Bulls

Bulls flip the fourth quarter script to secure 'must-win' game

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Bulls flip the fourth quarter script to secure 'must-win' game

The same story was playing out Thursday at the United Center. This time the Bulls wrote a different ending.

Leading by 10 after three quarters against the favored Clippers, Fred Hoiberg's group began that ominous fourth quarter that had troubled them in each of the past three games in similar fashion, with Los Angeles opening the period with a 12-2 run that erased the lead.

During a three-game stretch in which the Bulls had been outscored 102-70 in the fourth quarter, Thursday night's would have been the worst of the bunch. The Clippers had played in Milwaukee the previous night, Blake Griffin had been ejected early in the second half for a hard foul on Taj Gibson and Doc Rivers was rolling his comeback dice with a lineup consisting of NBA misfit toys in Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson and Austin Rivers; the Clippers bench entered Thursday shooting 39.5 percent from the field, second worst in the NBA.

But the early returns were positive. Rivers buried a 3-pointer from the right corner to get the run going. Wesley Johnson connected on another from the left wing to cut the deficit to six, then Smith buried a pair of triples, prompting a second timeout during that span from Hoiberg. The Los Angeles triples were sprinkled in between another offensive lull from the Bulls in which they missed 10 straight shots following a Derrick Rose runner off the glass to begin the period.

The Bulls were in the midst of deja vu at the United Center, a place where they had lost two straight for the first time since last January. Making matters worse, Rivers still had his big guns — Chris Paul, J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan — resting on his bench ready to close out the comeback.

The remaining 7:29 certainly wasn't pretty — a theme throughout the night — but as Hoiberg correctly observed: "Our guys found a way."

[MORE BULLS: Bulls survive Clippers' charge, end three-game losing streak]

A Jimmy Butler jumper gave the Bulls a two-point lead, and Gibson's thunderous putback dunk off an Aaron Brooks missed triple gave the Bulls breathing room in the form of a four-point lead. Los Angeles hit 3s on three of their next four possessions, but all came in response to Bulls baskets, including triples from Rose and Pau Gasol, who led the Bulls with 24 points and three 3-pointers.

As if Smith's pair of 3-pointers weren't a sign of more fourth-quarter trouble (Smith is shooting 28.6 percent from deep this season) then Paul's 32-foot triple with the shot clock winding down to pull the Clippers within three, 78-75, was. But Brooks responded with three free throws after a clumsy Paul shooting foul, and the Bulls played two transition opportunities perfectly on defense, resulting in a Luc Richard Mbah a Moute offensive foul and missed Paul layup with a chance to get within one possession in the final two minutes.

A rose floater off the glass pushed the lead to six, and the Bulls withstood yet another 3-pointer from Johnson, with Paul's triple attempt at the buzzer hitting off the back iron.

The Bulls' troubles weren't solved on a night when they shot 35 percent from the field and committed 11 turnovers. They also nearly lost a game in which their opponent shot 3-for-23 in a quarter and played without their All-NBA power forward the final 18 minutes. The Bulls again were outscored in the final stanza, 26-19.

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But for a night, numbers didn't matter to the Bulls. Another tally in the win column did.

"Here we are again, fighting for our life. And I think now what’s most important is to build on it, minimize those type of runs against us in critical times, especially down in the fourth quarter," Gasol said. "It was a must-win, otherwise we’d be talking here about four (losses) in a row and (it's) just not a good place to be."

It was a mask-less Rose that led the charge. Coming out of the locker room after halftime, Rose, who went scoreless on 0-for-3 shooting in the first half, forgot to put on the mask protecting his face after orbital surgery. Rose kept the mask off and scored 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting with a pair of assists. Gibson, making his second straight start, scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds, while Joakim Noah continued to show energy, making the most out of a grind-it-out game built for his style with 13 rebounds, two assists and a pair of blocks. Butler added 14 points and eight assists and didn't turn the ball over in 37 minutes.

Though the Bulls were two games out of the top spot in the East and less than one-third done with their regular season, Thursday felt like a must-win, as Gasol alluded to. And while questions will still arise about how the Bulls offense is responding to Hoiberg's philosophies, as well as rotation questions after another quiet night from Nikola Mirotic (five points and 11 rebounds in 14 minutes), for one night the Bulls flipped the script and busted out of a funk that had plagued them in each of their last three losses.

"We had to get this one. This was a huge game for us after losing three in a row, including a couple on our home floor," Hoiberg said. "We had to find a way to win a game. It wasn’t pretty, but we found a way to get the win."

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.