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.

Lauri Markkanen's and Zach LaVine's best dunks of the year

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen's and Zach LaVine's best dunks of the year

Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen combined for 100 made dunks last season. But that would have been far too long of a video to make, so instead we condensed it down to their six best dunks of the season.

Which one was your favorite?

LaVine slams it home on the blocks leader (Mar. 5)

LaVine had a mini dunk contest in Indiana, but none more impressive than his dunk over Myles Turner. Robin Lopez set a high screen for LaVine, who attacked the rim instantly. LaVine got a step on Turner, who wound up leading the NBA in blocks per game, and flushed home a righty slam to tie the game early in the third quarter. LaVine finished with 27 points in the loss.

Lauri goes lefty on the Pistons (Mar. 8)

What’s more impressive than a 7-footer taking Blake Griffin off the dribble with his off-hand? That same 7-footer finishing a lefty dunk over Andre Drummond. That’s what Markkanen did early in this early March contest. Griffin got the best of Markkanen and the Bulls by the end of the night, but Markkanen started it out with a bang.

Arci saves, Otto oops, LaVine finishes (Mar. 6)

Sometimes the dunker gets the easy part. Ryan Arcidiacono had an incredible save to keep the ball in bounds in the Bulls backcourt. He tipped it right to Otto Porter who turned, took one dribble, and fed a perfect alley-oop to a streaking LaVine, who finished with an impressive one-handed slam. That it came during a nationally televised game (against Jimmy Butler) in a game the Bulls won made it all the more sweet. It was the Bulls’ best team play of the year.

Lauri’s R-rated drive past PG13 (Dec. 7)

Part of what makes Markkanen such an impressive talent is his versatility for a 7-footer. That was on full display against the Thunder in his third game back from his elbow injury. Markkanen set a screen for Zach LaVine and popped out to the 3-point line, with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Paul George switching on to him. Markkanen caught George just the slightest bit out of position and took advantage, driving past him and in for a dunk. This one was special because 23 game minutes later, Markkanen won the game with a spinning layup over George and Steven Adams.

LaVine goes 360 for 2 on the Cavs (Nov. 10)

We take Zach LaVine for granted sometimes. There’s nothing normal about a human being so casual jumping into the air, doing a full spin, and dunking a ball through a hoop 10 feet off the ground. But LaVine did just that early in the first quarter against the Cavs. He was still rising as he threw it down for his first two points of the game. LaVine finished with 24 points on just 9 of 22 shooting, but also added eight rebounds and five assists. Don’t let the ease of the dunk fool you: This was his best of the season.

Lauri baptizes Nikola Vucevic (Dec. 21)

You knew we saved the best for last. Markkanen went way up the ladder for his best dunk of the year, slamming one home on Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic. Making the slam all the more impressive was that the shot clock was winding down – Markkanen caught the ball at the logo with 4.2 seconds left on the shot clock – but he didn’t settle, instead heading straight to the rim where he met Vucevic for the slam. It was part of a monster night for Markkanen facing a defense that finished the season 8th in efficiency. He scored 32 points - at the time a season-high – on 12 of 20 shooting. The technical foul was worth it.

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Why a new and healthy Bulls rotation should mean a new Zach LaVine

Why a new and healthy Bulls rotation should mean a new Zach LaVine

Why didn't Zach LaVine receive more national praise last season?

Fresh off a $78 million contract, the 25-year-old averaged 25.6 points on 44% shooting, 5.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 36.1 minutes in October/November. He led the non-James Harden NBA in usage rate (32.5%), a slight tick above Kevin Durant (32.1%), Joel Embiid (32.0%), Devin Booker (31.4%) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (31.3%).

He was tasked with carrying a Bulls offense that was without its projected second leading scorer (Lauri Markkanen, elbow), starting point guard (Kris Dunn, knee) and Sixth Man (Bobby Portis, knee). On most nights, LaVine's second and third options were Jabari Parker and rookie Wendell Carter - Carter wasn't even a second or third option at Duke.

And he produced. The efficiency wasn't there - his 47.9% eFG was 24th of 27 players with a usage rate of 27 or higher - but that was to be expected. None of those 27 players had a weaker supporting cast than LaVine, who led the Bulls in scoring 17 of 22 times in that span.

LaVine's usage scaled back when the injured rotation players eventually returned. LaVine's usage rate from Dec. 1 until the end of the season was 28.4%, 23rd highest in the NBA and on par with Kyrie Irving (28.6%), Bradley Beal (28.7%) and Paul George (28.8%).

His efficiency picked up, too. His effective field goal percentage in that span was 54.9%, seven points higher than the putting-the-team-on-his-back-doe October and November. Of players with a usage rate of 28% or better, LaVine's eFG% was 11th of 25 players.

LaVine was born to score. His 23.7 points per game were all the more impressive considering how the Bulls slowed the pace once Jim Boylen took over, and the fact that he managed to shoot nearly 47% from the field after such a heavy October/November was a major positive.

So why didn't LaVine get more attention? Because points aren't everything and wins matter.

The latter isn't really LaVine's fault. The Bulls went 5-18 during LaVine's heavy usage stretch, but that was more a by-product of the injuries and decimated rotation. It would have been tough for Giannis Antetokounmpo to drag the Bulls to a win in late October when Cam Payne scored 15 points, Cristiano Felicio led the team in rebounds and Antonio Blakeney played 22 minutes off the bench. LaVine needed to play flawlessly for the Bulls to win - he averaged 30.6 points in the Bulls' five wins. The Bulls couldn't have won last season.

Offense is creeping back up to all-time highs in terms of pace and points, and efficiency has never been higher. That's good news for LaVine, who topped 30 points 11 times (in 63 games). Perhaps not coincidentally, the Bulls were 6-5 in those games. In the 52 games LaVine played but didn't top 30 points? The Bulls were 10-42 (a 16-win pace over an 82-game season). They were 2-21 when LaVine scored 21 or fewer points (a 7-win pace).

There's a lot to unpack here, beginning with the fact that LaVine really could have used some help last season. Lauri Markkanen's February surge and Otto Porter's arrival helped matters, but the season had been lost long before then and momentum never really picked up when all were benched late in March in the chase for ping-pong balls.

The Bulls will be better next season. LaVine may not average 23.7 points because Markkanen will need touches and Porter is a legitimate No. 3 scorer. Last season the Bulls' No. 3 scorer - of players who began and ended the year with the team - was Kris Dunn at 11.3 points.

That should mean an even bigger uptick in efficiency for LaVine, and it'll also allow him to flourish in other aspects of the game.

There's a debate among Bulls fans regarding LaVine's passing. He averaged 4.5 assists but did so in a high-usage capacity. He was 47th in assists per game and 60th in assist percentage (22.4%). But his turnover percentage was also 12%; of the 28 players who had a usage rate above 27% for the entire season, only Trae Young and Devin Booker had worse turnover percentages than LaVine.

LaVine isn't a bad passer, but he really isn't a good one, either. And that's fine! The Bulls overhauled the point guard position last season, adding Tomas Satoransky and Coby White. The expectation is LaVine's turnover percentage will decrease in, at times, an off-ball role where he isn't forced into making tough passes and decisions. That's just not who he is as a player, and it oftentimes showed.

He showed promise in pick-and-roll action with Wendell Carter and pick-and-pop action with Markkanen. Getting to pick and choose those spots with his big men will be a boon for the Bulls offense. It felt forced a lot of the time last season, and defenses could key in on the action knowing that the other option for the Bulls was a Ryan Arcidiacono jumper or Shaq Harrison cut to the basket. Not exactly a tough decision.

LaVine gets better as the Bulls' roster gets better. That sounds an easy enough concept, but it's even more true for a player whose perception unfairly took a hit because of his supporting cast. LaVine was asked to play a role he wasn't entirely fit for - it's REALLY tough to maintain that kind of usage rate and win - knowing team success was going to be nearly impossible.

He has defensive issues. They really didn't get better last season despite him pledging to improve off the ball. But again, consider the toll his offensive load took on his body on a nightly basis. Maybe it's a bit of a stretch, but a lower usage rate means a slightly smaller workload which means more energy over the course of 48 minutes.

LaVine was one of the few carry-overs who will have a similar role this season as he did a year ago. But a new roster, a new rotation and a new coaching staff could mean a new LaVine. Expect the numbers and efficiency to remain where they were, only this time around he'll get his due.