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Bulls fall out of playoffs in embarrassing loss to Heat

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Bulls fall out of playoffs in embarrassing loss to Heat

MIAMI, FL—Uncontested dunks.

Easy Sunday strolls to the basket.

Little resistance on the smallest of offensive plays.

That described the Bulls’ defense against the surging Miami Heat, as they let the arguably the conference’s best contender to LeBron James’ decade-long dominance put on a show for a 129-111 win at American Airlines Arena Tuesday night.

At 9:29 p.m. Eastern time, after the Bulls’ ninth turnover led to a corner triple from Miami’s No. 9, Luol Deng, the Heat went up 103-84, with nine minutes remaining—the final nine minutes they spent officially in the playoff standings to date.

“A lot of that was them making shots but it had to do with our lack of toughness, our lack to make them feeling us out there,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We had one turn that cut that thing back to six after getting down 19. We have to find a way to get some grit, toughness, determination, nastiness.”

Those words sound more like lip service than any attribute this team is capable of, because giving up over 90 points in the first 30 minutes produced a deserving result, leaving the Bulls in the ninth seed, with 23 games left and not much optimism for answers to come in enough time to fulfill preseason promise.

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“We’ve been talking about this for the last couple weeks, knowing we’d be in this position if we continued to lose,” Derrick Rose said. “I’m just wondering when we’re gonna say it’s enough.”

Clearly it wasn’t Tuesday, they put forth arguably their worst defensive showing in a season full of forgettable nights. The Heat had one glaring weakness—three-point shooting—and the Bulls didn’t even force anything there.

The Heat shot 68 percent and despite playing only eight guys, had four players with 18 points or more, starting with Hassan Whiteside, who dominated off the bench with 26 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks.

Johnson scored 24, Dwyane Wade 18 with seven assists and former Bull Luol Deng put up 20 as a stretch four against his former team.

“It’s the thing, we talked about it. We seem to play harder defensively in practices,” Hoiberg said.

Pau Gasol seemed to downplay any carryover, being as blunt as ever.

“We had a good practice before we came here,” he said. “Segmented drills, where we can play with a lot of intensity. (But) we didn’t execute the gameplan, we knew this team is a high scoring team in the paint, and they pretty much picked us apart.”

Seventy-four points in the paint seemed to be a talking point of frustration in the locker room, although the Bulls didn’t seem concerned enough on the floor to deliver a hard foul, or any foul for that matter.

“Got to start hitting bodies and being a little bit more physical,” Gasol said. “A team shooting 68 percent from the field, that’s pretty outrageous.”

The Bulls’ reserves tried gamely for a stretch, bringing the Heat lead to just 108-102 with 5:14 left after a solid run brought a scare into the American Airlines Arena crowd. But upon checking back in, Rose was put in an impossible position—guarding Joe Johnson, who dazzled in his Heat home debut.

Johnson’s fadeaway from the baseline settled things for the Heat, along with signaling a couple uncomfortable truths for the Bulls.

Rose, in normal circumstances wouldn’t be guarding Johnson, just like the poor souls tagged with containing massive big man Hassan Whiteside had very little chance at being effective, as he took the majority of minutes over starter Amar'e Stoudemire.

[MORE: Derrick Rose describes his recovery process]

Jimmy Butler would be doing that, and Taj Gibson or Joakim Noah would have to keep Whiteside off the glass. But Gibson joined Butler and Noah on the list of the wounded with a right hamstring injury he suffered in the second half, leaving rookie Bobby Portis as the only able-bodied athlete with any semblance of a shot against Whiteside.

“No excuses,” Rose said. “We’re still out there trying to play. Gotta figure it out pretty soon.”

“When a team scores 129 points on you, you can’t expect to win playing like that.”

And as for Johnson’s mere presence, it represents a Heat organization sparing no effort or expense in the effort to stay relevant for a shot in the finals, even with Chris Bosh’s injury still a question mark for the long term.

The Bulls simply didn’t have their best defensive personnel to combat the Heat, but this showing should be considered unacceptable.

As for Rose’s return, he was effective enough on offense, scoring 17 in 24 minutes with three assists, hitting his only triple attempt and getting to the line seven times.

The offense wasn’t a problem early, as Rose was clicking, getting to basket at will and finishing over Whiteside.

Doug McDermott hit a couple jumpers and Mike Dunleavy scored in double figures, but if you’re gonna play run and gun with a team that has a seemingly unlimited supply of versatile, shot-creating wings, you’re better off being at full strength.

And now the Bulls are sent scrambling for answers after an embarrassing showing, with as much doubt as ever.

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.”

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

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USA TODAY

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

Denzel Valentine’s troublesome left ankle is going to keep him on the sideline for at least the next two weeks. Fred Hoiberg said Saturday before the Bulls’ home opener against the Detroit Pistons that Valentine is suffering from a bone bruise in the ankle he sprained on the second day of training camp. Valentine will be evaluated in two weeks.

“It sucks because of all the work I put in this summer and being around the guys you want to be out there so bad,” he said. “Things happen for a reason, and now that we know what’s going on I at least have a time frame and be patient with it; it’s bad news but good news at the same time as it gives me time to get ready.”

Valentine had been practicing earlier in the week and appeared close to a return after spraining the ankle on Sept. 25. But the third year wing complained of discomfort in the ankle and missed practice on Friday. A scan of the left ankle revealed the bone bruise, and Hoiberg wouldn’t speculate on when exactly Valentine might return.

It’s the same ankle Valentine had surgery on in May 2017. Valentine also missed the last two weeks of last season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. The injury couldn’t come at a worse time for Valentine or the Bulls, who are in desparate need of help both in the backcourt and on the wing.

Though Valentine isn’t a true point guard, he averaged 3.2 assists per game off the bench last season. The Bulls could use that kind of production when Kris Dunn returns on Monday, as Cameron Payne and Ryan Arcidiacono haven’t exactly showed promise in the early going.

Instead, Valentine is on the mend and it’s unclear when he might return. Given he’s had surgery on the same ankle before, the Bulls will be cautious upon his return.

“I’m a fighter, I’m not going to quit; just deal with the hand dealt," Valentine said. "I can’t sit here and be negative, I just got to fight, stay mentally strong and this will be bittersweet when I come back and have a great year.”