Bulls

Bulls beat lifeless Pistons

Bulls beat lifeless Pistons

The Pistons looked to the worst possible matchup on the worst night of the season for the Bulls, as they were light at the center position and facing Andre Drummond, a man who has given the Bulls the business during their better days.

But the Pistons seemed to be the best opponent on the second night of a back-to-back, as they seemed dispirited and dead-legged, with the Bulls taking full advantage in their 117-95 win at the United Center Wednesday night.

The win ties the two rivals with 34-38 records, looking on the outside in at the Eastern Conference playoff race with 10 games left.

Both came into the game smarting from road losses the night before, with the Pistons falling to the lowly Brooklyn Nets at the buzzer in Brooklyn and the Bulls losing a 15-point fourth quarter lead to the Raptors, dropping the contest in overtime.

Nikola Mirotic scored a season-high 28 points in 38 minutes, hitting 12 of 15 shots while Jimmy Butler scored was perfect on his six shots, scoring 16 with 12 assists and five rebounds in 33 minutes, as the Bulls shot 59 percent from the field.

"I was proud of the guys, the way they bounced back after last night's disappointment," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "We talked before the game about how well we played for the majority of the game last night besides the last five minutes."

There would be no such suspense on this night, as the Pistons offered little resistance and seemed to be a bit lifeless for most of the evening, despite the prodding from coach Stan Van Gundy.

"We've got 10 games to go, but I don't see a lot of life in us," said Van Gundy in a statement that could've been attributed to Hoiberg if he was given some truth serum after some disappointing losses this season.

But the tables were turned for once, in the most unlikely of ways as the Bulls own the tiebreaker over the Pistons with a better division record at the moment.

With Robin Lopez out with a suspension stemming from Tuesday's swing-and-miss exercise with Serge Ibaka and Cristiano Felicio being out with a lower back injury, Drummond was expected to dominate, already having three 20-20 games against the Bulls on his ledger.

He grabbed 17 rebounds but only scored eight points as the Pistons shot 44 percent from the field.

Joffrey Lauvergne took his turn in the starting lineup, performing admirably with 17 points, seven rebounds and three assists in 28 minutes and keeping Drummond occupied, his best game since being traded to Chicago at the deadline.

"Joff plays incredibly hard, he listens," Butler said. "The big dude (Drummond) missed a lot of shots he normally makes. I think that's all you can play about that. Joff played hard, he did what he was supposed to do."

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The Pistons' only signs of life came from Stanley Johnson (12 points) and Jon Leuer (13 points), who came off the bench in the late first quarter and early second to bring the game to a two-point margin before the half at 55-53.

But the Bulls took the fight from the Pistons early in the second half and made their separation in the third quarter with a decisive 32-20 run, as Nikola Mirotic scored 12 in the period and Butler adding seven.

Mirotic, if it carries over, could point to this game as the one that turned his season around at the right time. He was aggressive against Tobias Harris and hit four triples as the Bulls were nine of 20 from long range, proving they didn't have a hangover from their heartbreaker the night before.

"I thought he let the game come to him," Hoiberg said. "He didn't take forced shots. When you have good, crisp ball movement, you're going to get open looks."

Even without their lane cloggers, the Bulls lived in the paint, taking a 21-point lead due to scoring 48 points in the paint and moving the ball to the tune of 28 assists on their first 37 field goals.

"We needed to step up, especially guarding Drummond inside," Mirotic said.  "Offensively, we played great. Thirty-six assists."

Considering where Mirotic was a couple weeks ago, out of the rotation and nowhere near top of mind when it came to who would help the Bulls find themselves, it's somewhat gratifying.

"It's exciting when you do something well," Mirotic said. "But I've always been very positive about everything. When they told me I would be out of the rotation, I was the first guy coming in, working out and being positive with my teammates."

Unlike the fourth quarter against the Raptors, the Bulls didn't have to worry about a late surge as the Pistons rested their regulars relatively early, waiving the white flag as the Bulls shot close to 60 percent.

Rajon Rondo added nine assists of his own as he was the only starter who didn't reach double figures in scoring.

He didn't need to, as the game served as a confidence-builder for Mirotic, Bobby Portis and Lauvergne, the man who started in Lopez's stead.

Although giving up plenty in size and skill to Drummond, he pulled him to the perimeter and even found gold inside to score 17 with seven rebounds in his best performance as a Bull since being involved in the trade involving Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott at the deadline.

If the Bulls play like this every night before April 12, they could find their way to the postseason, but if they played like this before tonight, a playoff spot would've already been assured.

NBA G League continues to offer fascinating storylines

NBA G League continues to offer fascinating storylines

You never know what you might see on a given night in the G League.

Wednesday’s game at the Sears Centre offered a match-up of 7-foot-2 Bol Bol in his Windy City Bulls home debut against one time hot prospect, 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

In case you’re not familiar with Thabeet, he was the second overall pick by the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2009 NBA Draft after capturing the attentions of scouts and executives with his play in the high profile program at Connecticut. Thabeet was viewed as a can’t miss prospect whose size and athleticism would translate into making him a defensive force at the NBA level.

Problem is, Thabeet did miss. Questions about his low motor and work ethic surfaced and he struggled to get consistent playing time in Memphis. Stops in Houston, Portland and Oklahoma City would follow, and Thabeet found himself out of the league in 2014. He played a total of 224 NBA games, averaging 2.2 points and 2.7 rebounds a game.

The native of Tanzania bounced around the G League and played in Japan for a time before returning to the U.S. looking for one more chance at the NBA. Thabeet invited teams to watch him work out last summer, but with little interest, he wound up back in the G League with Fort Wayne for the 2019-20 season.

At 32 years old, Thabeet is still an impressive looking athlete, and in Wednesday’s game against Windy City, he flashed at times with 4 blocked shots and a powerful baseline drive and dunk. But he also labored to change ends of the court, and put up a modest stat line of 6 points, 2 rebounds and 4 blocks in 18 minutes. Down the stretch, the Mad Ants decided they were better off with Travin Thibodeaux at center in a close game.

With NBA teams now looking for mobile centers with 3-point shooting range, it’s hard to imagine Thabeet getting another chance to make it to the league.

Meanwhile, Windy City unveiled it’s newest addition Bol Bol, a two-way player for the Denver Nuggets who needed a team to continue his development since the Nuggets don’t have their own G-League affiliate.

Bol only played nine games in his lone collegiate season at Oregon before suffering a foot injury that dropped his draft stock. He averaged 21 points and almost 10 rebounds a game at Oregon, showing an uncanny long range shooting touch for a 7-footer. Matter of fact, some talent evaluators viewed him as the best shooter available in the 2019 NBA Draft. But because of concerns about the foot injury and his slender build, Bol fell to the the second round, eventually selected 44th overall by Miami, then traded to Denver on draft night.

With the Nuggets featuring one of the NBA’s deepest rosters, there wouldn’t be any developmental minutes for Bol, so he was assigned to Windy City, a team that had a need for another big man.

Bol was impressive in his 20 minutes of playing time on Wednesday, finishing with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. Right now, Bol is on a minutes restriction to protect him from further injury, but you can see the potential is there for him to be a contributor at the NBA level in time.

Bol has a feathery soft shooting touch, and will be comfortable spotting up at the 3-point line in drive and kick offenses and as a weak side option on pick and roll plays. He also showed more aggressiveness than I expected in attacking the offensive glass, following up his own initial miss for rebound baskets on a few occasions against Fort Wayne.

Windy City general manager Josh Kreibich has put together a very competitive roster that features another Nuggets’ two-way player, P.J. Hairston, Bulls’ two-way players Max Strus and Adam Mokoka, and former Loyola University star Milton Doyle.

The Bulls’ G League affiliate is off to a 4-1 start under first year coach Damian Cotter with hopes of making a second straight playoff appearance. Still, player development is priority number one in the G League, which means every player on the roster will get the opportunity to showcase their skills during the course of the season.

Bol’s NBA rights belong to Denver, but the fans at Sears Centre on Wednesday were thoroughly entertained watching the son of former NBA center Manute Bol show off a unique game that will almost certainly land him a spot in an NBA team’s rotation before long.

Windy City’s first two homes games brought former No. 4 overall draft pick Dragan Bender and Thabeet to Sears Centre, and on Nov. 29, 7-foot-7 Tacko Fall will be in Hoffman Estates with the Maine Red Claws. If you want to take a break from your Black Friday shopping to watch the Bol-Tacko duel, it’s a 5 p.m. tip-off.

After all, you never know what you might see at a G League game.

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Bulls' defense is trending upward, leads NBA in forcing turnovers, steals

Bulls' defense is trending upward, leads NBA in forcing turnovers, steals

Just over midway through the third quarter Wednesday night, Kris Dunn cleanly picked Derrick Rose’s pocket for a steal.

“I love getting steals. That’s been my game since high school. That’s what I do. I take pride in that,” Dunn said following Thursday’s practice at Advocate Center. “I think my teammates know, the coaches know, the other teams know defense is what I do. And I try to inspire that in others.”

With 17 Pistons’ turnovers, the Bulls have now forced 15 or more turnovers in all 15 games this season.

The last time they did this — in 1980 — nobody on the current roster was born. Jim Boylen was in high school in Grand Rapids, Mich. No NBA team has opened a season in similar fashion since the 76ers did in 2004, per Elias Sports Bureau.

The Bulls lead the NBA in overall steals and rank second behind Friday’s opponent, the Heat, in steals per game. Dunn ranks third behind league leader Jimmy Butler, in town Friday, and Ben Simmons with 2.13 steals per game.

The Bulls also lead the NBA in forced turnovers per game at 18.8 and points off turnovers.

“I think our defense is built to force turnovers, the system that we run,” Dunn said. “We’re blitzing guys, trying to get the ball out of their hands. You have to make them make a read. Our defense is built so that after we blitz, we have a triangle (of defenders) behind. If they make a mistake in the read, it often leads to a turnover. We have a lot of good defenders on this team who can create turnovers.”

Shaq Harrison’s emergency starter status now that both Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison are on the shelf aids in this department. He led the NBA in steals-per-minute last season and posted three versus the Pistons. Hutchison is doubtful for Friday’s game against the Heat.

“I’ve been doing that my whole life,” Harrison said of getting steals. “Every coach I’ve played for has been a defensive-minded coach and wants me to get into people. It’s been embedded into my mind to get steals and deflections and pick guys up to play hard 100 percent of the time.

“I think defense and that mentality is 90 percent toughness and heart and then 10 percent skill. Anybody can do it at this level if you truly put your mind to it.”

Despite their penchant for steals and forcing turnovers, the Bulls rank 14th in defensive rating. That’s middle-of-the-pack stuff, although it’s trending upward over the last five games. And it’s reflective of their poor defensive rebounding, occasionally poor defensive transition and inability to limit dribble penetration.

In detailing his defensive philosophy, coach Jim Boylen cited those three areas as need for improvement. That’s borne out in the Bulls allowing too many shots at the rim. What’s wild is they lead the league in offensive attempts within 5 feet but also allow the second-most in the league.

“We do not teach to steal the ball. I’m not a big out-of-position-to-steal-the-ball guy,” Boylen said. “What we have coached hard — and I guess well at times — is hand position, body position and doing your work early. I think that has put us in position sometimes to knock some balls loose or pick a couple off. But I’m not big on getting out of position to try to get a steal. It’s not who I am. It’s not who we want to be.”

Dunn said he sees “no downside” to the Bulls’ defensive’ scheme as long as it’s played with energy and communication. The Bulls have had trouble making quick and proper rotations if they don’t force a turnover, although that area too has improved over the last eight games.

The Bulls rank ninth in defensive rating over their last eight games.

“I give our guys credit,” Boylen said. “They’ve really bought into what our defense looks like now. Early, we struggled to get to the corner, to adjust and shift. I think there’s a familiarity now. There’s a learning curve in every defensive situation. I also think there’s defensive chemistry. And I think we can still grow.

“My assistant coaches have done a great job of sticking to what we believe in. We’ve coached basically the same thing since Day One. I feel we have a foundation. We need to be more consistent and play better. But we’re coaching to a system.”

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