Bulls

Bulls fall hard in surprising, disappointing defeat to Nets

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Bulls fall hard in surprising, disappointing defeat to Nets

By Aggrey Sam & Christopher Cason
CSNChicago.com

Readiness to play and preparing for each and every game the same way are some of the mottos that the Bulls (25-8) have abided by under Coach Tom Thibodeaus reign.

Even with the challenges of the most games played at the midway point of the season having also played the most road games out of any team at this point the Bulls have always prided themselves on being ready to play when the ball is thrown up, which is why Saturdays 97-85 matinee loss against the New Jersey Nets (9-23) was so depressing.

I dont think you can change game-to-game. I think you have to prepare for each game the exact same way, said Tom Thibodeau.

Everyone in this league is extremely talented and capable of beating you; it doesnt matter who it is. This isnt like college where you may have twenty-points more talent than somebody. It doesnt work that way, theyre all pros. If youre not ready to go, youre capable of being beaten and thats what happened.

Amazing happens is the NBAs motto and while the beginning of the contest was a tad shy of truly remarkable, the fact that the woeful Nets jumped out to a 15-2 lead including 13 unanswered points after the two teams exchanged buckets to start the game was certainly a shocker.

But even after a Thibodeau timeout in an effort to rectify the situation, New Jersey, behind All-Star point guard Deron Williams (29 points, 5-for-9 three-point shooting, eight assists) outside shooting and playmaking, as well as contributions from Kris Humphries (better known as the ex-husband of reality-TV star Kim Kardashian, the power forward was booed by United Center fans, as he is in every arena), built on its double-digit cushion.

While ball security was an issue for the Bulls in the early going, there appeared to be a lid on the basket and disjointed offensive execution was also problematic things that occasionally occur to the squad that entered the day with the leagues top record the surprising aspect of the hosts slow start was a lackluster defensive effort, leading the visitors to shoot 14-for-21, compared to the Bulls 7-for-22, in the first quarter.

After permitting the Nets to run crisp plays that led to easy scoring opportunities, get out in transition and attempt wide-open jumpers, at the conclusion of the opening period, the Bulls trailed, 34-19.

Sometimes, the game is won in the first quarter, said Mike James who contributed 16 points. You can sometimes have rallies towards the end of the game but its hard because this is the NBA. Even though, the Nets record is what it is, they still have pretty good players. If anybody start getting confidence, knocking down shots, its hard to get them out of that rhythm and they got into their rhythm early and kept their rhythm.

Thibodeau emphasized James point by saying; It was too big of a whole hole to get out of. If you study the statistics, theyre going to tell you that most teams that are leading after the first quarter are the teams that win. Readiness to play is huge.

Thibodeau lost patience with his starters midway through the first quarter and inserted an all-reserve lineup and it began to pay dividends toward the end of the period, as Taj Gibsons (14 points, eight rebounds) typically energetic play made an impact, then carried over to the second stanza.

With fellow backup big man Omer Asik (eight rebounds) providing a rebounding and defensive presence, sharpshooter Kyle Korver and a dual point-guard set featuring John Lucas III and James (seven assists), the Bulls trimmed the deficit to make it a competitive affair.

I was just searching for energy somewhere, said Thibodeau. We had a couple of chances to maybe get back into it.

Thibodeau reinserted his re-energized regulars, but kept James fast becoming a fan favorite due to his tough defense, fearless drives, intelligent passing and timely shooting on the court and combined with C.J. Watsons usual instant offense, Luol Dengs (14 points, eight rebounds) scoring and Carlos Boozers (16 points, nine rebounds) rebounding and mid-range shooting, the Bulls made it a single-digit contest.

But with Williams accurate outside marksmanship and Humphries (24 points, 18 rebounds, five assists) work on the interior, the guests remained in command and the Bulls went into the intermission facing a 59-45 deficit.

Our defense wasnt very good, acknowledge Boozer. We pretty much spotted them a twenty-point lead and we tried to fight back. We did fight back and then they went right back up at the half.

Although New Jerseys once-gaudy shooting percentage dropped precipitously after the break, a blend of the Bulls turnover problems resurfaced and an inefficient offense allowed the visitors advantage to balloon. Humphries high activity level was the difference for the Nets, whose defense and rebounding factored into the hosts offensive struggles.

As the third period waned on, however, Boozers jump-shooting prowess reared its head, as the Alaska natives mid-range game from the baseline and elbow was the Bulls most consistent offensive weapon in making the deficit more manageable.

But the mini-run was eventually stymied partly of their own doing; adding injury to insult was Watson getting drilled in the face by Williams, leading to the latters steal and fast-break dunk, killing the Bulls momentum and through three quarters of play, the Bulls still faced an uphill battle, being on the wrong end of a 73-56 score.

The final period didnt immediately yield better results for the hosts, as rookie MarShon Brooks (19 points) and starting center Shelden Williams (eight points, 14 rebounds) were productive for the Nets early in the quarter, ensuring that their lofty winning margin remained intact.

Never known to give up on a game until the final buzzer, the relentless play of Gibson and James persisted, and coupled with Deng rediscovering his hot hand a dunk, plus the foul, for an old-fashioned three-point play, followed by an actual three-pointer, ignited the All-Star unearthed signs of life within the Bulls at the halfway mark of the frame.

Unforced miscues and the inability to string together multiple defensive stops, both issues all game long, were the home teams ultimate undoing, as they couldnt pull off a miraculous late run to get back into striking distance.

We had a bad day, were not denying that, said Deng. We have no excuses, we played terrible. Were going to look at game tape, get better and bounce back the next game. Its just a lot of things went into tonight. We just have to bring a better effort.

Already needing no further motivation after the loss, the Bulls seem to have already put the loss behind them and began to look ahead.

Well have a great practice tomorrow, dust this game off and be ready for the Hawks. Theyre a very good team who smacked us the last time we played them we havent forgot that and be ready for Monday.

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

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USA TODAY

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

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USA TODAY

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.