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.

 

Report: Bulls will sign Summer League standout Antonio Blakeney to two-year deal

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USA TODAY

Report: Bulls will sign Summer League standout Antonio Blakeney to two-year deal

Antonio Blakeney's past 12 months have landed him a permanent spot on the Bulls, according to Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania.

The signing comes as little surprise for a number of reasons, beginning with Blakeney's play.

He was named the G-League Rookie of the Year after averaging 32.0 points per game for the Windy City Bulls last season. He then fared well alonside Wendell Carter Jr. in the Las Vegas Summer League, averaging 21.0 points on 40 percent shooting, 4.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists in five games.

Blakeney, playing on a two-way contract, had a cup of coffee with the Bulls in 2017, averaging 7.9 points on 37 percent shooting in 19 games. He scored a career-high 16 points on two different occasions.

He'll likely take the spot left vacant by wing David Nwaba, a player whose qualifying offer from the Bulls was rescinded in order to free up more cap space to sign Jabari Parker.

Blakeney will battle with Denzel Valentine, Justin Holiday and Chandler Hutchison for minutes on the second unit.

NBA Buzz: Will another Chicago homecoming pay off for Bulls?

NBA Buzz: Will another Chicago homecoming pay off for Bulls?

Bulls' public address announcer Tommy Edwards is already getting his familiar introduction ready for next season. "Froooooom CHICAGO, a 6'8" forward, Jabari Parker!

Not sure if Parker has the resume to be introduced last for Bulls' home games this season, but there will be plenty of fanfare regardless of where he falls among the starting five. After all, Parker was a part of four straight state championship teams at Chicago's Simeon H.S., earning national prep player of the year honors along the way. And, he's been recognized for his tireless charitable work, including an essay in the Player's Tribune proclaiming his desire to be a factor in creating a safer environment in his hometown. 

Parker is articulate and driven to succeed, which will make him a go-to guy for members of the Chicago media during the upcoming season. Question is, can he succeed where so many other Chicago prep stars have failed? You know the names. Derrick Rose, Eddy Curry, Dwyane Wade, Hersey Hawkins, Dave Corzine, Cazzie Russell and even our own Kendall Gill. All Chicago area high school stars looking to replicate that greatness playing for the Bulls. But none of them were part of an NBA championship team in their hometown.

So, what will expectations be like for the 23 year old Parker? The No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft has already come back from two separate ACL tears in his left knee, which effectively removed him from the list of young players projected as future All-Stars. Still, Parker was averaging over 20 points a game for the Bucks before his second ACL injury in February of 2017, and he came back this past season with his trademark explosiveness at the rim still very much intact.

It's obvious playing for his hometown Bulls has always been a goal for Parker, but will the fit on the court be as good as his fit in the Chicago community?

Parker, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn are all at their best with the basketball in their hands, which means the coaching staff will have to be creative in finding ways to feature all three of those players, plus the frontcourt duo of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. 

The best solution will be to push the pace to get early shot clock scoring opportunities. Parker is at his best running the floor for fastbreak lay-ups and dunks, and you can the bet the Bulls’ coaches are excited to see Dunn pushing the ball upcourt with Parker, LaVine and Markkanen running the wings. Fred Hoiberg wants to see his players get into a flow offense coming out of the initial attack in transition and when Carter Jr. is on the floor, the Bulls will have five athletic players, 24 years old or younger to get into secondary actions. 

Defense will be the biggest issue in the upcoming season. Parker and LaVine ranked near the bottom of the league among wing defenders in the analytics breakdowns from last season, and their ability to stay in front of talented shooting guards and small forwards will be a nightly key to the Bulls' success. Carter Jr. showed tremendous potential as a shot-blocker during Summer League games, but he can't be expected to block everything if opposing wings are getting straight line drives to the rim. 

So, where does this new-look Bulls team figure in the East? It's hard to project a win total for a team as young as the Bulls, but it's clear they have enough talent on the roster to see a double-digit increase over last season's 27 victories. 41 wins could be good enough to grab the last playoff spot in the East, so if everything comes together for the Bulls next season, they should be playing meaningful games in March and early April. 

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
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Did you see LeBron James show up at the Vegas Summer League wearing a $500 pair of Lakers' customized shorts? I guess James wanted to make sure everyone knew he had switched teams this summer, and those shorts are now the hottest items in L.A. sports merchandise shops. 

As for the basketball fit, James has already met with Lakers' coach Luke Walton and seems satisfied with the jumbled roster he'll be leading in the upcoming season. James isn't expected to speak publicly on his latest move until the end of the month, but apparently he's been assured the Lakers will be bringing in another superstar at some point, either in the trade market or 2019 free agency. 

Magic Johnson must be confident he can sign Kawhi Leonard next summer, but after watching Paul George state his desire to join the Lakers, then change his mind and re-sign in Oklahoma City, Lakers' fans will be understandably cautious about projecting him as LeBron's running mate for the 2019-20 season. 
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Maybe that other All-Star caliber player is already on the Lakers' roster. Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma are versatile forwards who have the potential to become 20 points per game scorers in the league, while Lonzo Ball could be an elite facilitator at the point guard position. And, the Lakers' other 1st round pick from the 2017 draft, Josh Hart, was just voted Summer League MVP, an honor that went to Ball a year ago. 

Hart is a 6'5" shooting guard who averaged 7.9 points as a rookie, connecting on 47% of his shots from the field and 40% from the 3 point line. He poured in 37 points Monday night to lead the Lakers to an overtime win over Cleveland in the Summer League semi-finals. The former Villanova star will compete with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Lance Stephenson for minutes at the shooting guard position opposite the point guard tandem of Ball and Rajon Rondo.

It's an odd roster put together by Magic and GM Rob Pelinka, but adding James to the mix should almost guarantee 50 wins and a top five seed in the West. 
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Here's a look at the All-NBA Summer League team voted on by media members in Las Vegas.

Wendell Carter Jr.  (BULLS)
Josh Hart                 (Lakers)
Collin Sexton           (Cavs)
Kevin Knox              (Knicks)
Christian Wood       (Bucks)

Top five draft picks Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young were voted to the 2nd team. 

We've already told you about Carter Jr. and Hart, but Sexton impressed all the NBA people on hand in Vegas with his speed in the open court and his ability to get to the rim. There was some discussion in the Bulls' draft room about possibly taking Sexton with the No. 7 overall pick, and he was quickly snapped up by the Cavs after Carter Jr. went to the Bulls.

In the post-Lebron, post-Kyrie era in Cleveland, finding a dynamic point guard to run the show was absolutely crucial for GM Koby Altman and it looks like the Cavs have their man in the ultra-competitive Sexton, who famously almost beat the University of Minnesota by himself when his Alabama team was forced to play three-against-five during a Thanksgiving tournament game last season. 

Cleveland will be looking to shed some of the bad contracts on the roster like Tristan Thompson, George Hill and J.R. Smith, and veterans Kevin Love and Kyle Korver could be on the move as well. Sexton is a quality piece to start the rebuild, but I don't think the Cavs should count on winning the No. 1 overall pick three times in four years like they did the last time LeBron left.
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Finally, don't put too much stock into the Sporting News report listing the Bulls as one of the teams showing interest in free agent center Jahlil Okafor. The former Whitney Young H.S. star worked out for four teams in Las Vegas last week, but the Bulls were not in attendance. Okafor will probably have to sign for the NBA minimum this season to re-establish some value around the league.

The No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 draft is in great shape and is trying to prove he's more than just a low-post scorer. Okafor played sparingly in Brooklyn after he was acquired in a mid-season trade with Philadelphia. He's averaged 12.9 points and 5.3 rebounds over his three-year NBA career. 

The Bulls are already overloaded at the center position with Carter Jr., Robin Lopez, Cristiano Felicio and Omer Asik.