Bulls' chemistry on full display in blowout win over Nets

Bulls' chemistry on full display in blowout win over Nets

NEW YORK -- It felt like a home game for most of the night, as Dwyane Wade jumpers and spin moves were met with wistful cheers from the Barclays Center crowd, appreciated the way Hall of Famer should be.

“I always get great support when I come here to Brooklyn,” said Wade, as if he needed it on this night, as he was cheered every time he touched the ball in a laugher of a fourth quarter.

“It feels like a home. I didn’t even know if they cheer for me like that at home when I get the ball, so it was great to be out there in that environment.”

And more importantly, the Bulls played Monday night’s game with the proper appreciation that they weren’t going to toy around with an opponent who had no business being on the same floor with them for another big win.

It was an instant replay of Saturday’s thrashing of the Indiana Pacers, as the starters jumped on the Brooklyn Nets from the start and cruised to a 118-88 win in Brooklyn on Monday night.

For those counting, the Bulls are off to their first 3-0 start since the 1996-97 season, a year that saw the Bulls win 69 games and the NBA title.

The Bulls were a picture of efficiency yet again, hitting the 100-point mark midway through the fourth quarter as there was plenty of garbage time to go around for the second straight game.

“Our intensity has been really good,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “(Rajon) Rondo set the tone for our team by getting out, playing with pace and making simple plays.”

If Saturday was the bench players taking a star role, the starters took center stage against the backdrop of Broadway.

They pounced on the Nets early, taking an 18-point lead into the second quarter as they compiled nine assists, with Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson the main recipients. Butler led the Bulls with 22 points on just 10 shots, and Gibson went 7-for-9 for 14 points and 11 rebounds.

Nikola Mirotic came off the bench to score 16 points with 10 rebounds in 25 minutes, and Wade scored 12 in 29 minutes.

“I give our veteran leaders a lot of credit for the way we continue to put our foot on the gas and continue to extend leads as opposed to letting up and allowing our opponents to get back in the game,” Hoiberg said.

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More than a few times last year, the Bulls got up for the big games but let the novices of the NBA prevent them from making the playoffs. Seeing this team develop any kind of killer instinct should be viewed as a positive sign—especially considering Hoiberg was telling the team and the media before the game about how dangerous the Nets were, that they should be 3-0 instead of 1-2.

But minutes in, it was obvious the Nets couldn’t bust a grape in a fruit fight as the Bulls’

“It’s fun. It’s a fun way to play when you’re sharing the ball,” Hoiberg said. “The ball’s not sticking in guys’ hands.”

The ball movement continued, accompanied by pretty plays and passes that displayed the Bulls’ athleticism and speed. Wade connected on a touch-pass alley-oop with Butler after a Rondo look-ahead pass that brought the visiting crowd out of their seats in the first half.

“It’s contagious, a trickle down effect. It starts with the first unit,” Rondo said. “Every team will fight back. We’ve been able to keep our foot on the gas. We figured out how to keep the lead above 20.”

Rondo only had four assists but the Bulls had 26 as a whole, many of them the swing-swing variety. Five players had three assists or more, with Isaiah Canaan leading the way with six to go along with his 15 points in 22 minutes.

“If we win by 20, I’m happy I didn’t have to play the fourth two games in a row,” Rondo said. “To start a season like that, it’s big for us. It’s fun. I love passing. It’s fun to watch.”

Subsequently, the Bulls have been able to make up for the fact that they shouldn’t be a strong 3-point shooting team by their ball movement. Doug McDermott went off from the line against Indiana but didn’t hit one against the Nets; However, it was Mirotic and Canaan who went off against the Nets, combining to hit seven of the Bulls’ 11 3-point makes.

They hit 11 against Boston in the opener and nine against Indiana Saturday.

The Bulls are almost flawless at hitting the open man from double-teams or off dribble penetration, playing with a chemistry that’s almost too good to be true this soon in a season with so many new players.

“I’m not surprised. I think whenever you buy into it and you hang out as much as we do and we know each other the way we do, I think it helps,” Butler said. “Me and D-Wade were talking about it earlier, how this locker room camaraderie, it really shows on the floor.”

It’s a stark contrast to what they displayed last year, when many began to wonder if Hoiberg’s system could fit with this team. But it’s been embraced by the team, and the players are embracing each other.

“You wanna be out there. You know the ball is coming to you,” Butler said. “You don’t know when, but you know whenever you’re open you’re gonna be in a position to score. Everybody wants a chance to score. That’s the reason you play.”

But a reserve player became center of attention for all the wrong reasons as Michael Carter-Williams injured his left knee early in the second quarter, limping off but not returning as the Bulls termed it a knee sprain and scheduled an MRI for Tuesday in Boston.

But aside from that major deterrent, the Bulls weren’t deterred in any facet, aside from the old bugaboo of turnovers rearing its ugly head for a few minutes in the third quarter, when a 25-point lead was cut to 18.

“We gotta cut down on the turnovers, we had 20. That’s too many,” Hoiberg said. “We gotta build habits for the long haul, for this long season.”

If that’s the most of Hoiberg’s issues, he’ll take it.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction


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


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.”