Bulls drubbed by Sixers in lackluster effort


Bulls drubbed by Sixers in lackluster effort

PHILADELPHIAEvery once in a while, no matter how driven or talented, an NBA team throws up a clunker of a game, whether its because of fatigue, lack of intensity or simply a bad matchup. With a day off Tuesday, the Bulls (18-6) cant blame being tired for their effort Wednesday night, a 98-82 drubbing at the hands of the 76ers (16-6) that was far worse than the final result indicated.

Although the Bulls came out the gates shooting at a torrid rate, their efficiency was matched by the Sixers energy. In a battle of two unselfish teams, the mid-range shooting of Kyle Korver, Carlos Boozer and Ronnie Brewer set the tone.

Meanwhile, Derrick Rose (18 points, six assists) was his usual, attacking self, but his explosiveness was countered by the overall athleticism of the home team, led by versatile swingman Andre Iguodala (19 points, nine rebounds, four assists) and veteran power forward Elton Brand, as well as contributions from the likes of overlooked starter Jodie Meeks, sixth man Lou Williams (14 points, six assists), second-year wing Evan Turner and backup power forward Lavoy Allen (15 points, six rebounds), a second-round pick and hometown product.

With their pressure defense forcing turnovers and getting them into the open courtsomething Bulls head coach cautioned about, both before the teams morning shootaround and in his pregame media availabilitythe hosts led Chicago, 27-21, after the fast-paced opening period.

Theyre a good defensive team, making it hard, being scrappy. Theyve got a lot of athletic people on their team. Theyre a good team, said Rose. Theyve got a lot of athletic people on their team, especially their wings. Andre Iguodala came out and played great for them tonight, just playing aggressive and everybody else fed off of him.

We know that were a good team. We know that all of us are in condition. It was just one of those games. The starters didnt come out and play the way that we know how to play, he continued. Their defense was great, creating turnovers, playing the passing lanes pretty good, rebounding the ball. Thats something that they did do great tonight, tipping the ball back out and the guards couldnt get to it tonight, and that hurt the team.

Philadelphia was able to maintain its lead over the Bulls with its ability to push the pace and terrifically balanced scoring, with young floor general Jrue Holiday (17 points, five assists) running the show, the surprising Allen continuing his strong play and timely buckets from every Sixer who saw action.

The visitors undoing were their turnoversThibodeau inserted C.J. Watson (20 points, four assists), who attempted to give the Bulls a boost with his offensive aggressiveness, into the backcourt with Rose to counter Philadelphias speedand sharply plummeting shooting percentage, as the defensive-oriented home team started to put the clamps down.

We were out there sluggish. The energy wasnt there. I really cant explain it, Rose explained. We played a messed-up game, where we rubbed off on everyone else. It was definitely the starters, but when we came out, they got a big lead and we had to fight back, and they held us back pretty good, where they kept it on us and thats what youre supposed to do. But this is something were not going to forgetI know Im notand just tried to play hard next time.

Dynamic reserve forward Thaddeus Youngs (19 points, eight rebounds) energetic play was another boon for the home team, as his versatility and athleticism gave the Bulls fits. But as expected when the Bulls offense struggles, Rose went into takeover mode, almost exclusively driving to the rim for tough finishes to get the Bulls back into striking distance after the Sixers flirted with a double-digit advantage, cutting the deficit to 49-44, in favor of Philadelphia, at halftime.

After the intermission, the Sixers relentlessness persisted and propelled by Iguodalas assertivenessin addition to throwing down a vicious dunk over former teammate Korver, he knocked down a triple, not exactly the strength of his game, then, after a steal, completed a fake pass, behind-the-back dribble maneuver before dishing to Holiday for a pull-up jumper on the breakthe deficit grew to double digits. Philadelphia had all the momentum and with no Bulls other than Rose able to get much going offensively, things looked bleak.

Thibodeau tried different lineupshaving received little from the big-man duo of Boozer and Joakim Noah, as well as fellow starter Ronnie Brewer, he again went to the small backcourt of Watson and Rose, along with the defensive-oriented tandem of Taj Gibson and Omer Asikbut nothing changed. The backcourt scoring of Holiday and Williams, as well as solid play from the reserve frontcourt of Allen and Young, buoyed the Sixers, whose fans were appreciative, as they took a 75-55 advantage into the final stanza.

You cant do that. their speed and quickness, if you turn the ball over, puts them in the open floor. Live ball, very hard to stop. Twenty-nine points off our turnovers, you cant make that up. Very, very difficult, said Thibodeau, whose squad surrendered the basketball 17 times on the evening, but refused to blame the loss on missing injured starters Luol Deng and Rip Hamilton.

Were a deep team and its one thing if youre playing defense, and youre rebounding, youre taking care of the ball and you miss shots. Thats one thing, but when youre turning the ball over, youre beating yourself, so thats something that we have to correct and that was the story of the game, basically. They turned us over. They got easy points off of it.

Chimed in Rose: Im not trying to think that way, knowing that we do miss them, but theres no excuses. Weve still got to go out there and play these games, and put forth the effort, and tonight, its clear that we didnt.

Chicago, with a modified Bench Mob on the floorKorver, a temporary starter, joined Asik, Gibson, Watson and rookie swingman Jimmy Butlertried to push the tempo, but were combated by their run-and-gun counterparts doing the same thing, and better. Thibodeau seemed to be waving the white flag early, as he substituted deep reserve Brian Scalabrine into the game for Asik relatively early in the period, with Rose, Noah and Boozer all sitting on the bench.

Their defense was great. We were loose with the ball and you cant be. Theyve got great hands, theyre quick and youve got to make simple plays, simple passes. The balls got to move. We sort of got in a hole in the second quarter. We closed the half out OK, got ourselves back in it and then, the start of the third quarter, they played really hard. I give them a lot of credit. Our defense wasnt good and I thought our reaction to the balltheyre quick to the balland I thought our reaction to the ball was very poor, and they beat us to loose balls, the second-effort plays and then, the fourth quarter, we were scrambling and trying to get back into it, but the hole was too big, observed Thibodeau.

Our starters were so lethargic in the third, quite honestly, if we had gotten closer, I was going to finish with them, with the group that we had in there, because they were fighting to get us out of the hole.

Added Rose: When we got kind of close, then turned the ball over a little bit, I kind of knew that I was going to be out for the rest of the night.

While Gibson was effective on the interior in his trademark blue-collar fashion and Watson continued to drive to the basket, for all intents and purposes, it appeared to be a losing proposition. However, the hustle displayed by the reserve unit (by the games stretch run, third-string point guard John Lucas III was in for Korver) significantly trimmed the deficit, actually giving the Sixers first-line players a run for their money before finally putting them to bed.

This is something that were going to learn from, said Rose. We play tomorrow. Thats the good thing about this.

Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild


Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

In talking with Bulls' fans over the summer and reading posts on social media, it seems like expectations for the 2018-19 season are all over the board.

Some fans think the Bulls will finish at or slightly above the .500 mark and contend for a playoff spot, others are looking for more modest improvement with a win total in the low to mid 30's, while others believe Fred Hoiberg's team will be among the worst in the league.

Reality probably lies in the middle ground. Bulls' General Manager Gar Forman told us on media day the goals will be to win as many games as possible while still focusing on individual player development. The Bulls will again be among the NBA's youngest teams with 9 of their top 11 players under the age of 25. 

Bulls' Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson made it clear at the end of last year's 27-55 campaign that he couldn't endure another season of manipulating the roster and player rotations to improve draft lottery chances, while Hoiberg enters the 4th season of his 5 year contract needing to show improvement to keep his position as head coach. 

Clearly, no one in the front office or coaching staff is talking about tanking with the hopes of landing a top 3 pick in the 2019 draft. The Bulls will play to win this season, but they’ll also have to ride out the normal highs and lows of competing with such a young roster.

So, as a Bulls' fan, what should you be watching for this season to judge how much the team has improved? Here's what I'll be looking for:

1. Will Lauri Markkanen take the next step towards All-Star status?

Losing your best player on the 3rd day of training camp isn't the ideal way to start a season, but the good news is Markkanen should return from his elbow injury around Thanksgiving with plenty of time to re-establish himself as one of the league's rising stars. The 1st team All-Rookie selection put on needed bulk and muscle in the off-season to improve his low post game and he's ready to punish smaller defenders who switch on to him in pick and roll situations. Markkanen has all the tools to become a top 30 player in the league. The question is, how much closer will he come to reaching that status this season?

2. Is Zach LaVine all the way back?

Judging by what we saw during the preseason, LaVine appears to be ready to pick up where he left off during his 3rd year in Minnesota when he was averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting nearly 39% from 3 point range before an ACL injury set him back. LaVine should average 20 points a game or more this season, but how much he improves in other areas of his game (particularly on the defensive end), will be the key to whether the Bulls made the right decision in matching that 4 year, 78 million dollar offer sheet LaVine signed with the Sacramento Kings back in July. If LaVine reclaims his status as one of the league’s most promising wing players, the Bulls will have at least two foundation pieces in place. 

3. Can the backcourt pairing of LaVine and Kris Dunn succeed long term?

The Bulls' young guards didn't get a chance to play many minutes together last season because of LaVine's ACL rehab and Dunn's scary fall after making a breakaway dunk against Golden State. Both players are most comfortable with the ball in their hands, and both showed the ability to make big shots at the end of games. Dunn will need to sacrifice some of his offensive game to get the ball into the hands of the team's best shooters, but he's already one of the better defensive point guards in the league and looks like a potential leader on future Bulls' playoff squads. Developing better chemistry with LaVine is critical in year 2 of the rebuild.

4. Is Wendell Carter Jr. the answer at center?

The Bulls used the 7th pick in last June's draft to grab the 6'10" big man, who played in the considerable shadow of Marvin Bagley during their one season together at Duke. Carter Jr. showed enough during Summer League play and pre-season games to move into the starting line-up ahead of 10 year veteran Robin Lopez, but whether he's ready to stay there is another question. Carter Jr. is an excellent rim protector and also has the lateral quickness to switch out on to smaller perimeter players, but right now he's a reluctant shooter. Given the fact Carter Jr. is only 19, it will be fascinating to track how much he improves throughout his rookie season. Did the Bulls strike gold again with the #7 pick?

5. How does Jabari Parker fit?

More than a few eyebrows were raised around the league when the Bulls decided to sign the Chicago native to a 2 year, 40 million dollar free agent contract. Parker was expecting to move to the small forward spot, but returned to power forward when Markkanen was injured, and then moved to the bench when the coaching staff wasn't happy with how the starting line-up was playing early in the pre-season. Parker could be a valuable weapon as a big-time scorer and facilitator with the 2nd unit, but if he's unhappy with his role or playing time, this season could turn out to be an unhappy homecoming. How Parker adapts to the challenges of establishing his role will determine whether the Bulls exercise the team option on the 2nd year of his contract. 

6. Which other players will be part of the roster when the Bulls are a playoff team again?

Questions remain about a number of the team's young players. Bobby Portis has established himself as a legitimate NBA scorer and team leader; his improved 3 point shooting will be critical to the team's success, whether he starts or comes off the bench. But after failing to reach agreement on a contract extension by the Monday deadline, will Portis be chasing stats as he looks ahead to restricted free agency next summer? Denzel Valentine, Cameron Payne and rookie Chandler Hutchison will all have to make the most of limited minutes, with each player needing to prove to the coaching staff and front office they deserve to be in the rotation long term.

So, don't get caught up in the Bulls chasing some arbitrary win total number. Even though the Eastern Conference is weaker overall than the West, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Indiana, Milwaukee, Washington, Miami and Detroit all appear to be likely playoff teams, barring an injury to a key player. 

Hoiberg's offense will continue to emphasize pace, floor spacing and 3 point shooting which should bring out the best in a young and developing roster. 

2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition


2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition

The theme of the 2018-19 NBA season will be: “old faces in new places”. Like a season-long game of the NBA on TNT crew’s “Who he play for?” game, this year will be about fans trying to get used to the idea of LeBron James in purple (I won’t call it ‘Forum Blue’)-and-gold, DeMarcus Cousins being on a championship-contending franchise and Kawhi Leonard being the new face of Toronto.

The Warriors are still the easy favorite to make it four NBA championships in five years, but they will be tested perhaps more than any year before in a loaded Western Conference, where even the lowliest of teams (here’s to you Phoenix and Memphis!) made solid offseason moves geared towards winning games.

Over in the now-LeBron-less East, there is hope amongst at least four-to-five teams that they could actually have a shot to win the conference. The Pacers still have budding superstar Victor Oladipo, the Sixers still have Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and the Raptors and Bucks made head coaching changes that could lead to deep playoff runs. But with the rest of the Eastern conference being stuck between lottery contention and middle of the pack, expect the half-experienced, half-youthful Celtics to takeover as East juggernaut.

But whether or not your favorite franchise is aiming for a high draft pick or a postseason berth, there is tons to be excited in a 2018-19 NBA season that will surely be an intriguing one. Check out Week 1 of our NBA Power Rankings right here.