Bulls can't hold fourth quarter lead against Pistons, lose third straight

Bulls can't hold fourth quarter lead against Pistons, lose third straight

AUBURN HILLS, MICH—The margins in the Eastern Conference aside from Cleveland and Toronto are thin, and the Bulls found them themselves sitting outside the playoff picture last year because taking care of business against peer competition was too much.

They’ve followed the mold this seas as the Detroit Pistons continued their recent dominance over the Bulls, winning 102-91 at the Palace of Auburn Hills Tuesday as the Bulls completed their four games in five nights stretch with one win and three straight alarming losses.

It was the same old story from the night before in their late loss to Portland Monday, as the Bulls held a slim lead into the fourth quarter and couldn’t hold it as their defense and bench let them down.

“We gotta find a way to get some production (from the bench). It is what it is right now,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Just do the best with what we got.”

And to make matters worse, the Detroit Pistons’ bench was full of players ready to play big minutes in the fourth and one couldn’t tell the difference, as Darrun Hilliard, Aron Baynes and Jon Leuer carried the Pistons, each having at least a plus-16 for the night.

Hoiberg had few options, evidenced by playing Jimmy Butler 43 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back and Dwyane Wade 34 minutes when he sat out the last back to back.

“You gotta get these guys to go out and play with some confidence, and get the rotations where we have some starters out there with them,” Hoiberg said. “And fight and do the best we can.”

A balanced attack from the Pistons was led by Tobias Harris scoring 22 points with seven rebounds, while Butler tried to put the Bulls on his back again late, scoring 32 with six rebounds and four assists, but was unable to stop the Bulls from losing their sixth game in nine tries.

Nikola Mirotic’s triple gave the Bulls a 75-71 lead but the Pistons went on a 12-0 run to take firm control, as the Bulls fatigue began to creep in. Gone was their advantage from the free throw line that helped them work themselves back from a large deficit as they trailed by 17 in the second as the Pistons blitzed the Bulls early.

“What we have is what we have,” Wade said. “The good teams figure it out earlier than not. If we don't figure it out we'll be .500 all year. If we do, we're going to take some games and go over. It's on us.”

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Mirotic went right back into his slumber, going two-for-seven and hitting one of four from three. Cris Felicio replaced Bobby Portis in the rotation but was a minus-17 and Isaiah Canaan was one of five and missed both of his 3-point attempts, as the Bulls shot a putrid two-for-15 from long range (13 percent).

 “So what if they’re in a slump,” Butler said. “Pretty sure, sometime soon, the starters are going to be in a slump but I guarantee they’re going to shoot their way out of it because we need them to. We need them to stay aggressive.”

It’s making Hoiberg rely on guys like Butler and Wade more than he should, and one wonders how much more they can handle

“I gotta continue to produce and probably play a little bit better,” Butler said. “Do a little bit more to put us in position to win.”

But Butler was more perturbed about the defense.

“The problem is not on the offensive end; they got whatever they wanted,” “We’re not defending the way we’re capable.”

“We’re messing up assignments. Not boxing out. Not playing to guys’ weaknesses. We gotta fix it. All of these count early on. We have to turn this around.”

The Pistons are already a bad matchup for the Bulls, with an aggressive point guard and one of the league’s most active bigs in Andre Drummond. Add the fourth game and fifth night element to it and it was a recipe for disaster.

Drummond’s fresh legs accompanied by Jackson’s fresh spirit meant bad news for a weary team that played a full 48 the night before in Portland. Drummond had 15 with 10 rebounds and three blocks in just 25 minutes while Jackson, in his second game back from a knee injury, scored just seven with seven assists in 18 minutes.

Drummond was bouncy and the Bulls didn’t have an early answer aside from the perimeter attack by Butler and Wade, who scored 19.

But the Bulls began chipping away at a 51-34 lead with 3:47 left in the second quarter, with Butler scoring 12 of the last 14 points to pull within seven. A steal and alley-oop from Wade to Butler took some air out of the Pistons, as they reclaimed some real estate with Drummond and Jackson on the bench.

A Rajon Rondo layup gave the Bulls a 62-61 lead with 5:18 in the third, completing the comeback. Rondo scored 10 in 37 minutes after his one-game punishment, giving the Bulls a little boost in the second half.

But like loss to the Blazers, the Bulls found themselves not making enough stops when it counted most, and are now one game from .500.

Daniel Gafford won't rest on laurels stemming from breakout performance

Daniel Gafford won't rest on laurels stemming from breakout performance

Daniel Gafford’s phone blew up Monday night with congratulatory well wishes following his 21-point performance in his first game of meaningful NBA minutes.

But the Bulls’ rookie acted more like somebody focused on his next opportunity than addicted to social media or electronic devices.

“I put it on ‘Do Not Disturb’ because I was trying to get sleep at the same time,” Gafford said following Tuesday’s practice at Advocate Center. “I was real sore from the game because I’ve been traveling a lot. I wanted to make sure I got the rest I needed for practice today.”

Gafford’s travel has been of the G League variety — bus rides, not five-star accommodations. More performances like his outing against the Bucks, though, and Gafford’s G League assignments may be over.

“What would help me is just try to remain consistent. I did that game, but I’ve got to be ready for the next,” Gafford said. “Enjoy it until midnight and then get ready for the next game the next day.”

The longer Gafford talked, the more his basketball IQ and willingness to learn and be coached came out.

On setting good screens: “Fighting through that fatigue, it was just a mental thing. Just making sure I got contact on the screens because the coaches were telling me they were trying to slip up under my screen because I wasn’t really setting them. So I had to make sure I hit guys when I was coming up to set screens to get bottom hip so I could make sure I was getting guys open because that can help them. But at the same time it can help me as well.

On feedback from coaches: “Mostly it was just on the pick-and-roll with opposing teams. Just making sure I be up at the level to where guards don’t get downhill as much. Just make sure I’m up to where I can help our guards get back from where they’re setting screens. And be better on defensive rebounding.”

On feedback from teammates: “They were just talking about my dunks, really, pretty much. They were patting me on the back, telling me, ‘Good job' and telling me whenever I get my chance again, come out and do the same thing.’”

Ah, yes, those dunks. What did the United Center rims do to Gafford anyway? The six rim-rattling slams he threw down on the night were enough for him to field a question as to his favorite.

“Oh, the one-hand lob that I caught,” Gafford said. “I didn’t think I was going to catch that. I thought it was going to get some of the rim and come out. But it went down for me and I appreciate it for that.”

Gafford said his wrist “feels good” after all that rim wrecking because he’s “used to it.”

And somewhere, fellow Arkansas product Bobby Portis is smiling. Not only was there a #freeDanielGafford movement on Twitter, a la #freeBobbyPortis from Portis’ rookie season with the Bulls, but Gafford also dropped a third-person reference. Portis used to do that, too.

“Go out there and play Daniel Gafford basketball,” Gafford said, when asked for his mindset.

Coach Jim Boylen said Gafford plays “with a pure heart.” With 20-20 machine Andre Drummond in town with the Pistons Wednesday, expect Gafford to get more rotational minutes.

And as for that “Do Not Disturb” sign on his phone, it worked.

“I slept good,” Gafford said.

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What is going on with Lauri Markkanen?

USA Today

What is going on with Lauri Markkanen?

That is the question being asked around league circles as we approach the one month mark of the regular season. With the All-Star game being played in Chicago in February, the hope was Markkanen would take a big jump in his 3rd NBA season, and represent the home city in the showcase event.

Instead, the 22-year-old Finn is struggling through one of the worst shooting slumps of his young career through the first 14 games. Markkanen opened the season with a bang, scoring 35 points and pulling down 17 rebounds in the opener at Charlotte. But since that night, he’s only shot over 50% from the field in one other game and is sitting at 36.2% for the season, far off his career average of 42.6%. He’s been even worse from 3-point range shooting 26.8%, compared to his career norm of 35.2%.

And, it’s not like the Bulls haven’t been trying to get him going. In Monday’s loss to Milwaukee, Markkanen missed all four of his attempts from beyond the arc, most of them wide open looks.

Markkanen is making just over 25% of his wide open 3-point looks, which is classified by the NBA as a shot attempt with no defender within 6-feet. In case you were wondering, he made 43% of his wide open 3’s last season and 45% as a rookie.

Markkanen insists his confidence hasn’t wavered. “Shooters, all the players go through slumps” Markkanen told reporters in the post-game locker room Monday night. “Everybody’s broken through it at some point. When I’m staying confident, believing every shot’s going in, I know it’s going to turn around.”

But it’s not just the long range misses that have the Bulls concerned. Markkanen’s shooting woes seem to be affecting his all-around game, like this sequence against the Bucks late in the first half on Monday.

Markkanen had to deal with the length of Giannis Antetokounmpo on the first attempt, and in his anxiety to make good on the second try, he misses the dunk, something we’ve seen on a handful of occasions in recent games.

Even though Markkanen insists his shooting slump hasn’t affected his overall game, he’s also been less active on the defensive end, being overpowered inside and slow to help on drives to the basket.

It’s one thing for Giannis to score inside on Markkanen, it’s quite another to see Nets’ rookie Nicolas Claxton go strong to the basket for the and-one.

So, what can Markkanen do to shake the slump? Bulls’ coach Jim Boylen has often mentioned his third year forward seems to get energized by working hard on the defensive glass. Markkanen is more than capable of grabbing a rebound and taking it end to the end as he did on this play against the Nets last Saturday.

Markkanen has well above average ballhandling skills for a 7-footer, which makes him a dangerous weapon in transition. On this next play, he turns defense into offense at the expense of the reigning league MVP.

Watching plays like that, it’s pretty clear Markkanen’s issues aren’t physical. Boylen mentioned last week that Markkanen had been playing through a strained oblique, but Markkanen insisted it wasn’t an issue and felt fine physically.

Assuming Markkanen is healthy, his career numbers will tell you this shooting slump shouldn’t last much longer. Confidence is a funny thing for athletes, but the best thing Markkanen can do right now is stay aggressive on the offensive end and look for opportunities to get to the basket and draw fouls for some easy points.

Markkanen’s teammates have voiced their strong support for the young forward in recent days and you can count on them trying to set up him for more open looks.

After all, even though a remake of the Michael Jordan “Space Jam” movie is due out next year with LeBron James in the starring role, it’s not like the Monstars have stolen Markkanen’s ability to play basketball.

Markkanen summed up the state of his game very simply Monday night. “It’s not going to be like this forever. I don’t know what else to say.”

Everyone associated with the Bulls’ organization is counting on Markkanen to bust out of his slump with a series of big games very soon. 

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