Bulls

Bulls excited for Noah: 'Joakim looks like Joakim'

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Bulls excited for Noah: 'Joakim looks like Joakim'

At this time a year ago, Joakim Noah was hurting.

The reigning Defensive Player of the Year had undergone arthroscopic knee surgery days after the Bulls' playoff loss to the Wizards and spent the entire offseason rehabilitating. He walked into Bulls media day having not played any basketball over the summer, filling his time with what he referred to as "boring stuff." He claimed he'd be ready for the rigors of the season, and to his part he lived up to his prediction. Noah played in 67 games and all 12 postseason contests, and only two of the 15 games he missed were attributed to left knee soreness.

But simply put, Noah wasn't himself. Granted, he wasn't going to replicate his All-NBA first team numbers from 2013-14, when the absence of Derrick Rose (knee) and Luol Deng (traded to Cleveland) made him the focal point on both ends of the floor. But Noah averaged just 7.2 points on a career-low 44.5 percent shooting and 9.6 rebounds. He was a step behind on defensive rotations, didn't have the same burst that had carried him to back-to-back NBA All-Defensive first team honors and struggled around the rim, shooting nine percentage points lower in that area from the previous year, per basketball-reference.com.

[MORE: Dunleavy, Gibson give different outlooks on injury front]

Noah would be the last to make excuses for his lackluster performance, and he didn't. The reality was, however, that an offseason stuck in the weight room and training facility instead of on the basketball floor was a setback. It's a situation Noah has reversed heading into 2015, the start of the Fred Hoiberg era and an important contract year for the 30-year-old.

He spent his offseason in Santa Barbara, Calif., at Peak Performance Project (P3), focusing on basketball and improving his strength as he looks to bounce back from last year's forgettable campaign. His motivation was simple: his teammates had picked him up last year, winning 50 games and earning the East's No. 3 seed. Now it's Noah's time to pay it forward.

"Just needed a little time to regroup and get healthy. That was my priority for this summer, and I’m really, really excited for this upcoming season," he said. "I just wanted to come right for my teammates. They were there for me. Last year was very tough for me, just not being able to move the way that I wanted to on the court, be able to play the way that I wanted to play. I’m excited to be back in Chicago and show my teammates that I can be there for them."

Added general manager Gar Forman: "Joakim looks like Joakim. He's live, he's active, he's had a good summer of training."

Fred Hoiberg said he hasn't made any decisions on the starting lineup, or the more important finishing lineup. He spent time with each member of the Bulls at some point over the summer, meeting with Noah on his journey along the West Coast that included meeting with Derrick Rose (Los Angeles) and Aaron Brooks (Oregon). Much was made last season about the Bulls potentially splitting up true centers Noah and Pau Gasol, shifting Noah to the second unit to better balance the Bulls' depth.

[MEDIA DAY: Rose proclaims his innocence in strongest statements to date]

Hoiberg said he'll experiment frequently during the preseason with lineups, presumably meaning Noah will see time both in the starting lineup and coming off the bench.

"There’s a lot of flexibility to put guys in a lot of positions. There’s a lot of versatility on this roster. I don’t know if I can answer that question today. The important thing for me is before that first game against Cleveland on October 27th, hopefully that’ll be more defined."

Hoiberg may not know where he'll place Noah in his rotation, but what he can expect is the old energetic center who feels fresh after an offseason spent on the basketball floor instead of the training table.

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 Dallas 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.”