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Bulls blaze past Portland on Deng's career night

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Bulls blaze past Portland on Deng's career night

Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010
Updated 12:08 AM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

Something was missing in the first two games of the Bulls' season. No, not Carlos Boozer; that's a given. Rather, Luol Deng, after a promising preseason, faded into the background in the team's first two contests.

That wouldn't be the case Monday evening, as Deng's career-high 40 points and a stout defense would spark a wire-to-wire 110-98 Chicago victory over visiting Portland at the United Center.

"Even in the first two games, I didn't think that he shot the ball well, but I thought he played well, because of all the things that he's doing. He's moving without the ball, he's cutting hard, he's making the extra pass and he's playing really good defense. Tonight, he was terrific offensively, just body was in motion, got out and ran the floor, so he did a number of different things," said Thibodeau about Deng afterwards. "Sometimes players will allow their offense to dictate their defense. You know that you're not going to shoot well every night. Maybe you have a tough matchup. Maybe you're being guarded well, you're being trapped. So, that night might be harder on you offensively, but there's other ways you can help and I think you want to be a defensive team first.

"Luol, from the start of camp, has been that way. He goes hard on defense every day in practice, so I was glad in the first two games, he didn't get down. He just kept working on his game, got in early, stayed late, getting a lot of shots up, so I was very confident he would come around."

A focused Bulls team took the United Center floor with bad intentions, as an aggressive offense produced results and head coach Tom Thibodeau's inside-out game plan was executed. Deng bounced back from a subpar game offensively, as his defense has been underrated; Deng at least made life difficult for Kevin Durant in the season-opening loss at Oklahoma City and absolutely hounded Ben Gordon after he was switched onto his former teammate in the second half of Chicago's successful home opener start to the season with an efficient (6-for-7 shooting, 16 points) opening quarter.

Taj Gibson was effective before returning to his pattern of quick foul trouble, as he was saddled with a pair early, leading to the insertion of rookie center Omer Asik. Fellow reserve James Johnson (playing shooting guard, and guarding Blazers star Brandon Roy and giving the Bulls a huge lineup with Asik's presence) was similarly rewarded for his strong play in Chicago's last win, receiving early playing time in return.

Unlikely secondary ballhandler Joakim Noah, the center was pressed into duty from the outset, when Portland took to full-court pressure of point guard Derrick Rose, who still managed to impact the contest with his slashing and playmaking repertoire didn't make much of a dent in the way of scoring, but made several nifty passes to provide opportunities for others and was responsible with the ball in his hands. Suffocating team defense, versatile power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, originally a Bulls draft choice in 2006 (he was swapped for the departed Tyrus Thomas in a draft-day deal), was the only Trailblazer to produce from a scoring standpoint also played a large part in Chicago leading, 32-21, after a quarter of play.

"I made shots, but we moved the ball really well. We had a lot of open shots the way they played our pick-and-roll, trying to blitz D.Rose," said the modest Deng. "When they're blitzing and we move the ball well, you've got players sometimes, you could play great "D" and guys still hit shots.

"I didn't really shoot the ball well the first two games. I shot the ball well tonight, but every night is going to be different. We've got a lot of new players on this team and we've just got to understand that. We've just got to find ways to win, but every night, your role will be different," he continued. "It's just the way the game goes sometimes and tonight, it was just the way the game went. I had a lot of open shots and a few easy layups early."

The second period would see the Bulls cruise early on, as a largely uninspired Trailblazers team seemingly walked through the motions. Utah expatriates Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer made positive contributions, as the reserve wings continue to attempt to integrate themselves into Thibodeau's system. Korver, in particular, looked to be in the flow, active and engaged, and his shooting would give Chicago a boost.

Rose, under much scrutiny for his high volume of shot attempts in the season's early going, functioned as a distributor primarily, demonstrating that any shoot-first tendencies were more out of necessity than choice. Portland crept back in the game, capitalizing on rushed shots by the home team and eventually cutting its sizable deficit to single digits, mostly by virtue of Aldridge's varied scoring methods. Despite the visitors finally appearing to be fully engaged by midway through the quarter, the Bulls maintained a 56-47 advantage going into the half.

"I'm the type of person where if I've got something going, I'm going to stick with it. If it's scoring, I'm going to stick with it if it's helping us and tonight, it was passing the ball. It might sound crazy as a point guard, but I'm different. They were hitting the shots and I had to keep feeding them, and I think they were knocking down shots that they were supposed to,' said Rose, who finished with a career-high tying 13 assists, as well as 16 points (on 11 shots) and five rebounds. "Anything easy, where my teammates were getting off. They played great, man, and we put them away pretty early.

"Coming into the game, I knew I could pass the ball. They were double-teaming me. I think I was making the right plays," continued Rose, who said he stayed in close contact with Deng to boost his spirits after his disappointing first two games of the season. "Deng's confidence is sky-high. He didn't even have a second guess about whether he was going to shoot or not. He was letting the ball go and that's what we need him to do, be that other threat for this team. He's one of them, he's put in a lot of work, so I think that it's paying off."

"Derrick was terrific. He got us a fast pace to the game, got us some easy scoring opportunities and I thought he was great with the pass tonight. I thought he was reading what's happening. They trapped him more and he made the right play," said Thibodeau. "It's important to make the right play. Derrick has the responsibility of running the team and some nights, a guy can get hot, he has a favorable matchup. He has to read that and the responsibility of a primary scorer is when the second defender comes, to hit the open man, and I think that he's done that."

Thibodeau added: "When he's been in single coverage, Derrick has attacked and he's been very effective. I think the better our defense is, the better we rebound, the more he's in the open floor and that's where I've said this many times he's impossible to guard, if he has a head of steam and he's coming at you. That's where we get going, there's easy scoring opportunities for everybody in transition."

Deng's hot shooting persisted into the third quarter, as the veteran small forward was torrid from the field. In turn, however, the Bulls had no answer for Aldridge, who gave them fits with his combination of shooting range, agility and back-to-the-basket moves. But in general, Chicago's defensive effort continued to fluster the Trailblazers, who were both cold from the outside and unable to get quality shots on the interior, especially with the pairing of Noah and Asik on the defensive end.

The Bulls held a comfortable winning margin, although Thibodeau was visibly displeased with the team's bugaboo on the short season repeatedly putting its opponent on the foul line; in contrast, Chicago was inefficient at the charity stripe themselves which ensured the contest wasn't a laugher just yet. After three periods, the Bulls led, 88-73.

While not visually appealing, Chicago maintained its comfortable cushion by way of stout defense early in the final stanza, although they struggled to find the basket themselves. Foul difficulties, however, would plague the Bulls and a subtle race to beat the clock before interior stalwarts Noah and Gibson, as well as Johnson and Asik, were disqualified ensued, while they simultaneously attempted to prevent a Portland comeback.

Deng's offensive brilliance continued, but in a stretch where Chicago relaxed a bit, the home team's grasp on the contest was strong enough that the tempo was slowed an all-reserve Portland lineup would pose a late challenge, but the game was already well in hand.

"We're not where we want to be yet, but we're getting there. I think we're moving in the right direction I thought overall, we did a lot of good things defensively, but we still have a lot of things to clean up," said Thibodeau. "Portland is a quality team, so I thought we did a lot of good things to get the win."

"I like the way we're playing. If someone gets hot, we're going to continue to go to that guy and I thought Derrick made a lot of great reads in the game," he continued. "Each night, I'm hopeful that it's going to be somebody different to take the scoring load off Rose. It's going to be more than one; we're going to need two, three, four guys."

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Lauri Markkanen's struggles are a daily storyline, but the solve isn't simple

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USA Today

Lauri Markkanen's struggles are a daily storyline, but the solve isn't simple

MILWAUKEE — When Thad Young played for the Pacers, this was, according to Young, that team’s scouting report on Lauri Markkanen:

“He’s a guy who can score in different levels of the game. He can shoot the midrange. He can take you off the dribble and do his hanging fade to get his shot off. Or he can step behind the line and tee up some 3s,” Young said. “So we tried to keep him seeing bodies so he wouldn’t take the ball from one side to the other.”

Markkanen’s struggles — and the Bulls’ usage of him — is becoming an almost daily storyline. It certainly dominated Monday’s postgame questioning after the Bulls dropped to 1-18 versus winning teams with a 111-98 loss to the Bucks.

For the second time in three games, Markkanen failed to score in the second half. Seven of his 11 attempts came from 3-point range — all of which he missed. His eight points came from two putbacks and four free throws.

That’s it.

“He missed some shots he normally makes. That happens,” coach Jim Boylen said. “I thought he was moving well. He had a couple great cuts to the basket, opportunities at the rim. That’s what we want from him — inside, outside.”

But that’s not happening enough. Fifty-three percent of Markkanen’s attempts this season have been 3-pointers. That’s up 11.2 percent from last season and 6.5 percent from his rookie season.

Too often, Markkanen is being relegated to playing as a stationary, 3-point shooter and not the dynamic, multifaceted scorer for whom Young’s Pacers teams prepared.

“Yeah, I think I can do a lot of good things besides just shoot threes,’’ Markkanen said. “Haven’t really been able to do that lately. Just have to figure out the way I can attack the rim more and get to the free-throw line. I need to figure out my spots.”

This is not meant to fully absolve Markkanen, who has indeed missed open looks consistently this season. For the second straight game, Markkanen joked about how Boylen called a play for him on the first possession, only for Markkanen to turn it over.

Markkanen also again acknowledged the sore left ankle he is playing through as he tries to reach his well documented goal of playing all 82 games. Markkanen called the ankle “not normal but getting there” and also shook off banging knees with Donte DiVincenzo that left him running hobbled for a few possessions.

Markkanen said he has no problem talking to Boylen about his usage and, as is his nature, looked inward.

“We’ve talked about it. He ran some plays for me. I turned it over. He does run some stuff for me. I just have to make the plays,” he said. “If you shoot the ball like [I have], you don’t really deserve touches. Can’t really complain.

“When you’re feeling it and actually making shots, it would be good to get closer to the rim and kind of keep it going. A lot of our plays I screen and pop.’’

The Bulls tied their franchise record with 48 3-point attempts. Boylen said that was the gameplan since opponents averaged 40 3-point attempts and 17.5 makes in the Bucks’ mere six losses.

Never mind that even if the Bulls hadn’t gone ice cold in the second half to finish with 14 makes that adding 3.5 more makes would’ve still left them on the losing end. The Markkanen problem is bigger than a math problem.

“I think the system complements him to the point where he has a lot of freedom to do different things,” Young said. “If he’s open, he takes a 3. If he’s not, he tries to make a play. He’s doing the best he can, just like me and any other guy on this roster. He has to continue to believe in what we’re doing.”

Markkanen now has nine single-digit scoring games after posting just four last season. He has nine 20-point games after registering 22 last season.

This is a huge season for Markkanen not only because his success is tied into the success of the Bulls’ rebuild but also because he’ll be eligible for an extension of his rookie contract following this season.

“I know he’s going to work. And he cares. He has high character,” Boylen said. “I believe in him. And our team believes in him.”

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Four observations: Bulls tie franchise record for 3-point attempts, fall to Bucks

Four observations: Bulls tie franchise record for 3-point attempts, fall to Bucks

The Bulls dropped their season series with the Milwaukee Bucks 4-0 with a 111-98 road loss on Monday. Observations from a familiar-feeling defeat:

Kris Dunn is unafraid

Bulls’ opponents have recently begun to aggressively sag off Kris Dunn when set, routinely leaving him with oceans of space to operate with behind the 3-point arc.

But that hasn’t deterred Dunn from continuing to chuck. In January, his 3-point attempts per game is up to three (he had been hoisting 2.1 per contest in the first two months of the season). Today, he took three in the first quarter alone and finished the night 3-for-5 from deep, bringing his January 3-point percentage up to 34.3%. 

Still, when smart, lengthy teams like Milwaukee employ this strategy to clog driving lanes, it throws a real wrench in a Bulls halfcourt offense already prone to stagnation. Zach LaVine suffered the most from it today. He didn’t score until hitting a 27-footer at the 2:02 mark of the first, missing all three of his prior attempts in heavy traffic in the paint. Dunn checked out on the next possession, and LaVine ended the period with 10 points. But the team’s spacing was off all game.

Turnovers and jump-shots kept the Bulls in it, but not forever

That LaVine spurt spurred the Bulls to a sharp-shooting first half, at least from deep. After starting 3-for-9 from long range, the visitors entered the break at 9-for-22 (40.9%), and also parlayed 15 Bucks turnovers into 19 points.

But their inefficiency inside the arc (9-for-24 in the paint in the first half) served as an omen. In a stretch that recalled these teams’ last meeting in Chicago, the Bucks sprinted out to a 17-4 run in the first four-and-a-half minutes of the third, shooting 7-for-10 to the Bulls 2-for-9 (0-for-5 from three). Déjà vu all over again.

The Bulls did claw their way back and trailed only 84-77 entering the fourth, and it was 3-ball that resuscitated them. They shot 4-for-9 from deep in the latter part of the period, and also converted seven of seven attempts from the free throw line. But the Bulls never got closer than nine after the Bucks’ first bucket of the fourth quarter. They finished the game 14-for-48 (29.2%) from three, 20-for-44 (45.4%) from two and 37% from the field. The Bucks outrebounded them 49-39 and outscored them 60-38 in the paint.

"In [the Bucks'] six losses, teams have shot an average of 40 threes and made 17.5. We were on pace to do that in the first half," Jim Boylen said after the game. "Second half we didn't shoot it as well, we ended up making 14. So, that was pretty much our gameplan... I think our gameplan to play against them was solid, we just needed to make a few more of those open shots we had."

The defense was good enough to loosely hang around, forcing 23 turnovers by game’s end. But the Bucks’ paint-packing, hard closeout strategy worked to perfection — the Bulls missed some open looks, but the Bucks also forced a bunch of tough ones.

Fourty-eight 3-point attempts ties the Bulls’ franchise high for a game with the famed 4OT bout with the Hawks last season. Three of the Bulls’ six highest 3-point attempt games have come against the Bucks this season.

A step back for Lauri Markkanen

To be fair, no Bull outside of Thad Young (4-for-8 from three), LaVine (24 points, 8-for-9 from free throw line) and Dunn finished with stat lines that approached being positive. Still, Markkanen’s 8 points on 2-for-11 (0-for-7 from three) shooting was a regression from a solid 17 point outing against the Cavaliers on Saturday.

"He's okay, he's just working his way through it, he's just fighting," Boylen said when asked to assess Markkanen's confidence level. "He missed some shots that we know he can make. That happens."

All eight of Markkanen’s points came in the first half. He logged 15 minutes in the final two quarters, missing all five of his shots. Four of them were 3-point attempts. Markkanen has now gone scoreless in the second half of two of the Bulls' last three games.

"When you're feeling it and actually making shots it would be good to get closer to the rim and kind of keep it going," Markkanen said. "A lot of our plays I screen-and-pop, so maybe get to the rim. But most of the time, I'm pretty good."

"I think I can do a lot of things, not just shoot threes, but obviously haven't been able to do that lately," he added. "So just gotta figure out the ways that I can actually attack the rim more and get to the free throw line. So, I need to figure out my spots."

The intent that the Bulls had in getting Markkanen involved against Cleveland wasn’t there today, and he can do more to assert himself, as well.

"I know he's gonna work, and he cares, and he's got high character and I believe in him. And our team believes in him," Boylen said.

Another reality check

Not much to lament here. The Bucks aren’t just a better team, they’re the best team in the league — potentially historically so. Antetokounmpo had a relatively quiet 28 point, 14 rebound, 10 assist triple-double, despite going 3-for-9 from the foul line and committing eight turnovers. Khris Middleton was 10-for-13 from the field and Kyle Korver poured in an impactful 12 points on 5-for-5.

"They've got a star player. They can beat you from the 3-point line, they can beat you free throw line and they can beat you defensively when they don't have a night when their scoring," Boylen said. "That's what championship-caliber teams look like."

The Bulls are now 1-18 against teams above-.500 and 3-8 in the month of January. Back home for Minnesota on Wednesday.

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