Bulls

Bulls earn important victory, keep Raptors on notice in the process

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Bulls earn important victory, keep Raptors on notice in the process

Toronto real estate is going through a boom right now, so the Raptors shouldn’t just give it away so freely to the likes of the Chicago Bulls.

But as any Chicagoan knows, if there’s affordable real estate in a great place, you’d better jump on it, so the Bulls planted themselves firmly where the sign was placed—in the Raptors’ psyche.

It doesn’t matter who is wearing a Bulls’ uniform, be it Michael Jordan, Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler—heck, it could be Eddie Robinson or Norm Van Lier, but there seems to be a mental hurdle the Raptors can’t leap.

Butler’s strip of DeMar DeRozan’s late drive with less than a second left sealed a 109-107 win over the Raptors at Air Canada Centre Monday night, arguably the biggest win of the Bulls’ season to date.

It’s not lost on anyone that it’s nine straight wins over the Raptors, a team the Bulls could see in the No. 2 vs. No. 7 matchup if the Bulls qualify for the playoffs, but the Bulls also averted disaster and showed some mental toughness in one of the tougher environments in the NBA.

“I guarded him plenty,” said Butler of DeRozan, his fellow All-Star guard. “I know if you bring that ball down you have to bring it up to get to the basket. Luckily I had a quick enough hand to get a piece of it and hit it off his knee and we took it the other way.”

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Butler scored 13 points in 33 minutes in his return, and atoned for missing the front half of two free throws right before the Raptors’ final possession. The Bulls overcame themselves and their lack of personnel to push them one game over .500.

Adversity in the form of nearly blowing a 106-100 lead with a minute left, getting called for a five-second violation when they couldn’t get the ball inbounds at the 25.8 second mark and letting the Raptors get close enough to steal a win they had no business in.

“That was a huge play by Jimmy,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Just made a heck of a play on the ball. They set that screen high and Jimmy fought through it, stayed on his hip and made a great defensive play.”

In one of the huddles after the five-second call, Taj Gibson—forced into playing center with no Pau Gasol—yelled out the rallying call: “Finish the game!”

They did it nearly with their “B” team, as it wasn’t Butler with a Jordan-like performance like their last visit to the north, nor was Rose in uniform, still recovering from a groin injury. Mike Dunleavy was even back at the team hotel with the flu and Gasol was back in Chicago recovering from a knee injury.

No matter, since Doug McDermott seems to own the Raptors recently. After going for 30 a couple weeks back at the United Center, he did it again off the bench with 29 points—24 in the first half. He was joined by E’Twaun Moore, who hit eight of his first nine for 17 points.

“I give them a lot of credit for coming out the gate with the mentality that they did, setting the tone early was very important,” Hoiberg said. “Doug had it going and they did a good job of finding him, but they showed a lot of resolve, a lot of grit, a lot of toughness.”

Those adjectives are usually reserved for Bulls teams of a previous vintage, but the Bulls pulled this bottle of wine deep from the cellar, and began drinking from the lip from the tip.

The Bulls jumped out to an 13-4 lead, setting the tone for what was to come as they played with the requisite concentration and focus that only seems to appear every once in a while.

And the Raptors were ready to give it all away, despite DeRozan scoring 27 and All-Star mate Kyle Lowry leading everyone with 33 and 11 rebounds, as they combined for 24 points in a frantic late fourth quarter flurry.

Although Patrick Patterson scored 13 off the bench, it was a two-man show for the Raptors and the Bulls took a 13-point lead early in the fourth and led by 10 midway through, with solid contributions from Nikola Mirotic’s 17 and Gibson’s 13 points and 10 rebounds.

“We were thin on the numbers tonight,” Hoiberg said.

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But the Raptors played into the Bulls’ hands. Fouling 3-point shooters, complaining about the officials, taking the Bulls for granted and at times, playing at half speed. For most of the night, they looked nothing like the team that had won 15 of 16 at home—against a team that hadn’t won a road game in over a month.

“I don’t know, maybe we match up well against them,” Butler said. “They’re a really good team. I can see how they’ve been winning games but I think we bring it every night against them.”

The Bulls outshot the Raptors, 49 percent to 45, and the Bulls had five players in double figures, along with missing just one free throw the entire evening.

In other words, they closed a lot of gaps in personnel with performance.

They Raptors had a quick surge to pull the game to within seven at the end of the third quarter but when Terrence Ross left McDermott alone on the wing—a no-no on a bad McDermott day—the lead was back to 13 with 10 minutes to play.

Unlike the last two losses, the Bulls took care of the ball, running the offense with precision and most of all, confidence, committing just six turnovers through the first 36 minutes.

McDermott and Moore started off the first quarter 9-9, then McDermott kept the torch in the second. Back to back triples, including a four-point play, pushed the lead near double-figures before the Raptors nearly imploded.

Jason Thompson successfully pulled the chair on Gibson but the officials called a foul, much to the chagrin of Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who picked up a technical foul.

On the ensuing possession, they picked up more technical fouls and their focus was indeed off.

And the Bulls finally took advantage, finally being the team with composure, heeding Hoiberg’s prayers and listening to Gibson’s final words.

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 Minnesota 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.”