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Bulls' 'frustrating' inconsistencies continue with win over Cavs

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Bulls' 'frustrating' inconsistencies continue with win over Cavs

The Bulls were home underdogs on Saturday night, one loss away from being eliminated from playoff contention. Standing in their way was a surging LeBron James and a Cleveland Cavaliers team that could have wrapped up home court advantage in the East with a victory. And yet, given their plethora of baffling losses in what's soon to be a lost season, the Bulls' 105-102 victory to stave off elimination didn't come as much of a surprise.

Instead, it marked yet another example of consistent inconsistency that has plagued the team during a season in which they've proved capable of competing against — and beating — the league's best teams. And it's the reason why one more loss — or Pacers win — will mean the Bulls missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Saturday's primetime matchup marked the 16th and final game this season against the teams with the NBA’s current six best records: Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Toronto and the Clippers. And including the Saturday's win, the Bulls went 11-5 in those contests, including 7-1 against the top two teams in their conference, Cleveland and Toronto.

"Yeah if you would have told me at the beginning of the year we’d be 7-1 against the top two seeds and be on the outside looking in I would have thought you were crazy," Hoiberg said after the game. "But it’s where we are."

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

To put that 11-5 record in perspective, the Bulls are the only of the 24 other teams to record a winning record against the NBA’s top six teams. And it isn’t close.

The only other team even hovering around .500 in those games is Houston, which went 8-11. The closest team to the Bulls in the East is Detroit, which went 5-9 against the Big Six. In fact, the teams currently seeded third through sixth in the East (Atlanta, Miami, Boston and Charlotte) went a combined 15-45, including Charlotte’s paltry 3-12 mark.

But that impressive record, which included a four-game sweep of Toronto, three wins over Cleveland, two against Oklahoma City, and home wins over San Antonio and Los Angeles, has been rendered irrelevant by the Bulls’ shortcomings against the league’s worst teams. Against those groups currently with the NBA's worst eight records, the Bulls have gone 12-7. A winning record can be misleading, as that number is the fewest wins by a team ranked in the top 10 in the East.

So, with two games remaining the Bulls’ season, their win percentage against the league’s six best teams (.687) is higher than it is against the league’s eight worst teams (.631).

You read that correctly.

[RELATED: Bulls stave off elimination with emotional win over LeBron James' Cavaliers]

Even if the Bulls win their final two games, at New Orleans and against Philadelphia, their win percentage against the bottom eight will be .667, still below.

And that's what Fred Hoiberg pointed to during his pregame comments Saturday as to what went wrong early in his first year at the helm.

By the end of November the Bulls were 10-5, third in the East and just two games behind the Cavaliers for the top spot in the East. Their December schedule included 11 of 15 home games, and seven games against teams at or below .500. But losses to Phoenix, New York and Brooklyn set them back. And, looking back, that quadruple-overtime loss to the Pistons wound up being a major blow to the Bulls’ playoff chances.

“And that’s costing us now,” Hoiberg said of the 8-7 December record. “Those early games may not seem like much at the time but you look where we are now, and there’s such a thin margin for error because we didn’t take care of business with some teams that we absolutely should beat.”

When the wheels fell off in mid-January — a five-week span in which the Bulls lost 14 of 19 games — they still remained in the playoff hunt, tied with the Hornets for seventh in the East on Feb. 19. They teetered around .500, remaining in the thick of the race, but the baffling performances continued.

[MORE: Fred Hoiberg plays 'Dumb and Dumber' clip for Bulls, laments early-season losses]

A 13-point loss in Orlando. A 21-point loss in Washington two days after beating the Raptors on the road. They recovered from that loss in the nation's capital with three straight home wins. But that streak was followed with what was, in retrospect, the beginning of the end, two straight losses to the Knicks. The Bulls have gone 4-7 since then and, as Hoiberg admitted, will "hope for a miracle" in the final week of the season.

It’s why Hoiberg disagreed that there was any sort of silver lining in the Bulls’ ability to compete against the league’s best this season. As they proved often this season, Saturday night included, flashes of greatness and team cohesiveness mean little when they’re countered with just as many no-shows. Hoiberg said the Bulls will need to improve their consistency in all areas next season. Until then, they'll have to reflect on what could have been playing meaningful games in April.

“It is frustrating because we’ve given away so many golden opportunities over the course of this year to put ourselves into a position where we’d be locked into a playoff position. Where we’d be making a decision on whether we rest a player going into the playoffs.

“But it is what it is. There’s nothing we can do about that now. But certainly a good learning lesson for us next year.”

Bulls announce substitute broadcasters for first five Neil Funk-less games

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USA TODAY

Bulls announce substitute broadcasters for first five Neil Funk-less games

If you haven't heard, Neil Funk is cutting 20 road games from his 2018-19 Bulls' play-by-play schedule.

Friday, the Bulls announced that Adam Amin, Andy Demetra and Kyle Draper will fill in for Funk for the first five of those games.

Amin, a play-by-play commentator for ESPN, will games on Oct. 22 against the Mavericks and Nov. 14 against the Celtics. He grew up in Addison, resides in Chicago and also does play-by-play for Bears preseason games.

Demetra is from Oak Brook and currently is the play-by-play broadcaster for Georgia Tech basketball and football. He will call games on Oct. 26 against the Hornets and Oct. 27 against the Hawks. He has previous play-by-play experience with the SEC Network, Pac-12 Network and Fox Sports South.

Draper will call the Bulls' Nov. 7 game against the Pelicans. He is the Celtics' pregame and postgame host for NBC Sports Boston and an occasional play-by-play annoucer and sideline reporter for the Celtics.

The Bulls said they will continue providing updates on substitute broadcasters as they are scheduled.

Pistons have the look of a playoff team in wide open East

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USA TODAY

Pistons have the look of a playoff team in wide open East

Finishing 9th in the Eastern Conference last season cost Stan Van Gundy his job as Pistons head coach and President of Basketball Operations. Van Gundy was replaced on the bench by 2017-18 Coach of the Year Dwane Casey, who was fired after the Raptors were swept by Cleveland in the conference semi-finals.

Casey’s job in Detroit is to find a way to develop the young players on the roster while getting the team to the playoffs. He has a pair of All-Star caliber players in the front court, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, along with highly-paid, erratic point guard Reggie Jackson.

Griffin has battled injuries in recent seasons, but Van Gundy decided to roll the dice at mid-season a year ago by trading Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley AND a 1st round pick to the Clippers for the former slam dunk champion in a desperate bid to save his job. The trade didn’t work out for Van Gundy, but it’s possible Griffin could enjoy a resurgence in Detroit this season.

The 29-year-old power forward scored 26 points, pulled down eight rebounds and dished out six assists in the Pistons’ 103-100 win over Brooklyn on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Drummond had a monster game with 24 points and 20 rebounds. As Bulls fans know all too well, Drummond has made the 20 rebound game commonplace when facing Fred Hoiberg’s squad in recent years.

As for Jackson, a severely sprained right ankle limited him to just 45 games last season, probably costing Detroit a chance to make the playoffs. The 8th year pro is lightning quick, with the ability to disrupt defenses by getting into the paint and challenging bigger defenders at the rim. Jackson scored 19 points in the season opener against Brooklyn, and he’ll be a problem for the Bulls Saturday night, especially if Kris Dunn is unavailable.

Casey is still trying to figure out how to use the rest of the roster Van Gundy built, with recent 1st round pick Henry Ellenson and former rotation player Jon Leuer getting DNP-CD’s against the Nets. Meanwhile, two other expected rotation players, small forward Stanley Johnson and swingman Reggie Bullock missed the opener because of injuries.

That left second year guard Luke Kennard and 2018 2nd round draft pick Bruce Brown as the other starters in game one, something that’s unlikely to continue once everyone’s healthy.

So, how do the Bulls even their record at 1-1 on Saturday? Here are my three keys:

1. Keep Drummond and Griffin off the offensive boards. This is much easier said than done. Drummond in particular is relentless going after missed shots, and his bulk will cause problems for 19 year old rookie Wendell Carter Jr. Hoiberg hinted at possible line-up changes on Friday morning, which could include starting veteran Robin Lopez at center to battle Drummond inside. Griffin has turned into more of a jump shooter now and doesn’t have the multiple jump capability that characterized his early seasons in the NBA, but he’s still a threat to create 2nd shot opportunities.

2. Close out on three-point shooters. Of all the defensive issues for the Bulls in Philadelphia on Thursday, losing touch with shooters in transition was probably the most troublesome. Robert Covington seemed to be open at the three-point line throughout the game, and Bulls players struggled to handle cross-match situations. Kennard had one of the best games of his rookie season against the Bulls, and Jackson, Ish Smith and Langston Galloway are all capable of heating up from long distance.

3. Attack Detroit’s interior defense. The Bulls were at their best offensively in the first quarter against Philadelphia when they drove to the basket to set up easy scoring chances. Zach LaVine was getting to the rim at will in scoring 15 of his 30 points in the opening 12 minutes, and his penetration also set up Bobby Portis for open looks from the three-point line. Hopefully, Dunn will return to stabilize the point guard position and give the Bulls' first unit another shot creator so they can sustain their pace and scoring potential over four quarters.

Saturday’s home opener is definitely winnable against a Detroit team still finding its way under a new coaching staff. Better effort and attention to detail on the defensive end along with a fast-paced, drive and kick offensive attack should make for an exciting opening night at the United Center.

Make sure to join Kendall Gill, Will Perdue, Kelly Crull and me for a special one hour edition of Bulls Pre-Game Live at 6 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago and the new My Teams app, followed by the play by play call with Neil Funk and Stacey King at 7 p.m. And, stay tuned after the final buzzer for reaction and analysis on an expanded edition of Bulls Postgame Live.