Bulls clinch third seed and matchup with Bucks in comeback win


Bulls clinch third seed and matchup with Bucks in comeback win

With so many things out of the Bulls’ hands this season, Wednesday was the one night where plenty was in their control as they could’ve clinched the third seed with a win against the Atlanta Hawks.

But the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference — one with nothing to play for, it should be added — gave the Bulls another taste of what a potential second-round matchup could look like if it were in the cards.

But after giving the Bulls some old-fashioned ‘tussin, the Hawks rested their starting group — one that ran circles around the Bulls’ first five — making way for the beat-up Bulls to make a comeback.

And some unlikely Bulls led the charge in their third-seed clinching 91-85 win at the United Center, sealing a matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks when the playoffs begin this weekend.  

In case one didn’t notice, this riddled team hit the 50-win mark this season, leaving them encouraged about the season to date.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

“Overall we took a huge hit when Derrick went down and it wasn’t just that,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, the man charged with keeping this boat afloat for seven months.

“We had Jimmy (Butler) and Taj (Gibson) go down to survive that stretch. When you have a lot of moving parts it can get choppy (and) we have to hit the ground running.”

They didn’t hit the ground running Wednesday, looking like they would have to face the team that sent them home last spring, the Washington Wizards, after falling behind by double digits early and trailing by as many as 18 in the second half.

“I don’t think our team played very well,” Thibodeau said. “That was disappointing but then we had a good stretch and worked our way back into the game. Turnovers hurt us.”

The Bulls turned it over 22 times due to the swarming Hawks defense, and barely got over the 40 percent mark, while shooting just 29 percent from three.

But consecutive triples from Aaron Brooks gave the Bulls an 87-82 lead with four minutes left, after Nazr Mohammed and E’Twaun Moore added contributions early in the fourth to keep things afloat.

Mohammed, in his 1,000th game, tipped in a Butler miss to tie the game at 77 with eight minutes left in the fourth, and Moore made a couple twisting moves to the basket to stress the Hawks defense until Brooks re-entered. Brooks finished with 23 points and six rebounds in 32 minutes while Jimmy Butler scored 21 in 41 minutes.

[NBA PLAYOFFS: Hawks starters send clear message to Bulls, Eastern Conference]

Those contributions were clearly necessary given the circumstances, and things weren’t truly settled until Pau Gasol lightly pumped his fist after a lefty-layup over Elton Brand with a little over a minute remaining, giving the Bulls a 91-85 lead.

Had Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer chose not to rest Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver in the fourth, the outcome would’ve likely been different. Horford gave Gasol fits, with 14 points and seven rebounds, while Teague got into the lane at will in 22 minutes for 10 points and Korver’s endless activity was the fuel for the Hawks’ movement-based offense.

But the Bulls will make no apologies given the unforeseen circumstances that have haunted them throughout the year, and in this game.

Perhaps for precautionary reasons, Derrick Rose didn’t play in the second half after 10 first-half minutes where he uncharacteristically turned the ball over four times, with two points and two assists.

It was termed left knee soreness, not the knee that had been operated on in February.

He certainly didn’t appear injured, with nothing wrapped around his knees or ankles sitting on the bench alongside Joakim Noah, but it’s clear a strange bedfellow that was next to the Bulls for 82 games will follow them for games 83 and beyond—those darned injuries, evidenced by Gibson leaving the game in the third quarter with a left shoulder strain.

But the Bulls will head to the playoffs with a 50-win season under their belts, finishing this season with production across the board, just like all year. And there’s plenty of questions headed to Saturday’s playoff opener—just like all year.

Shaquille Harrison is on a defensive hot streak


Shaquille Harrison is on a defensive hot streak

The Bulls signed guard Shaquille Harrison to provide depth to a rotation that is missing it’s best perimeter defender in Kris Dunn and is lacking playmaking/ball-handling when Zach LaVine gets a rest. So far the results have been positive. Though Harrison hasn’t shown a tremendous amount of promise in terms of being a playmaker, he provides a solid option in the backcourt due to his defensive fundamentals.

Harrison racks up a lot of steals but it is more impressive due to the fact that he is not gambling for steals too often (i.e. getting out of position to try to strip a player you aren’t guarding). He picks up a decent amount of his steals by “digging”, which is a basketball term for applying pressure with a second player without making it a true double-team.

Simple “stunting” (jumping towards an offensive player to mimic pressure) or digging would help the Bulls prevent many of the easy drives to the rim they give up.

A big part of successful NBA defense is making the opposition think you are committing to one thing before executing something else. And the Bulls defense does little to keep the opposition on their toes.

The aggressiveness of Harrison in on- or off-ball defense has serious potential to be contagious to the Chicago roster, and even more so once Dunn returns. We don’t know if we will ever see Hoiberg trot out the Dunn-Harrison pairing or if that duo could do enough to spur on a change--over a big sample size-- in the overall team defense, but the basketball world has definitely started to pick up on his 110 percent effort on the struggling Bulls:

Even when Harrison does things that coaches traditionally don’t like—such as the ol’ ‘Rondo/CP3 reach around swipe’—he makes it work out:

In the above clip he was going over the screen on Celtics guard Brad Wanamaker--the correct play since Wanamaker is a solid shooter--and prevents Felicio from having to contain the guard for too long. A common thing you see from NBA guards in the pick-and-roll is the “snake dribble” that gets them into the paint. Harrison times up this move perfectly, knockling the ball loose as soon as Wanamaker transfers his dribble from his right to left hand.

Part of the reason that Harrison’s gamble in the above play was so great is that fouling can be a good thing, so even if he had fouled Wanamaker, that would’ve been a preferable outcome when compared to Felicio vs a guard or Cam Payne coming over in help defense to contest the 6-foot 8 Daniel Theis.

Harrison’s locked-in defense will certainly be needed as the Bulls head into a three-game slate that features matchups against the Bucks, Raptors and Harrison's former team, the Suns. All three teams have excellent wing scorers in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and Devin Booker, and rookie Chandler Hutchison and Jabari Parker can’t be depended on to slow down those players by themselves.

Per Basketball-Reference, the 2018-19 season represents the first time that Harrison has played small forward in his NBA career (6 percent of the time). It will be interesting to see how Hoiberg deploys Harrison against two of the best three offenses in the league, his newfound versatility and consistent effort level should afford him a long-term on the Bulls.

Zach LaVine's offensive struggles begin with his deficiencies at the rim

Zach LaVine's offensive struggles begin with his deficiencies at the rim

Through the NBA’s first three weeks there wasn’t a better player at attacking the rim than Zach LaVine. The 23-year-old looked spry, healthy and aggressive, and was drawing fouls at a rate that would have made even James Harden blush.

Well, LaVine has hit his first speed bump of the 2018-19 season. With Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis all on the mend (had you heard those three players were injured?) LaVine has taken on a ridiculous burden of leading the Bulls offense; he’s currently second in the NBA in usage, behind only James Harden and Russell Westbrook and ahead of names like Giannis, LeBron, Curry, Embiid and Durant.

For three weeks that was fine. LaVine was hitting everything in sight, passing like we hadn’t seen since his rookie season when he played primarily point guard, and attacking the basket, ranking near the top of the league in trips to the free throw line.

LaVine was shooting a wild 69.6 percent on 8.0 attempts per game inside 5 feet through Oct. 29, third among guards to only Donovan Mitchell (73% on 6.2 attempts) and Devin Booker (70.8% on 6.0 attempts). To put those numbers in perspective, LaVine ranked just ahead of Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook in the category.

It’s where LaVine was at his best, even as he continued to pore in 3-pointers at an absurd rate and, for the most part, take care of the basketball. He lived at the rim, and if he wasn’t finishing there he was drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line; through Oct. 29 he was ninth in free throw attempts per game (8.0), a slight tick above LeBron James (7.7).

But something happened after that pitiful loss to the Golden State Warriors on Oct. 29, and it’s sent LaVine into an ugly shooting slump that he hasn’t been able to get out of in the eight games since. Yes, teams are doubling LaVine and pressuring every time he plays in pick and roll.

But consider: LaVine has taken nearly the same number of contested shots per 36 minutes (11.0 vs. 10.9) and hasn’t taken all that fewer drives to the basket per 36 minutes (14.4 vs. 12.2) during his slump. It may seem like it on the surface, but LaVine’s game hasn’t changed that much as teams have keyed in on him.

Of course his 3-point percentage being as low as it is – 25.6 percent on 5.9 attempts during his slump – has had a huge effect, but the answer might be in what’s happening to LaVine on those drives to the basket lately.

He was a magnet the first seven games of the season, drawing a foul on 15.4 percent of his drives to the basket. He shot 55 percent on those drives and got to the free throw line 3.7 times per game on drives alone. 9.6 of his 28.1 points per game were coming on his attacks to the basket.

But his slump has affected the best part of his game. It certainly could be fatigue, or simply bad luck, but LaVine’s shooting numbers on drives have dipped to 44.6 percent, he’s drawing fouls on only 4.7 percent of them and is getting to the free throw line fewer than one time (0.8) off those drives. The volume of drives still have him averaging 7.0 points on them, but it’s a stark contrast. And when you combine his pedestrian – for his standards – numbers at the rim with that ugly 3-point shooting, it’s a recipe for disaster.

He’s even passing less on drives during his slump (22 percent of the time compared to 28 percent during his hot stretch), perhaps once again feeling the need to take over on offense for his shorthanded group.

Or maybe he’s just not getting calls. LaVine was issued a technical foul in the second quarter of Wednesday’s loss to the Celtics after he felt he was fouled by Semi Ojeleye. LaVine didn’t get the call, clapped his hands at the official and was given the T.

It’s been a frustrating two weeks all-around for LaVine, but his inability to finish at the rim like he had the first three weeks of the season has led the charge. It’s who LaVine is as a player and where he’s most effective for this Bulls team, which is why his attempts have remained the same.

Perhaps he isn’t getting the same leap on those drives given the uptick in minutes, or maybe defenses are figuring out how to better defend him without fouling. Whatever the reason, LaVine will need to figure out how to better attack defenses, especially if his 3-point shot remains off. It’s either that or more losses will continue to pile up for this undermanned group.