Bulls crawl out of slump with ugly win over Pacers

Bulls crawl out of slump with ugly win over Pacers

When you lose six out of seven, style points isn’t what you’re looking for.

Scoring 100 points isn’t what you’re looking for.

Heck, shooting 40 percent isn’t what you’re looking for.

For the Bulls, they weren’t really in the conversation for any of those benchmarks but in a situation where they needed to stop the bleeding, the Indiana Pacers played foil for a night as the Bulls momentarily ended the misery with a 90-85 win at the United Center.

It was sealed by a defensive stop with Jimmy Butler forcing a 3-point airball from Paul George, Nikola Mirotic shutting off a shot for former teammate Aaron Brooks and Dwyane Wade doing his best Peanut Tillman impression for a cross-court interception and dunk with 1.2 seconds left to complete the scoring.

“Just reading it, I played free safety on it, baited them a little bit,” said Wade, who led the Bulls with 21 in 32 minutes in his best showing on the back end of a back-to-back this season. “I kinda played possum and he lofted it up there and I was able to steal it and close the game.”

Speaking of misery, Nikola Mirotic was the main driving force, scoring in double figures for the fifth straight game, putting up 21 off the bench, including a redemption-like shot-clock buzzer-beating long two with 21.2 seconds left against suffocating defense, putting the Bulls up 88-85 — one possession after George nailed a triple in his face.

Pounding his chest afterward in a rare show of emotion, it let on to how much pressure he’s been feeling to perform.

“I was really emotional. It was important for me. It was a great shot, the game was there,” Mirotic said. “I was expressing myself a bit. I know you guys aren’t used to that. My head is down, not too much emotion. But today I was feeling good from the beginning. So why not?”

His play was necessary as the Bulls’ offense stalled again in the second half after an energetic first half, an expected response after two bad losses on the road around Christmas Day.

Reeling after a 12-point third quarter, Mirotic hit a couple critical baskets when the Bulls went extended stretches without scoring a basket, in a game where they shot just 38.6 percent from the field.

Butler was three of 12 for 16 points, going nine of 12 from the foul line. Jerian Grant hit big shots off the bench to score 10 and Taj Gibson chipped in 10 in 22 minutes.

“I’m playing simple basketball, I need to keep building from this point,” Mirotic said. “I know my weaknesses, I know my strengths."

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Speaking of misery, it’s probably Fred Hoiberg when he’s trying to explain the fourth quarter dropoff in terms of production as the Bulls suffered from it in spurts but scored 27, although the porous third quarter meant the bar was set low and thus hard to surpass.

Not playing Rajon Rondo was a solution for Hoiberg, a tough one considering how well Rondo played early in the game when the Bulls jumped out to a 16-point lead in the first half but the offense soon stalled thereafter, allowing the Pacers to crawl back into it.

“It was just the flow of the game,” Hoiberg said about sitting Rondo. “Dwyane was out there making a lot of great plays and we put (Michael) Carter-Williams in for his defense. It was great to have him out there.”

On one possession, Rondo grabbed three offensive rebounds and setting up open shots before Mirotic finally hit a corner three, with Rondo nearly outrebounding the Pacers by himself in the first quarter.

But even with the lead, the Bulls were barely over 40 percent and it came back to nearly haunt them dearly later.

They went seven minutes without a field goal for the Bulls until Wade’s glassing floater found the net while being fouled in the first minute of the fourth, completing a 3-point play. He hit another one soon after, giving the Bulls some level of breathing room that wouldn’t last.

A couple Myles Turner baskets cut the Bulls’ lead to 80-78, but they weren’t much of a threat inside, going to the line 10 times compared to the Bulls’ 28 free-throw attempts, and shooting better from the Bulls, albeit at a 42 percent clip.

Brooks almost stole the game for the Pacers off the bench with 19 points and seven assists, hitting three of the Pacers’ nine triples. He, along with Al Jefferson provided enough firepower off the bench to keep them in it, Jefferson early and Brooks late.

Speaking of misery, it was how Butler defended George, the All-Star whom Butler is most compared to, along with Kawhi Leonard. After Leonard paced the Spurs to a Christmas Day win, Butler took his likely frustration from both ends out on his Olympic teammate, holding George to six for 14 shooting and getting a critical steal on George followed by calling timeout with 1:36 left.

“You will not find a tougher back to back assignment in the league than Leonard last night and Paul George tonight,” Hoiberg said. “He spent so much energy on the defensive end of the floor. He takes a lot of pride in his defense, you could tell, and he was getting tired.”

But the Bulls played with enough verve and poise to stop the bleeding — by any means necessary.

Jabari Parker and Tyler Ulis shine at open run in Chicago


Jabari Parker and Tyler Ulis shine at open run in Chicago

Jabari Parker is looking forward to what will surely be an intriguing season for he and the Chicago Bulls.

Parker signed a two-year, $40 million contract, that essentially acts as a tryout for the Bulls. The second year of the contract is a team option, meaning should things not go well, the organization can cut ties with him. But after 183 career games with the Bucks over four seasons, it was clear that Parker was in need of a fresh start. In Chicago, he will slide in as the day one starting small forward, and is already paid like a player who is definitely appreciated by his organization.

But with all of the off the court stuff taken care of for now, Parker's main focus is getting in to the best shape of his life, as he prepares for a full season as a wing player. 

Part of Parker's preparation was a great pickup game in downtown Chicago organized by the Chicago Basketball Club.


For Bulls fans itching to get a look at Parker on the court, the video shows off some flashy passing ability, impressive handles and a flurry of pull-up jumpers from the 23-year old forward. He also finishes well in transition in the video, though that is to be taken with a grain of salt as Parker was easily the biggest player on the court. 

Other players in the pickup game included former Simeon teammate of Parker's, Kendrick Nunn; and NBA free agent and former Marion Catholic star Tyler Ulis (a possible Bulls target?). If Parker looks as dynamic against NBA competition as he did in the pickup game below, the Bulls are going to have one of the more valuable contracts in the league in 2020, and would be likely to lock up Parker to a long-term deal. 

Bulls need to develop a secondary playmaker


Bulls need to develop a secondary playmaker

These are the career points per 36 minutes numbers for the three players who figure to get majority of the field goal attempts on the 2018-19 Bulls:

Zach LaVine: 17.6 
Lauri Markkanen: 18.4 
Jabari Parker: 17.9

There is no debating that this current Bulls roster has multiple players who can flat-out put the ball in the basket. The the biggest questions come into play when you try to imagine how these players will keep each other involved, assuming they take the lion's share of the field goal attempts.

Kris Dunn finished just outside the top 10 in the league in assist percentage (33.3 percent), a higer mark than Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry or Stephen Curry. And though he is a talented passer, what this figure really shows is that the Bulls severely lack a secondary playmaker to take pressure off of Dunn to create shots for others.

Per Ben Falk's site Cleaning The Glass, Markkanen was not able to create for others with his offense, but shockingly, Parker and LaVine did an OK job in the play-making department, considering their reputation as shoot-first players.

Assist rate is a great way to see how much a player is distributing when they are on the floor. And usage rate is perhaps the best way to get an idea of how many possessions a player uses on offense. So naturally, assist to usage ratio is one of the best tools to use to assess a player's ability and willingness to create opportunities for others on offense. What the statistic boils down to is: how often did a player get an assist given how much they had the ball. 

Parker finished last season in the 67th percentile in assist to usage ratio, and LaVine finished in the 58th percentile. These numbers show that both players are capable passers and clearly have the potential to be great setup men.

This is crucial because Markkanen’s development will heavily depend on if he can expand his scoring repertoire, something that looks increasingly difficult with Parker and LaVine, who have averaged a combined 29.5 field goal attempts per 36 minutes for their careers. 

Many times throughout the offseason you likely heard about how the Bulls have many mouths to feed in the locker room. But this doesn’t pertain to just shots, ball-control will be a major concern as well. With incumbent point guard Kris Dunn still a relatively weak floor-spacer (32 percent from 3-point range last season), Fred Hoiberg will need to get creative with his rotations to keep the offense running efficiently. Backup point guard Cam Payne shot 38 percent from the 3-point line last season, and when inserting him into the game for Dunn, Parker would flourish as a point-forward (possibly) surrounded by four competent shooters. Parker could derail the Bulls offense because he is not an elite 3-point shooter, but that issue is mitigated when you put the ball in his hands to let him create.

Parker was fourth in the pecking order in Milwaukee last season, and so it comes as no surprise that his free throw attempts, points and field goal percentage dropped from his 2017 numbers. If you look at the 2017 season (Parker’s breakout season) you see that Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo pretty much split the No. 1 options duties on offense. They each took about 16 shots apiece and combined for 8.2 assists per game. This is a best case scenario for the Parker-LaVine wing duo. 

LaVine has the benefit of coming into the league as a point guard, and he has still retained the ability to make the right pass when it presents itself. And last season, he had an impressive turnover percentage that was just below 10 percent. However, the reason for this was that he averaged 4.34 seconds per touch, a very long time in an NBA possession, usually looking to score and nothing else. It’s easy to avoid turnovers when you aren’t looking to pass.

LaVine usually makes the obvious play if it is one pass away, but he does not move the ball around to prevent the offense from becoming stagnant.

Both LaVine and Parker will have their struggles on defense (understatement of the year), but much more important to their development is understanding that if you give the ball up on offense, it will find its way back to you. This is perhaps the only way a Bulls team that ranked 28th last season in offensive rating, can make a big enough leap in scoring efficiency to make their way back to the postseason.