Bulls' film study paying off in the form of strong defense

Bulls' film study paying off in the form of strong defense

PORTLAND—The buy-in from the Bulls is evident in the early stages of this season, with the remnants of the players buying into each other on display the last five games.

Whether it’s fighting over the top of screens on Portland’s Damian Lillard or keeping Atlanta’s Dwght Howard from unleashing holy terror on the interior by keeping him moving on defense, the Bulls are following their gameplans to the letter.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg employs a different defensive system than his predecessor, Tom Thibodeau, and it was one that took major adjustments last season.

Going away from Thibodeau’s overloading style, where the Bulls would exhaust themselves bringing help to the strong side of the floor, took time to accept, let alone embrace.

“Big time,” said Bulls forward Taj Gibson on the notion there was resistance last season. “It was crazy, because at the same time, you've got guys who spent almost seven years with one style of defense, and then just changed it a little bit for different play calls, whatever you want to name it.

“But the main thing is, when you win games and it shows on film that what he's telling you to do actually works, you can't really question it. So right now, we can't question it.”

And it starts in film session, a daily ritual Hoiberg seems to swear by with this group. He bemoans not having ample practice time during the season to reinforce habits, and the difference is easy to see when the players are locked in.

Gibson said it starts with the veterans, or more specifically, Dwyane Wade.

“We pay attention to detail. D-Wade is a serious guy, he comes in with a serious mentality,” Gibson said following the Bulls' team practice at the University of Portland Wednesday. “He's always critiquing and giving his opinion on things. And I think guys tune in to that, the coaches, how we want to run certain plays. But we've got a great group of guys that want to win.”

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Gibson compared it favorably to Thibodeau’s days in one way: He said the vibe is like it was in 2010-11, Thibodeau’s first season with the Bulls. The Bulls won over 60 games, advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals and Derrick Rose won Most Valuable Player.

“Guys are willing to do whatever it takes to win, and they don't complain and understand that you've got to listen to the coaching staff and buy in,” Gibson said.

Hoiberg believes it’s about a mindset on a nightly basis. In the last four wins, the Bulls have just surrendered an average of 89.5 points per game, and Hoiberg is impressed with the commitment.

“I think the big thing with what our guys is the energy they put in the game,” Hoiberg said. “You can say all you want how you’re gonna play certain actions but it’s the energy, more than you do with your schemes, and the effort. Our guys have been really good with that. The last three games, Miami was really good as far as how we wanted to play. Washington, I thought we were a little tired but we executed.”

They executed supremely against the Blazers, jumping on them early and never looking back. It was clear attention was paid, something that wasn’t always the case last year.

“As a team, we want to do well, we're correcting ourselves,” Butler said. “We're buying into the process, everybody's working on their games. We're actually paying attention to the scouting reports and doing what we're supposed to do on the defensive end. When you guard, the game looks really easy.”

As for the first game of a long road trip being a tone setter and Wade’s assertion that the Bulls need to finish 3-3 on the six-game trip to make it a successful one, Hoiberg wouldn’t bite.

“To get better every game,” said Hoiberg about any benchmarks. “I know what he (Wade) said but for me it’s about the process, growing as a basketball team win or lose. And we took a big step in the right direction in the Portland game.”

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction


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


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.”