Bulls

Bulls avoid disaster, hang on to beat Nuggets

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Bulls avoid disaster, hang on to beat Nuggets

The one constant in this Bulls’ season has been inconsistency, an aspect that seemed to rear its ugly yet predictable head Wednesday night.

Beat the Spurs, then lose to a team like the Denver Nuggets, who entered Wednesday's game losers of seven straight.

The script was nearly too irresistible for this bunch to pass up, but they beat the young but game squad, 99-90 at the United Center, the second in a home-heavy schedule that has seen them beat some of the NBA’s best while their one home loss took place against the league’s youngest team, the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“In this league sometimes you have to win ugly,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Tonight we found a way. We found a way and that’s the encouraging thing on a night where we didn’t play that great.”

Pau Gasol stepped up in the absence of Nikola Mirotic, who exited early in the first quarter with a concussion. He nailed his first six shots from the field, then stabilized things late when the Bulls needed it defensively, thwarting multiple shot attempts inside with his four blocked shots and general presence made the Nuggets think twice before shooting, often putting up awkward shots.

Gasol finished with 26 points and 19 rebounds, both season-highs and his additional production was needed with Mirotic out and Derrick Rose struggling, not making a field goal after the first quarter.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Twelve of his points came in the fourth as the Bulls entered the last 12 trailing by four, very much looking like a game bound to get away.

“That play he tipped out to Doug was probably the play of the game when he hit the three,” said Hoiberg, referring to Gasol tapping a Rose miss out to Doug McDermott for a triple at the 7:37 mark, giving the Bulls an 82-79 lead.

“Pau did everything for us tonight. This was not our best energy game of the season but we kept at it and finally got a spurt to pull away. Good times or bad times, we have to play through those stretches.”

Rose finished with 11 points and nine assists, shooting three of 17, and it took Jimmy Butler awhile to get going offensively as well, hitting a couple jumpers late to tally 19 points with six rebounds and three assists.

A tough Butler drive and 3-point play put the Bulls back up by four with five minutes remaining and Gasol hit an 18-footer to essentially restore order the next time down.

“We know we have room for improvement,” Gasol said. “We can’t get complacent, can’t just be happy to win games. We’re gonna be challenged a lot.”

McDermott scored 11 off the bench, and Joakim Noah played 35 minutes, scoring nine with 11 rebounds and four blocked shots.

The Bulls had a 62-49 rebounding edge and held the Nuggets, a team without a devastating scorer, to 39 percent shooting. They barely beat that amount, shooting slightly over 40 percent as their offense stalled during the second half, shooting 38 percent with 10 turnovers.

“I thought our ball movement early was fine and we were going great,” Hoiberg said. “In the middle of the game we weren’t that good and in the fourth we started playing again.”

[RELATED: Nikola Mirotic leaves Wednesday's game with concussion]

Rose got Gasol going with his playmaking, as the Bulls played with pace early with 10 first-quarter assists. It slowed down after, as they finished with 22 helpers.

“My teammates definitely looked for me early on and I was able to knock down some (shots),” Gasol said. “The pick and roll is tough to cover because he’s a great penetrator and my guy has to be concerned with my pops. We put them in a predicament and made some plays.”

It nearly all became unraveled as the Bulls trailed entering the fourth after once having an 11-point lead. They didn’t play very disciplined, committing unforced turnovers and fouling late in the shot clock on the occasions they played strong defense.

The Nuggets bench gave them life with Will Barton’s athleticism giving them fits, as the guard scored 15 with eight rebounds and Darrell Arthur made six of 10 shots to score 13 in 19 minutes. Kenneth Faried scored 14 with eight rebounds and three assists.

It wasn't pretty but the Bulls woke up in just enough time to prevent disaster.

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.”