Bulls

Bulls fend off pesky Wolves

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Bulls fend off pesky Wolves

CHICAGO--After looking like a dream team early, the Bulls (9-2) fell asleep before waking up late to survive a challenge from the Timberwolves (3-7) in their 111-100 win Tuesday night at the Target Center in Minneapolis, the second game of their only back-to-back-to-back stretch of the season. Several contributors made an impact, but the one-two punch of Derrick Rose and Luol Deng closed it out for the Bulls, who squandered a 24-point first-half lead as a result of Minnesota rookie point guard Ricky Rubio's impressive play.

Propelled by a smothering defense and the assertive scoring efforts of Rose (31 points, 4-for-8 three-point shooting, 11 assists, two blocked shots) and Deng (21 points, 11 rebounds), the Bulls jumped all over the Timberwolves right out of the gate, seemingly scoring at will in both transition and out of halfcourt offensive sets. Thirteen first-quarter points from Rose--in a variety of methods, from deft off-hand finishes after dribble penetration, to three-point bombs off the bounce and wide-open flushes as the result of a backdoor cut--but countering the visitors' ballooning lead was the reigning leave MVP tweaking an ankle late in the opening period, after which the Bulls led, 33-17.

Rose would leave the court between quarters (he'd return to the contest midway between periods after receiving medical treatment for his injury), but his services weren't needed, as an offensively-aggressive "Bench Mob," led by an assertive John Lucas--again playing significant minutes in place of the sidelined C.J. Watson, the diminutive third-stringer's effectiveness allowed Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to play Rose off the ball for a stretch--Taj Gibson's (three blocked shots) usual high activity level on both ends, Omer Asik (six points, six rebounds), displaying polished post moves, and temporary starter Ronnie Brewer's (17 points) subtle contributions, maintained the Bulls' wide winning margin. However, behind versatile power forward Kevin Love's (20 points, 3-for-8 three-point shooting, 13 rebounds) outside marksmanship and Rubio's playmaking, the Timberwolves made a 20-2 before halftime to trim the deficit and send the Bulls into the break with a 53-47 advantage.

Minnesota continued to chip away at Chicago's increasingly tenuous lead, as the precocious Rubio created for himself and teammates, such as hot-shooting veteran starting point guard Luke Ridnour (22 points, 3-for-3 three-point shooting, 8-for-11 overall) and talented young big man Anthony Randolph (18 points) against their guests, who insisted on settling for perimeter shots. The visitors saw the gap close completely when their hosts tied the score at 70 apiece, but kept afloat by Deng's timely scoring, the Bulls managed to escape the third quarter ahead, 79-74.

Chicago was able to maintain its cushion early in the final stanza due to Deng's consistent point production, Gibson's defensive prowess, sharspshooter Kyle Korver's (13 points, 3-for-3 three-point shooting, 5-for-6 overall) potent stroke and Rose finding his groove again, keeping the hosts, who remained within striking distance, at bay. But down the stretch, the combination of Rose and Deng, as well as the perimeter firepower of Brewer and Korver, were too much for the feisty Timberwolves.

What to watch for: Bulls host Pascal Siakam and the Toronto Raptors

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USA Today

What to watch for: Bulls host Pascal Siakam and the Toronto Raptors

The Bulls welcome the Raptors, currently on a three-game losing streak, to the United Center on Monday. It is the second game in as many nights for each team. The matchup tips at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago; unitl then, here's what to watch for:

Raptors last five (2-3)

  • Dec. 8 — L at 76ers: 110-104

  • Dec. 5 — L vs. Rockets: 119-109

  • Dec. 3 — L vs. Heat: 121-110 (OT)

  • Dec. 1 — W vs. Jazz: 130-110

  • Nov. 29 — W at Magic: 90-83

Storyline(s) for each team

Both of these teams enter tonight on the back-end of back-to-backs — the Raptors got essentially trounced by the 76ers (they didn’t pull to within single digits until the game’s final two minutes) in Philadelphia Sunday night, and are riding a three-game losing streak into Chicago, overall. It’s a slight reality check for a team that began its first post-Kawhi Leonard campaign 15-4, but all three defeats came against good-to-great teams. There’s no real reason to believe that, tonight, Toronto can’t put forth a performance similar to the 108-84 drubbing they handed the Bulls at the United Center on Oct. 26 (a game in which the Bulls’ leading scorer was Wendell Carter Jr. with 12 points). 

The Bulls are coming off a gut-wrenching overtime loss to the Heat that left some reasons for optimism, but ultimately stung as much as the defeats that preceded it (perhaps even more so). Neither Otto Porter Jr. nor Chandler Hutchison appear any closer to returning, and the team’s best players remain hot-and-cold on a night-to-night basis. The Bulls have demonstrated an ability to compete with teams of this quality, but a win tonight remains a tough proposition.

Player to watch: Pascal Siakam

Even in limiting Jimmy Butler to 3-for-14 shooting on Sunday, his game-high 21 free throw attempts and the gravity he attracted down the stretch (which freed up Tyler Herro to get going) were a reminder that the Bulls still sorely miss their big wings in Porter and Hutchison.

Want another reminder? Enter: Pascal Siakam. In the absence of Leonard, Siakam is currently making the leap of all leaps, averaging 24.6 points and 8.5 rebounds per game on 46/36.5/81.6 shooting splits. He’s bumped his volume substantially (20.1 field goal and 6.2 3-point attempts per game) and taken on an increased number of pull-ups and drives, at the expense of catch-and-shoots (i.e. he’s creating his own offense).

 

Though he’s slightly cooled off over the Raptors’ aforementioned losing streak (38.9% shooting in his last three games), a trip to Chicago could represent a get-right game for the Raptors’ best player. The forward combination of him and OG Anunoby also presents difficult defensive matchups for Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, given that the Bulls will probably continue to roll with a three-guard starting lineup.

Matchup to watch: Transition (and everything that comes with it)

The Raptors are a high-octane group that plays with breakneck pace. They shoot the second-highest percentage on 3-pointers in the NBA (38.7%) on the seventh-most attempts per game (36.5), rank eighth in the NBA in steals per game (Bulls are first) and relish the opportunity to get out on the break.

Per Cleaning the Glass, the Raptors convert live rebounds into transition opportunities at the second-highest clip in the NBA (36%, trailing only the Bucks). The Bulls (32.4%) are sixth in that category, though the Raptors score on said possessions with greater efficiency. The Raptors (sixth) and Bulls (seventh) also rank among the league’s best in percentage of steals converted into transition possessions. We know this will be an up-and-down affair — what remains to be seen is which team can win the rebounding and turnover battles, and thus afford themselves more opportunities to get out, run and dictate the flow of the game.

The Raptors wore the Bulls down in most of these areas the last time these two matched up, out-rebounding the Bulls 65-56 and winning the transition points battle 25-7 (each team had nine steals) on Oct. 26. Even potentially without Fred VanVleet (who left Toronto’s Sunday night game with a knee injury), Toronto has the personnel to win this matchup again, between elite ball-pusher and outlet-passer Kyle Lowry, the fast, rangy and physical Siakam/Anunoby duo and ancillary sparkplugs like Normal Powell and Terence Davis. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka won’t make the Bulls’ lives easy on the glass, either.

Trends to watch

  • It’s only a four-game sample size, but Lauri Markkanen is averaging 19.3 points and 5.3 rebounds on 50.9% shooting (13.3 attempts) and 43.2% from three (9.2 attempts) in the month of December. Even that stretch has had its ups and downs, but it’s worth monitoring if he’s able to continue his generally positive upward trend against a big, physical and talented Raptors frontcourt.

  • Coby White played all but eight seconds of the fourth quarter and overtime in Miami on Sunday, closing over Tomas Satoransky. He shot 2-for-5 (both makes on 3-pointers) in those minutes, dishing out three assists and also committing two turnovers. Still, he looked like he belonged out there. Boylen has gone back-and-forth on rolling with the starters versus the ‘hot-hand’ down the stretch, but White certainly benefits from a developmental perspective from that type of increased responsibility. 

  • Kyle Lowry returned from a thumb injury that cost him about a month on Dec. 3, and in the three games since his return, he’s played 41, 42 and 38 minutes, respectively. So much for easing back in. With VanVleet likely out, his workload probably won’t lighten in this one, except in the event of a blowout (certainly plausible). Lowry’s a great player, but he’s shooting 35% since returning, including a 2-for-18 shooting night in his first game back.

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NBA power rankings: Antetokounmpo and Bucks keep up 14 game win streak

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USA Today

NBA power rankings: Antetokounmpo and Bucks keep up 14 game win streak

With the NBA season hitting the quarter pole, it’s a good time to check in on how the MVP race is shaping up.

After blowing a two games to none lead against Toronto in last spring’s Eastern Conference Finals, Giannis Antetokounmpo vowed to come back better than ever this season, and he’s done exactly that, improving his averages in points, rebounds, assists, field goal percentage and 3-point shooting percentage.

The one knock on Antetokounmpo had been his lack of a consistent outside shot, and while he’s still only shooting 31.6% from beyond the arc, he’s made at least three shots from long distance in three of his last seven games.

The Bucks are currently riding a 14 game winning streak after blowing out a very good Clippers’ team at Fiserv Forum last Friday. Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers even joked about the result, saying, “It was Giannis’ 25th birthday, and we searched all over the city to find a gift, and we couldn’t find one, so we gave him this one. That’s all I can come up with because we were awful.”

Antetokounmpo still has to prove he can get the Bucks to the Finals, but through the first 23 games, he’s clearly the favorite to win his 2nd straight MVP award.

LeBron James’ Lakers are actually a half game ahead of the Bucks for the NBA’s best record at the start of the new week. James leads the NBA in assists, something that hasn’t been done by a player who doesn’t play the guard position since Wilt Chamberlain. James would rank 2nd on my MVP rankings at the quarter pole.

I wrote about Luka Doncic in last week’s power rankings, and after averaging a triple double in November and leading the Mavericks to an unexpected strong start in the West, Luka would be number three, followed by NBA scoring leader James Harden and Toronto’s Pascal Siakam.

Now on to this week’s rankings. Check them out here.