Bulls

Bulls erase recent struggles, hand Spurs first road loss of season

Bulls erase recent struggles, hand Spurs first road loss of season

Jimmy Butler kicked his legs out and the ball swirled around, and around and stopped…before rolling in after the official’s whistle blew for a foul.

The pushback from the rim on an imperfect night for Butler seemed to capture his feelings perfectly.

The San Antonio Spurs stalked the Bulls after sleepwalking for 24 minutes, and Kawhi Leonard will probably be in Butler’s nightmares as he shadowed the two-time all-star all night — as the league’s best out-of-nowhere two-way players battled all night.

Butler went scoreless in the first half and his streak of 20-point games ended at 15 but he came away with the most important statistic as the Bulls ended their three-game losing streak and the Spurs’ 13-0 road streak to start the season with a perfectly predictable 94-88 win at the United Center Thursday night.

Dwyane Wade led the Bulls with 20 points, including a couple buckets when the Bulls were reeling late and needing some stability in the worst way, hitting Taj Gibson for an inside dunk with two minutes remaining.

This is what the Bulls do, author improbable storybook endings on national TV against quality opponents when the odds are stacked against them and public conversation begins to sway in the other direction after some puzzling losses.

“We talked about it after the Cleveland game — so that’s a scary thing,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said, stopping himself at the notion he gave his team the same speech after their last win. “If we go out there with that type of focus, we’ll win a lot of games. It can’t just be against the top teams, it’s gotta be every night.”

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But with Doug McDermott back after missing 11 games and the stage of a national audience at home — the night was tailor-made for the Bulls to pull out a win like this, even without Butler being his usual self.

The Bulls held the Spurs to 40 percent shooting and 32 from 3-point land, while only giving up five free throws — the type of gameplan discipline that has been missing with the recent slippage.

“I think the big thing is right out the game we had a focus to us. We didn’t make any mistakes,” Hoiberg said. “The guys did a great job of following the game plan and executing what we wanted to do.”

And doing it with their leading scorer being held to half his average, they needed to ensure the Spurs’ margin for error was just as slim as theirs. McDermott provided a boost, hitting a triple and getting a fast break layup right when he entered, finishing with eight points in 25 minutes.

“I felt great, my wind was there,” McDermott said. “I was just a little rusty. I felt really good out there, no issues.”

Butler scored 13 on four of 14 shooting with nine rebounds, including two on the offensive end while the Bulls were trying to seal the win, with four assists and two steals in 38 minutes.

“I’ll take a night like that as long as we get the win,” Butler said.

Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP for his work against LeBron James, was the only starter aside from Pau Gasol to get a rhythm in a rhythmless game, scoring 24 with eight rebounds and five assists while doggedly defending Butler.

Leonard had two straight ridiculous 3-point plays that seemed awkward and prayer-like but pulled the Spurs to within six midway through the fourth quarter, pulling the Spurs back from an 18-point deficit.

The lead was built due to good defense, and timely contributions from the likes of Cristiano Felicio, who played second-unit minutes at center for the second straight game.

A tip-dunk brought the crowd to its feet, as he brings a level of athleticism that’s hard to match from any of his teammates, scoring nine points with seven rebounds in 18 minutes.

“He can change the pace of the game when he’s out there,” Hoiberg said. “We’ll keep him in the rotation a while to keep him ready and prepared. It was only a matter of time until we got him in there.”

Gibson and Robin Lopez (each scored 12) also helped seal the interior as the Spurs didn’t get much in the way of second chance points and the Bulls outrebounded them 50-44.

It seemed like the Spurs were sleeping and just waiting for an opportunity to pounce on the Bulls, and of course, the expectation was for a Bulls collapse considering how putrid their fourth quarters have been recently.

Patty Mills kept shaking free of the Bulls defense to hit four triples while the Bulls couldn’t fully pull away, despite all five starters scoring in double figures and Rajon Rondo coming an assist shy of getting a triple-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

They won’t have many games where Butler and Wade aren’t the headliners, but then again, they won’t have many games where the defense actually picks up the slack against one of the more disciplined offensive teams in the league.

Butler didn’t score until midway through the third quarter, finally shaking free of Leonard in semi-transition for a short jumper to put the Bulls up 60-47.

But the Spurs began to wake up and nearly did more than make the Bulls sweat. But in these early tilts, the more desperate team usually wins.

And although the Bulls don’t want to admit it, they needed to play like a desperate team.

Wendell Carter Jr. is showing significant signs of growth in his second season, both on and off the court

Wendell Carter Jr. is showing significant signs of growth in his second season, both on and off the court

When the Bulls selected Wendell Carter Jr. with the seventh overall pick in the 2018 draft, John Paxson and Gar Forman talked about his rare intelligence, mental toughness and maturity for a 19-year-old prospect.

We saw signs of Carter Jr.’s leadership ability during his 44-game rookie campaign. He took the losses as hard as anyone in the locker room and spoke candidly about the need to change the mindset and focus of everyone on the roster. Carter’s first season ended early because of a broken thumb, but his emergence as a strong voice among the players was only beginning.

With the Bulls getting off to an unexpected slow start to the 2019 season, the now 20-year-old Carter has been a prominent voice in the locker room, saying the players need to feel the pain of the constant losing and do everything possible to turn things around.

Carter has certainly done his part, taking a significant step forward through the first 11 games of his second season. The former Duke star is averaging 13.2 points, 9.7 rebounds and has already notched seven double-doubles — the first Bulls center to accomplish that since Joakim Noah in the 2010-11 season.

After experiencing the physicality of NBA post play as a rookie, Carter put in extra work in the weight room this past summer, and showed up for training camp at a solid 265 pounds. He’s used that extra strength effectively on both ends, banging with the league’s biggest centers under the basket, while also maintaining his ability to switch onto smaller players in pick-and-roll coverage.

Carter also got advice from Bulls television analyst and former NBA player Stacey King to always run hard down the middle of the court after a change of possession to set up opportunities for easy baskets and offensive rebounds. With the Bulls playing at a faster pace this season, Carter's ability to beat opposing centers on the offensive end has already resulted in more scoring chances.

The Bulls coaching staff is still hoping Carter will develop his shooting range to the point where he can be a consistent threat from three-point territory, but at this point that’s not a high priority in the offense. Carter is outstanding in the pick-and-roll, setting solid screens and then rolling hard to the basket for lob passes. He also has the ability to pop out to the elbow area for midrange jump shots.

With all the preseason conversation focused on the possibility of Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen making the jump to All-Star consideration, Carter is the player making the biggest leap early in the season. And his increased production is coming without designed plays being run for him.

The Bulls’ offense doesn’t call for multiple entry passes into the low post, but we saw during Carter’s one season at Duke that he has a nice touch shooting jump hooks from close range with either hand. Carter’s offensive game figures to expand in the coming seasons, but his skill in protecting the rim and controlling the defensive backboard already makes him extremely valuable to what the Bulls are trying to accomplish.

Plus, we already know that a competitive fire burns deep inside the 20-year-old Carter. After former teammate Bobby Portis torched the Bulls for 28 points and 11 rebounds in a come-from-behind victory for the Knicks at Madison Square Garden last month, Carter vowed it wouldn’t happen in Tuesday’s rematch at the United Center. 

“No words need to be said. We’re not letting that happen,” Carter said to reporters. “Bobby is going to want to put on a show. I’m not going to have it. I hope he’s watching this. I ain’t having it.”

Portis’ stat line in the Bulls’ blowout win following those comments? In 19 unproductive minutes, he tallied just 7 points and 3 rebounds on 3-of-9 shooting.

The Bulls’ 20-year-old locker room leader made sure he backed up his pregame comments. Now, he says he’ll look for something to fire up his teammates for every game left on the schedule.

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Kris Dunn continues to buy into role — and the Bulls are better for it

Kris Dunn continues to buy into role — and the Bulls are better for it

Jim Boylen has plenty of pet phrases. Role acceptance is one of them.

And if you want to get the Bulls coach rolling, ask him about Kris Dunn’s performance in that department.

“Big time. Big time,” Boylen repeated, for good measure. “He just wants to win. He’s the first guy in the breakfast room. You have to be in the building 45 minutes before [practice]. He’s in 1 hour, 45 minutes before. He does his workout 45 minutes before everybody else with Coach [Nate] Loenser. He is locked in. He cares. He always cared. And he’s playing winning basketball. I’m really happy for him.”

There may be no greater compliment from a coach to a player than to say one is playing winning basketball. Relayed Boylen’s comment, Dunn didn’t take it lightly.

“That means a lot. That’s what I try to do,” Dunn said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. “I come from a winning program at Providence. I know what winning looks like. And I know what it takes to win.”

Right now, that involves Dunn accepting his role as a reserve aimed at wreaking defensive havoc on opponents. When Dunn scores 13 points, as he did in Tuesday’s victory over the Knicks, it’s a bonus.

There’s a lot going right with Dunn’s game these days. He leads the NBA with 25 steals, posting multiple steals in seven of 11 games. He has tallied 30 assists to just nine turnovers in 224 minutes, emblematic of solid decision-making. And he’s shooting 47.1 percent from the field — a figure made even more impressive by his anemic 17.6 percent shooting from 3-point range.

“I take pride in my defense,” Dunn said. “The second unit, I think we have good defenders in our group. Archie [Ryan Arcidiacono], he’s a dog. Thad [Young], he’s a dog. Coby [White], he’s a dog. I could go on and on. We try to come in and bring great energy and try to maintain the lead or, if we’re down, try to get it back.”

But Dunn’s biggest area of growth has been his role acceptance. It’s not easy losing a starting job, particularly when it comes on the heels of executive vice president John Paxson publicly challenging Dunn. And then the Bulls acquired Tomas Satoransky in a sign-and-trade transaction, drafted White and re-signed Arcidiacono.

Multiple outlets reported over the offseason that Dunn and his representatives wanted a change of scenery. The Bulls, league sources said in July, held trade talks with several teams, including the Grizzlies, regarding a sign-and-trade transaction for Justin Holiday.

Instead, Dunn returned. And since the first day of voluntary September workouts, he has maintained a positive attitude.

“It’s a good team we have. I just wanted to be a part of it. We have a lot of talented players, a good group of guys. I wanted to buy into what Coach is preaching, buy into the system,” Dunn said.  “All in all, I feel my game can go anywhere — starting, coming off the bench. Wherever you put me at, I’m a hooper.”

This example hasn’t been lost on young players like the rookie White.

“That’s my dog,” White told NBC Sports Chicago. “We’re part of the bench mob. Ain’t that right, KD? I love playing with KD. I know he’s going to compete at both ends. If things aren’t going well, he can turn the game around with his energy. He’s passionate. You love to play with people who play hard and want to win.

“Our relationship has grown on and off the court. He has instilled confidence in me. I haven’t been shooting it well before [Tuesday night]. KD told me to keep being aggressive and keep shooting. He’s always encouraging his teammates. When one of us does something good, he’s the first to hype us up.”

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