ago, the Bulls are equipped to still play at a high level without Derrick, at least until the playoffs hit. That was unthinkable last season.

Yo Aggrey! What's the best and worst part of being a beat-writer for the Bulls? -- Greg S.

Greg, the best part of my job, by far, is getting to know the players and coaches on the team. I can't speak for every team in the league, but the Bulls have genuinely good people around and they're all unique, have a variety of interests and opinions, both on and off the court, and make coming to work every day an enjoyable task. The worst part is probably the travel. It sounds exciting and it can be fun, but believe me, two-week road trips and getting out of arenas after midnight, then having to wake up a few hours later to catch an early-morning flight can be exhausting. Overall though, the good definitely outweighs the bad.Do you have any insight on where Jabari Parker will be going to college? I'm a DePaul student and would LOVE to have him here! -- Jasmine Q.

Jasmine, I won't pretend to know which school Jabari will pick, since things change in the course of high-profile recruitment sagas all the time, but if I had to guess, I'd put my money on Duke, though many of the other national powers involved, such as Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Louisville, Michigan State, and even the likes of Washington and Stanford -- Jabari's father, Sonny, played professionally with Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, while Jabari has family on the West Coast and Stanford's academics likely appeal to him -- also have a chance. I've gotten to know Jabari a bit and he's an excellent student, but he's probably going to be a one-and-done player. Thus, Duke fits him from both an academic standpoint and after winning three high school state championships -- and likely a fourth next season -- as well as providing him with an opportunity to develop under a coach with a track record of having won national championships and coaching pros, something that's been enhanced by Coach K's work with USA Basketball.

However, I wouldn't completely rule out DePaul just yet, simply because Jabari has a lot of civic pride, is close to his family and is good friends with AAU teammate Billy Garrett Jr., a junior point guard at Morgan Park, one of Simeon's rivals. Billy, who's also an excellent player, has already committed to DePaul, his father is on the coaching staff and I'd imagine he's constantly in Jabari's ear about joining him and putting the program back on the map.

Keep the questions -- whether theyre about the Bulls, the rest of the NBA, other levels of basketball or life in general -- coming. Youll get a much better explanation, though not as instant, than you would via Twitter with only 140 characters. You can submit a question by commenting on this article below or by clicking here.

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

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USA TODAY

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

Outspoken Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban conceded his team was playing for draft lottery position last season, but insisted it would be a one year only strategy.

Dallas finished tied for the league’s third worst record, but fell to fifth after the lottery.

So, Cuban and the Mavs’ front office decided to make a bold move on draft night, trading their 2019 first round pick to Atlanta to move up two spots for a chance to select international sensation Luka Doncic.

Early in the season, Doncic has more than lived up to the hype, showing the creativity and flair that made him such a fan favorite on the European professional circuit. Through the Mavs’ first two games, Doncic is averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while giving Rick Carlisle’s team a much-needed boost in transition.

Doncic and second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr. will give opposing teams nightmares in the open court all season long. They led the offensive onslaught in the Mavs’ 140-136 win over Minnesota Saturday night, combining for 45 points. Doncic finished with 26 points, while Smith scored 10 of his 19 in the 4th quarter, including a tie-breaking three-point play with six seconds left.

Veteran swing-man Wesley Matthews added 19 against the Timberwolves, and his 3 point shooting helps the Mavs maintain floor balance in half-court sets.

The Mavs also strengthened their front court in the off-season, signing veteran center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Dallas was overmatched in the middle last season, with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell giving up size in the post, but Jordan will provide rim protection and an alley-oop threat when Doncic, Smith Jr. or veteran point guard J.J. Barea drive to the basket. Jordan had a big game in the home opening win over Minnesota, scoring 22 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.

Nowitzki, starting small forward Harrison Barnes and backup guard Devin Harris all missed Saturday’s game because of injuries, but Barnes and Harris are considered game-time decisions against the Bulls.

Here’s what the Bulls will need to do to get their first victory of the season Monday night.

1. GET BACK ON DEFENSE! Doncic and Smith Jr. are deadly in the open court, capable of making spectacular plays to bring the home crowd to life. The Bulls’ players have to sprint back on defense after missed shots to cut off transition opportunities, or it’s going to be a long night. The Mavs are averaging 128 points through the first two games.

2. CLOSE OUT ON 3-POINT SHOOTERS This will be a familiar theme in my keys until the Bulls start doing a better job of matching up in transition and closing out on three point threats. Detroit’s win at the United Center on Saturday came down to the Pistons’ 18-40 shooting from three-point range, and Dallas has even more players capable of doing damage from beyond the arc.

3. LET DUNN DO IT Getting Kris Dunn back from paternity leave should make a big difference on both ends of the court. Dunn has the athleticism and physicality to match up with either Doncic or Smith Jr., and his defensive skills will be critical in keeping the Mavs from turning this game into a track meet.

On the offensive end, Dunn need to be patient and get the ball into the hands of the Bulls’ top scorers, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. Even though Fred Hoiberg wants his team to play at a fast pace, they’ll need to pick their spots on when to run against the explosive Mavs.

As always, turn to NBC Sports Chicago for the very best pre and post-game coverage. Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join me for Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m/, and we’ll have expanded post-game analysis when the action goes final in Dallas. You can also stream the shows live on the brand new My Teams by NBC Sports app.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

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USA TODAY

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”