Bulls

Bulls clinch home-court in first round with win over Nets

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Bulls clinch home-court in first round with win over Nets

BROOKLYN — It was all coming together for the Bulls, the timing, cohesiveness and muscle memory that comes when a group plays together for a long time during a season.

Except they hadn’t played together except for a few tantalizing stretches and even on this evening against the desperate Brooklyn Nets, they were without Joakim Noah who sat out with tendinitis.

But portions of what makes this team potentially great were on full display in their 113-86 win at the Barclays Center, if you could follow the zipping ball that moved around the floor all night on the way to the Bulls clinching home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, which start Saturday.

Leaping touch passes from Jimmy Butler to Nikola Mirotic, when Butler cut to the middle of the floor but had his eyes on the sweet-shooting rookie in the corner the entire time, who obliged the unselfish play with a swish.

[MORE: Mirotic responds to chiding from teammates in Bulls rout]

Or Derrick Rose looking ahead to find a streaking Pau Gasol ahead of the defense—while returning the favor to Butler for a layup when his backcourt mate galloped downcourt as Rose blazed his way through transition defense that looked like driving cones.

The piece that brings it all together lifts everyone and it appears the Bulls are nearing peak efficiency.

“Getting Derrick back is the big thing,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “When you look at what Pau has brought to our team, it's an entirely different dimension, then add it Jimmy and what’s he’s doing, then all the other parts fit well.”

Rose had more moments where he looked like himself from an explosive standpoint, getting to the basket with ease, but his control of the game from the point guard spot was probably just as encouraging, as he had another efficient night with seven assists and just two turnovers to go with his 13 points in 23 minutes.

“I think the real function of the point guard is how the team plays,” Thibodeau said. “I thought he had a good pace, good tempo. He got the ball movement for us. I thought he gave us rhythm into our threes.”

[MORE BULLS: Why playoff seeding matters for Derrick Rose and the Bulls]

Rose’s vision was again a valuable part of his game, as his “point guard IQ” has risen in his various absences.

“I’m seeing the floor better,” Rose admitted. “They’re playing me different almost every game. Tonight they’re forcing me into the big. So Pau was open almost the majority of the pick and rolls.”

It was like that all night for the Bulls, who shot 50 percent from the field and took the life out of a road building yet again—like they did so casually in Miami. Mirotic, who was somewhat a favorite to the crowd that had a lot of red in the seats, nailed three straight triples to end the third quarter, to give the Bulls a 22-point lead.

The rookie scored 26 on six triples in just 24 minutes, while Gasol scored 22 with 11 rebounds, four assists and two blocks. Butler scored 17 and Taj Gibson, starting in Noah’s place, scored 15 with nine rebounds and four blocks.

“You miss people because of injuries,” Rose said. “People getting sick, missing games here and there so we need everybody to be healthy to make this run. Jo sat out tonight getting his knee together. We’re gonna need everybody to make this huge push.”

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

Mirotic was the beneficiary of great ball movement, as were most of the Bulls who registered field goals, with an impressive 26-8 assist to turnover ratio on the evening.

As their offense got crisper, the defense got tightened up, even with Noah. The Nets came into the game looking to make amends for a puzzling road loss in Milwaukee Sunday night, attempting to regain the magic that brought them to the thick of playoff contention, but needing some help in the final games to earn a berth.

The Bulls had nothing to offer but advice, taking a 25-point lead after back-to-back feeds from Aaron Brooks to Gasol for dunks a few minutes into the fourth quarter, as Gasol passed the 18,000 point mark for his Hall-of-Fame bound career.

After trading baskets for the second quarter, the Bulls had enough of that, holding the Nets to 15 points in the third, running away with the ballgame and heading into the season finale playing with the type of rhythm that could make springtime in Chicago a long one.

 

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

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USA TODAY

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

Outspoken Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban conceded his team was playing for draft lottery position last season, but insisted it would be a one year only strategy.

Dallas finished tied for the league’s third worst record, but fell to fifth after the lottery.

So, Cuban and the Mavs’ front office decided to make a bold move on draft night, trading their 2019 first round pick to Atlanta to move up two spots for a chance to select international sensation Luka Doncic.

Early in the season, Doncic has more than lived up to the hype, showing the creativity and flair that made him such a fan favorite on the European professional circuit. Through the Mavs’ first two games, Doncic is averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while giving Rick Carlisle’s team a much-needed boost in transition.

Doncic and second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr. will give opposing teams nightmares in the open court all season long. They led the offensive onslaught in the Mavs’ 140-136 win over Dallas Saturday night, combining for 45 points. Doncic finished with 26 points, while Smith scored 10 of his 19 in the 4th quarter, including a tie-breaking three-point play with six seconds left.

Veteran swing-man Wesley Matthews added 19 against the Timberwolves, and his 3 point shooting helps the Mavs maintain floor balance in half-court sets.

The Mavs also strengthened their front court in the off-season, signing veteran center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Dallas was overmatched in the middle last season, with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell giving up size in the post, but Jordan will provide rim protection and an alley-oop threat when Doncic, Smith Jr. or veteran point guard J.J. Barea drive to the basket. Jordan had a big game in the home opening win over Minnesota, scoring 22 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.

Nowitzki, starting small forward Harrison Barnes and backup guard Devin Harris all missed Saturday’s game because of injuries, but Barnes and Harris are considered game-time decisions against the Bulls.

Here’s what the Bulls will need to do to get their first victory of the season Monday night.

1. GET BACK ON DEFENSE! Doncic and Smith Jr. are deadly in the open court, capable of making spectacular plays to bring the home crowd to life. The Bulls’ players have to sprint back on defense after missed shots to cut off transition opportunities, or it’s going to be a long night. The Mavs are averaging 128 points through the first two games.

2. CLOSE OUT ON 3-POINT SHOOTERS This will be a familiar theme in my keys until the Bulls start doing a better job of matching up in transition and closing out on three point threats. Detroit’s win at the United Center on Saturday came down to the Pistons’ 18-40 shooting from three-point range, and Dallas has even more players capable of doing damage from beyond the arc.

3. LET DUNN DO IT Getting Kris Dunn back from paternity leave should make a big difference on both ends of the court. Dunn has the athleticism and physicality to match up with either Doncic or Smith Jr., and his defensive skills will be critical in keeping the Mavs from turning this game into a track meet.

On the offensive end, Dunn need to be patient and get the ball into the hands of the Bulls’ top scorers, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. Even though Fred Hoiberg wants his team to play at a fast pace, they’ll need to pick their spots on when to run against the explosive Mavs.

As always, turn to NBC Sports Chicago for the very best pre and post-game coverage. Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join me for Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m/, and we’ll have expanded post-game analysis when the action goes final in Dallas. You can also stream the shows live on the brand new My Teams by NBC Sports app.

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.”