AUBURN HILLS, Mich. As the regular season winds down, its getting closer to the time when NBA writers are tabbed to select season-ending league awards. While I wont share which honors Ive been selected to vote on, it just so happened that one strong candidate for the Most Improved Player Award was in action against the Bulls Sunday night. He didnt have his best performance -- 13 points and eight rebounds, in comparison to his season averages of 15.8 points per game and 9.6 rebounds per game, up from his rookie-year averages of 9.4 and 7.5 in the same categories -- but second-year Detroit big man Greg Monroe, as usual, was solid.In the interest of full disclosure, I lived in New Orleans during Monroes senior year of high school and watched him play in person, then followed him during his two seasons with the Georgetown Hoyas, a program Ive always rooted for. I caught up with the versatile, fundamentally-sound lefty prior to the Bulls overtime win to discuss his development.Just continuing to work on my post game, trying to get better. Work on my jump shot a whole lot. I wanted to be stronger, he told me about his offseason goals before the season. Knocking down that jump shot just opened up my game a little bit. It opens up anybodys game when you can make a jump shot, so I just try to focus on being consistent with that.Monroe acknowledged that after a decent rookie campaign, he knew opponents would focus on his dominant left hand, but even with increased defensive attention, he felt hed be able to exploit double teams with his passing ability. Ive definitely gotten better with my right hand, a lot more confident, he explained to me. Ive always had good vision. Ive always looked for my teammates. My main focus is to make the right play, whether its scoring or passing.Not that Monroes game Sunday will dissuade me or others from considering him as a viable candidate for the award, but there are certainly others worthy of consideration, from more-established players like the Lakers Andrew Bynum to more under-the-radar types, such as Milwaukees Ersan Ilyasova. Anyway, theres plenty of other stuff going on throughout the league and certainly with the Bulls, so on to this weeks mailbag.Where does this year's Bench Mob rank in terms of the best bench in NBA history? -- Tyler C.Tyler, as far as NBA history goes, wed be getting a little ahead of ourselves by comparing the Bulls to all-time benches. For instance, thinking of the Bulls opponent Sunday, both the Bad Boy Pistons teams and the 2004 Detroit title winner were extremely deep. If the Bulls win a championship, then the Bench Mob could reach similar status, as history is often kinder to squads that win it all. This season alone, however, Id certainly put the Bulls reserves among the top benches in the league, alongside the Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies and Philadelphia 76ers, though the latter hasnt been as potent since a lineup shake-up. Regardless, when we look back years later, the completeness of the Bench Mob and the way they seemingly never fail to rise to the occasion will be remembered fondly.What is the Bulls record for matinee games this season? It seems like they don't play as well during the day. -- Scott S.Scott, the Bulls are a woeful 2-6 in matinee games this season, with the two victories being the season-opening Christmas Day win over the Lakers and a home triumph over the Hawks. Youre right in saying they havent dealt with early starts very well this season, something Thibs discussed after last Sundays loss at New York (he joked -- at least I think he was joking; there was an awkward silence among the assembled media afterwards -- about wishing the Bulls had more matinee games at home), calling it a big concern, and putting some of the onus on himself for not having the team fully prepared. I wont downplay it and call it a coincidence, but I do think that if theyre faced with the prospect of an early start in the postseason, theyll be ready to play, especially with Thibs gently reminding them how they fared in the regular season.In your opinion, how has the lockout affected this season? Other than the number of games, of course.-- Neil A.Neil, thats an easy one: Injuries. From Derrick and Rip missing so many games for the Bulls to durable players like Dwight Howard-- say what you want about the All-Star center, but hes rarely injured and his current back problems appear to be serious-- being sidelined, its clear that the compressed schedule and shortened training camp have taken a toll on the leagues workforce. Sure, I could point to sloppy play early in the season, but for the most part, thats rectified itself as the season has gone on. But for players who came into the season out of shape or have played heavy minutes, its obvious the work stoppage has been a major factor. I havent studied the numbers-- the Bulls have enough going on to look at the league as a whole-- but even the number of freak injuries seems higher this season, something evidenced by the Bulls litany of various ailments. Other than injuries and the schedule itself, as time has gone on, its been more or less a normal NBA campaign.Just realized that Charlotte hasjust sevenwins this season, is there any hope for them? -- Joey N.Joey, good question. Even if the Bobcats land the No. 1 pick -- no guarantee, as Bulls fans are aware that the top pick doesnt always go to the worst team. Some observers, such as Charles Barkley, have suggested that with the Nets moving to Brooklyn, missing out on the aforementioned Howard this season and likely to lose Deron Williams, the draft lottery will be rigged for them to get the top choice -- Im not sure Chicago native Anthony Davis, assuming the Kentucky freshman declares for the draft, will guarantee them an instant turnaround. They do have a few pieces, namely swingman Gerald Henderson, point guard D.J. Augustin, center Byron Mullens and rookies Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo, but in general, the Michael Jordan-owned franchise has an underwhelming collection of talent. That said, they do have plenty of cap space for free agents, but with speculation that there will be a coaching change, Jordans reputation as a penny-pincher, dwindling crowds and that less-than-attractive talent base, its unlikely that marquee players will look to relocate to Charlotte. That said, theyre capable of turning things around in the long-term future, but it wont be easy.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.
On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, See Red Fred joins Big Dave and Matt Peck. The guys talk about some big plays down the stretch by Zach LaVine and Denzel Valentine. Plus a great defensive job by Kris Dunn on Paul George. (1:30) See Red Fred states his case for more playing time for Denzel Valentine. (4:00) Plus what's going to happen when Otto Porter and Chandler Hutchison come back. (8:00) The guys share some concerns about Coby White in the short term. (10:30) See Red Fred tells you about 3 players who have exceeded expectations this year. (13:00) Plus the guys debate whether Zach LaVine should compete in the dunk contest or 3 point competition. (18:00) They discuss the impact that Kris Dunn has had on the defensive end of the floor. (20:30) Plus See Red Fred lays out his blueprint for the Bulls to make the playoffs. (23:30) Plus the guys make a wager regarding the rest of the season. (25:00)
Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:
Just over two hours before tipoff, in his first public comments since Media Day, executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson talked about how Jim Boylen’s teaching and coaching hasn’t always translated from the practice floor and film room to games.
Could the Bulls’ first victory this season over a winning team be a step?
And don’t mention that the Clippers played without Kawhi Leonard, Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams in the Bulls’ 109-106 victory, secured on Zach LaVine’s three-point play with 2 seconds to play.
“Well, we didn’t have (Otto Porter Jr.) or Hutch (Chandler Hutchison) or (Daniel) Gafford,” Boylen said. “So we can ‘Yeah, but’ it a little bit too.”
Bravado aside, there’s stuff on which the Bulls can build here.
LaVine posted his sixth 30-point game and ended a week filled with closing misses with a game-winner in which he powered through a Montrezl Harrell foul on a nice misdirection play involving Kris Dunn. Lauri Markkanen tied his season-high with 17 rebounds while posting his third double-double of the season. Denzel Valentine, playing all but two seconds of the fourth, hit a huge tying 3-pointer in the final minute and scored a season-high 16 points. Thad Young tied his season-high with 17 points.
And Dunn was everywhere, relishing the challenge of guarding Paul George down the stretch and winning a crucial battle for a 50-50 ball that led to Valentine’s tying shot.
“That was a huge moment,” Boylen said.
So was Valentine closing a game.
“I just thought we needed some more shooting on the floor,” Boylen said. “We’ve wrestled with defensive lineups, offensive lineups. We try to mingle them a little bit. I just thought we needed someone to make a big shot. And he did.”
Valentine has now scored in double figures off the bench in five of six games.
“I’m very confident in my abilities,” Valentine said. “I was just waiting for the ball to come my way. Zach is our best player. So the ball’s going to be in his hands. But shoot, I’m ready for it. I love those moments. I love to make those shots.”
Dunn, who finished a plus-22, defended George as he missed a good look for a tying 3-pointer. George scored 10 points in just over 7 minutes in the fourth but missed all three attempts following Valentine’s tying shot.
“I love it,” Dunn said of guarding great players. “I know my niche on this team is to guard. And I take pride in that. It feels good to go against a big-time player and be able to get stops towards the end.”
Markkanen actually received credit for the rebound that Dunn kept alive to lead to Valentine’s tying shot, which Dunn said Markkanen teased him about. Dunn finished with nine points, nine rebounds, four assists, three blocks and two steals.
But his two biggest plays didn’t even crash the box score. He won the 50-50 ball to lead to Valentine’s tying shot and then confused the Clippers’ defense by slipping a screen on LaVine’s game-winner.
“I knew Zach was going to get downhill,” Dunn said. “Because once I did it, I saw Paul George look at me.”
LaVine couldn’t believe how much space he had to operate.
“I’ll take it,” he said. “Once I saw the lane open up, I think there were like 5 seconds left. We were trying to get the last shot. But once the lane opened up, I tried to get a one-on-one. He’s a tough dude. I knew I could attack his body.”
LaVine missed game-winning attempts on an isolation 3-pointer against the Warriors and over a double-team against the Raptors. His three-point play offered a dose of redemption for a player who is never afraid to fail.
“You’re not going to be perfect. As much as people are going to show more of the bad than the good, I’ve had a lot of good times in the clutch as well,” LaVine said. “I try to make the right play for us to win. And I did that tonight.”
For one night, matters were more positive. The Bulls closed out a game against a good team and received multiple contributions while doing so.
Heck, Boylen even downplayed Paxson’s vote of confidence.
“We understand what we’re trying to do. We’re in step on what we’re asking our guys to do and play like and work like and care like,” the coach said. “I’m thankful for it. But I wouldn’t expect anything less.”