Bulls

Bulls avert crisis in close win over Magic

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Bulls avert crisis in close win over Magic

“Force” and “intent” should’ve been the words written on the whiteboard in the Bulls locker room before Sunday evening’s game against the youthful, athletic Orlando Magic.

On the immediate heels of the disappointing loss to Detroit, two things were clear: When cutting down on silly plays and allowing old bugaboos to haunt them, they held a double-digit lead for most of the night.

But the lesson they’re learning very early is opposing teams have no problem challenging the notion of this new Bulls identity that relies more on skill than will.

And the Magic proved to be a worthy but not-quite-yet-ready adversary, making them sweat before the Bulls compose themselves for a 92-87 win at the United Center.

“The last five years they’ve been taught very well on the defensive end,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, referencing the man he replaced, Tom Thibodeau.

[MORE: Bulls working to 'clean up and fix' turnover issues]

A 14-0 run that rendered the Bulls scoreless for nearly four minutes in the fourth quarter is giving more credence to the team’s lack of comfort level running whatever they need to in crunch time.

Derrick Rose found Pau Gasol for a free-throw line jumper shortly thereafter to break the ice, but the play with 2:50 remaining, one that gave the Bulls an 86-82 lead was their last basket of the night.

“He had a really nice pass to Pau, I thought he played really well,” Hoiberg said. “It was good to see him bounce back with a good one.”

From there, a little defensive muscle memory kept the Magic at bay, as Jimmy Butler did his best defensive back imitation, intercepting a pass from Andrew Nicholson at three-quarter court after a Bulls’ miss where a Magic player got behind the defense and would’ve had an easy dunk.

“Jimmy made a fantastic read,” Hoiberg said. “He got a deflection and we got the ball back.”

Butler, donning a Denver Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas jersey, described the play in football jargon.

“Me being a Denver Broncos cornerback, I backpedaled and saw Aaron Rodgers try to throw it over the top. I was Chris Harris on the play and I smacked it to Derrick, who was Von Miller.”

“I was just watching the guy to tell you the truth. I knew he was gonna throw it.”

Luckily for them, the Magic couldn’t do much offensively with the opportunities the Bulls gave them, until Victor Oladipo’s triple with 17.1 seconds left cut the lead to three—meaning free throws had to be made to seal the game, and the Bulls were perfect in their last six attempts.

“It’s a concern but we gotta learn from it,” Hoiberg said. “Thankfully we hit those free throws down the stretch. If you get them down by 15, you have to build it up to 20. We let teams back in.”

The Bulls corralled an early Magic surge when Joakim Noah and Doug McDermott came off the bench to provide a much-needed spark, with McDermott providing the shooting and Noah bringing everything else, illustrated by a two-handed dunk from Rose, a rare finish.

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Noah finished with eight points, nine rebounds and four assists in 24 minutes, splitting the time with Gasol at the center positon.

“It was real good,” Hoiberg said. “Pau got us off to a good start and he had a good rhythm. Joakim’s energy off the bench was terrific.”

Rose was in facilitator mode again, with eight assists in 32 minutes, as he failed to crack double figures in scoring as he still battles double-vision.

“Right now there’s no point in shooting if I can’t see,” said Rose, who took just eight shots, making two. “I’m just paying attention to the way they play me and I need to either drive, shoot a floater or get the ball out to my teammates.”

Had the Bulls made a few more shots, it could’ve been an easier finish but they again struggled from the field, shooting 38 percent and missing 21 of their 28 3-pointers. Nikola Mirotic, Gasol and McDermott were the consistent scorers, with Gasol and Mirotic putting up 16 each and McDermott scoring 10.

McDermott hit a buzzer-beating triple and another wing three from penetration to give the Bulls a 12-point lead before halftime, one they seemed to hold dear until turning the ball over opened the door.

But they again played solid enough defense for the fourth straight game, keeping the Magic under 40 percent and not allowing them to creep on the glass too much, at least not in the way the Pistons did Friday.

Only committing 15 turnovers, it certainly wasn’t a game featuring pristine effectiveness but they appeared to learn a quick lesson from a smarting loss in Detroit.

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.”

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

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USA TODAY

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

Denzel Valentine’s troublesome left ankle is going to keep him on the sideline for at least the next two weeks. Fred Hoiberg said Saturday before the Bulls’ home opener against the Detroit Pistons that Valentine is suffering from a bone bruise in the ankle he sprained on the second day of training camp. Valentine will be evaluated in two weeks.

“It sucks because of all the work I put in this summer and being around the guys you want to be out there so bad,” he said. “Things happen for a reason, and now that we know what’s going on I at least have a time frame and be patient with it; it’s bad news but good news at the same time as it gives me time to get ready.”

Valentine had been practicing earlier in the week and appeared close to a return after spraining the ankle on Sept. 25. But the third year wing complained of discomfort in the ankle and missed practice on Friday. A scan of the left ankle revealed the bone bruise, and Hoiberg wouldn’t speculate on when exactly Valentine might return.

It’s the same ankle Valentine had surgery on in May 2017. Valentine also missed the last two weeks of last season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. The injury couldn’t come at a worse time for Valentine or the Bulls, who are in desparate need of help both in the backcourt and on the wing.

Though Valentine isn’t a true point guard, he averaged 3.2 assists per game off the bench last season. The Bulls could use that kind of production when Kris Dunn returns on Monday, as Cameron Payne and Ryan Arcidiacono haven’t exactly showed promise in the early going.

Instead, Valentine is on the mend and it’s unclear when he might return. Given he’s had surgery on the same ankle before, the Bulls will be cautious upon his return.

“I’m a fighter, I’m not going to quit; just deal with the hand dealt," Valentine said. "I can’t sit here and be negative, I just got to fight, stay mentally strong and this will be bittersweet when I come back and have a great year.”