Bulls get revenge, hold off Sixers for sixth straight win


Bulls get revenge, hold off Sixers for sixth straight win

PHILADELPHIAThe visitors locker room at the Wells Fargo Center nearly a month ago was a somber place following the Bulls 16-point defeat at the hands of the 76ers, but one constant in the players postgame comments was a collective vow to make up for the lackluster outing upon their next visit to the City of Brotherly Love.

On Sunday evening, the Bulls (31-8) made good on that promise, holding off the Sixers (22-16), 96-91, behind a masterful scoring performance from Derrick Rose and a dominant rebounding effort out of Joakim Noah for the teams sixth straight win.

I was just excited to play them again. I remember playing them here a little while ago and they got the best of us. Theyre a good team and I just couldnt wait to play them again, said Rose. We know this is a team that we could definitely see in the playoffs, knowing how good they are. This is fun. Just got to go out there, keep balling, playing together and playing defense.

I just tried to do whatever it takes to win that game, whether its passing, scoring, making plays, whatever and tonight was making shots, he continued. I know at the beginning of the game, thats definitely what I have to do with this team, lead by example. We let them score the ball a little bit too easy in the beginning and that kind of hurt us, but we fought our way back into the game and got the win.

With the Bulls feeling vengeful after being shellacked in South Philadelphia a month ago and the Sixers fully aware that was the case, the intensity at the games outset was already high, manifested in the form of a point-guard scoring duel between reigning league MVP Rose (35 points, tying a season-high, eight assists) and challenger Jrue Holiday (16 points), who attempted to match his foes array of successful jumpers and drives.

Holiday received supportmainly in the form of All-Star swingman Andre Iguodalas (14 points, six rebounds, six assists) playmaking and veteran Elton Brands (14 points, 13 rebounds, five assists) interior scoringbut couldnt keep pace with Roses relentless drives and accurate outside marksmanship.

The visitors also got help from the starting inside tandem of Joakim Noah (11 points, season-high 18 rebounds, four assists) and Carlos Boozer (13 points, seven rebounds)the latter was a strong complementary scorer, while the former was active on the boards, as is his trademarkand maintained a slight edge over their hosts by limiting fast-paced Philadelphias transition opportunities.

At the conclusion of the opening period, Chicago held a tenuous, 26-24 lead.

The Bulls reserves, known as the Bench Mob, is regarded as one of the leagues better second units, but perhaps the best bench group in the league is the Sixers backup quintet, which demonstrated their value by getting out on the fast break, playing frenetic defense and turning the tables on their guests to take the lead.

A surprising boost from rookie big man Nikola Vucevic (14 points, eight rebounds) led the charge and Philadelphia head coach Doug Collins mixed in his regulars, as well, to keep enough scoring on the floor.

While the Bulls received solid contributions from the likes of backups Ronnie Brewer and Omer Asik, but a rejuvenated Brand, the continued floor generalship of Holiday and Iguodala asserting himself more as a scorer allowed the home team to remain in control.

Theyre a good team, they know how to win games, they play well together, they dont just have one person on their team, they move the ball great. You never know with that team who can have a big night. It could be anybody on that team and thats makes them so dangerous, said Rose. We werent aggressive at all. They were getting anywhere with the ball, rebounding the ball. We didnt make them miss.

Added Thibodeau: The second quarter, I didnt like the way we played at all. They were into us pretty good, we were careless with the ball, I didnt like our shots, we were back on our heels.

The third quarter, I thought we came out a lot more aggressive. I didnt think we rebounded the ball well, so I was concerned about that, but I liked the way we fought in the second half.

With Thibodeaus preferred formula of low turnovers, rebounding, inside-out scoring, unselfish team play and stout defense ironically providing the blueprint for the opposing team, Chicago went into the intermission facing a 46-40 deficit, following Roses spectacular step-back dribble move and three-pointer at the halftime buzzer.

After the breakwithout the services of backup point guard C.J. Watson, who sprained his left ankle, though he returned in the fourth quarterthe Bulls managed to stay afloat and even mount a gradual comeback early in the third quarter.

Though the Sixers continued to beat them on the boards, with the exception of Noah, who was a force, behind Roses dominant scoring, the Bulls surged back to regain momentum, taking their first lead since early in the second period.

Derrick was great. They tried different things to try to stop, but he kept coming up big and making big plays, said Luol Deng. Jo was great, man. Jo plays with a lot of energy. Weve got a team where everybodys got a job to do and its such a deep team that some nights, we dont know who its going to be, but someones going to come up big somehow.

Praised Thibodeau: He was active, from the start of the game to the end of the game. His rebounding effort was terrific. He had a big tip-in late in the game, too. That was a big play.

Chicago didnt take complete control of the contest, which evolved into a back-and-forth affair, as Iguodala and Vucevic paced Philadelphia, but by fighting fire with firethe Bulls gave the Sixers a taste of their own medicine by pushing the tempoand clamping down on defense, they had become the aggressor.

The tight-knit theme of the quarter extended until the very end, when Rose hit his second consecutive buzzer-beater to end a periodthis time, a deep deuce off the dribbleto knot things up at 64 apiece heading into the final stanza.

Perhaps buoyed by the return of Watson and Deng starting to make an impact on offense, the Bulls went on a 7-2 run at the beginning of the fourth quarter to give them a slight cushion, prompting a Sixers timeout.

In the fourth, we made big shots and once we got the lead in the fourth, we did a good job of keeping the lead. Theyre a good team. They forced us into turnovers and getting some looks, said Deng. The difference between this year and last year or the previous year, weve just got guys who are mature now and know what it takes, especially in the fourth, to do little things to win.

Rose concurred: Its great, knowing that we didnt get distracted toward the end. We knew what we had to do. Guys stepped up, made big plays. Turned the ball over a little bit, but were going to learn from that and weve just got to keep growing as a team.

Thibodeau chimed in: We had a number of players step up for us. Our bench gave us quality play at the end of the third, start of the fourthC.J., Taj and Omerand we needed that. Derrick was terrific all game. Derrick and C.J. on the backcourt were very effective. Jo was huge on the boards and making plays.

The onslaught didnt end, however, as Rosepaired with Watson in a dual point-guard set, while Thibodeau went with the backup big man duo of Taj Gibson and Asik for defensive purposesturned it up yet another notch, torching the hosts futile defense, yet mixing in selfless playmaking, to aid the visitors in obtaining a double-digit winning margin.

But the Sixers didnt go away quietly, storming back to trim the deficit via the transition game, timely plays on the defensive end and scrappy work on the offensive glass, to once again limit the Bulls breathing room.

Theyre a hard-playing team, theyre a tough team, theyre well-coached, theyre tough to match up with and the thing is, our transition because we were scrambling around, we didnt protect the basket as well as we wanted to, but we hung around and I thought we showed a lot of toughness, said Thibodeau. Those things happen. They made a run and I thought we settled a little bit.

Just when it seemed as if the Bulls had sufficiently killed Philadelphias momentum, the hosts came back with another run, making it a one-possession contest as the game entered its stretch run.

Watson stepped up with some big shots in the clutch, but he was countered by his reserve counterpart, athletic Sixers forward Thaddeus Young (17 points, nine rebounds), who knocked down a jumper with less than two minutes to go, to make it a 91-89 contest, in favor of the Bulls.

The score remained the same until Rose drove and hit a tough runner with 20.2 seconds on the clock and although two missed free throws by Gibson kept the door open for a game-tying three-pointer in the waning seconds, the Bulls managed to survive after, fittingly, Noah corralled the carom.

They had been trapping me almost the whole second half and I saw that Thaddeus Young was kind of tired from trapping and I just attacked him, Rose explained of his shot, which effectively sealed the game. Anything it takes to win. Thats my game. I kind of hit crazy shots all the time, but it was a floater and I was able to get it off.

With Lottery positioning just about set, Bulls can focus on progress in final 2 months


With Lottery positioning just about set, Bulls can focus on progress in final 2 months

One year ago the Bulls came out of the All-Star break with a 20-37 record and in a dead heat for the top Lottery odds. When play resumed on Feb. 22, here’s what those standings looked like:

Phoenix – 18-41 – 0 GB
Atlanta – 18-41 – 0 GB
Dallas – 18-40 – 0.5 GB
Orlando – 18-39 – 1 GB
Sacramento – 18-39 – 1 GB
Brooklyn – 19-40 – 1 GB
Memphis – 18-38 – 1.5 GB
Chicago – 20-37 – 3 GB

Eight teams separated by just 3 games, with the difference in odds for the top pick being 25 percent (No. 1) and 2.8 percent (No. 8) and the difference for a top-3 pick being 64.3 percent (No. 1) and 9.9 percent (No. 8).

There was a whole lot at stake, and the Bulls made sure they positioned themselves as best they could to “improve” their positioning by the end of the season. It included playing Cristiano Felicio 24.2 minutes per game, including 27.9 in the final seven games, and Cameron Payne 23.3 minutes per game after not playing a single minute prior to the All-Star break thanks to foot surgery.

Kris Dunn played the first 11 games after the All-Star break but was then shut down with a turf toe injury, missing the final 14 games. Likewise, Zach LaVine also missed the final 14 games with knee soreness. Lauri Markkanen finished the season averaging 24.3 minutes in his final eight games, down from 30.4 before his back spasms.

It was a nightmare. It was tanking. It did nothing to move along the rebuild and, worst of all, the Bulls went 7-18 after the break and wound up tied with the Kings for the seventh best odds on Lottery Night. We all know how that went down, though the Bulls are plenty happy with Wendell Carter Jr. as a consolation prize.

This season it’s different. The Bulls come out of the All-Star break with a 14-44 record and sit comfortably with the fourth worst record in the NBA. Here’s what the standings look like:

Phoenix – 11-48 – 0 GB
New York – 11-47 – 0 GB
Cleveland – 12-46 – 0 GB
Chicago – 14-44 – 2 GB
Atlanta – 19-39 – 7 GB
Memphis – 23-36 – 10 GB

We can forget about the Bulls “catching” either the Suns or Knicks. Phoenix has lost a whopping 15 in a row and the Knicks had lost 18 in a row before catching lightning in a bottle and beating the Hawks before the break. Even if the Bulls lost out (they won’t), it’s tough to see the Suns or Knicks winning three games the rest of the way.

There’s Cleveland, which has actually shown some fight the last two weeks and won three games after a 1-18 stretch. But no team understands the power of holding the top pick quite like Cleveland, and you can bet the tank will be on in full effect over their final 24 games. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which the Cavs win two more games than the Bulls to finish the season.

And below the Bulls (or above them, depending on how you look at it), the Hawks are cruising. They’ve got bona fide pieces in Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter and Taurean Prince. They’ve gone a respectable 5-7 over their last 12 games and certainly won’t be five games worse than the Bulls over the final two months.

So what does that all mean? That the Bulls are pretty much locked in to the No. 4 slot in the Lottery order. For those at home, that’s a 12.5 percent chance at the top pick and a 48.1 percent chance at a top-4 pick.

And that’s a good thing! True, moving into the top-3 is still coveted as it gives you the best chance at the top pick. But the new odds have made that less of a bonus – last season the jump from No. 4 to No. 3 was a 3.7 percent jump (11.9 to 15.6 percent).

The Bulls don’t need to scoreboard watch in the final two months. They can roll out their best players and watch them grow. Markkanen is playing his best basketball and LaVine has picked up the slack for a struggling Kris Dunn.

Sean Kilpatrick and Noah Vonleh don’t need to hoist up shots knowing they’re not part of the future. The Bulls can see what they have in players like Wayne Selden, Chandler Hutchison and Shaq Harrison as potential options for next season.

The Bulls have a good problem at hand. It’s difficult to see them moving up or down in the Lottery standings, and they’re doing so in a year where it doesn’t matter as much. Even if they got red hot and somehow passed the Hawks, their odds would move from 12.5 percent to 10.5 percent. Nothing massive, and if they were to pass Atlanta it probably means LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen are doing something special.

These final games matter for the rebuild. The Bulls entered this current season with little knowledge of how their core (LaVine, Markkanen, Dunn) worked together. It’d be ideal to have Wendell Carter Jr. in the fold, but even without him they can still improve as a whole.

Throw in Otto Porter Jr. to the mix and the Bulls can get 24 games with little expectation of needing to win (or lose). It’s cliché, but developing a winning culture – or something resembling it – could help entering next season. The Bulls have said all year that they need to learn how to win, and they could get their chance in the final 2 months without it affecting any Lottery balls.

NBA Draft Big Board Check In: Romeo Langford nets near double double in IU loss

NBA Draft Big Board Check In: Romeo Langford nets near double double in IU loss

Mark Schanowski's Big Board 5.0 had some movement, particularly around the bottom half of the top 10. We take the time to go over some performances from throughout the week, including a prospect who dropped out of Schanowski's top 10 earlier in the season.

Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga (vs San Diego): 22 PTS (10/15 FG), 10 REB, 1 STL

Hachimura’s efficient double double came on Saturday against San Diego but we wanted to make sure we discussed he continued excellent play. Against the Toreros, Hachimura was an imposing force in the paint and finished the night shooting 66.6 percent from the field. But just as important, he was 1/3 on his shots outside the paint, which included a (missed) 3-point attempt. The fact that he has improved year-to-year as a jump shooter bodes very well for his NBA future.

At this stage of his development, Hachimura figures to be a nice pick-and-roll scorer based off of his quickness alone. If Hachimura’s defender is trying to hedge and then get back to him, it’s a near impossible task if the weakside defense is not helping early.

At 6-foot-8, Hachimura is a bit undersized for what seems like it would be his natural position at center. And if he plays power forward in the NBA, he will certainly need to improve his touch from outside and his ball-handling. Overall, Hachimura is an intriguing prospect but the lack of depth in this class makes it tough to peg exactly where he should go. But with a solid post game, tremendous finishing inside the paint, great rebounding and an explosive faceup game, he is more than worth a look inside the top-15 to 20 picks.

Romeo Langford, Indiana (vs Purdue): 14 PTS, 9 REB, 2 AST, 1 BLK, 1 STL, 9/10 FT line

Langford continued to flash all the things that make him both impressive and frustrating as a prospect on Tuesday night. His 14 points against rival Purdue came on only six shots, which was awesome to showcase just how efficient he can be as a scorer without needing to use up a ton of possessions.

His 10 free throw attempts were the sixth time this season that he has reached double-digit attempts from the charity stripe. Langford is as physical as they come as a wing prospect. He knows that opponents are playing him for the drive, but he still barrels into the chest of his defender, forcing the referees to make a call one way or the other. When you watch Langford play, it is easy to picture him getting to the free throw line a considerable amount at the NBA level. And on top of his clear ability to get to the free throw line, Langford has shown a tremendous step-back jump shot that could one day become a staple in his offensive game.

On the negative side, Langford--a solid perimeter shooting in college--shot 1 for 3 from the 3-point line on Tuesday. On the season, he is shooting a very concerning 26.5 percent from the shorter, college 3-point line. Langford’s free throw percentage is 71.8 percent, which would indicate that he has the ability to be a positive 3-point shooter at the NBA level, but isn’t a huge indicator of long-term success. So we will simply need to see more repetitions of Langford’s jumper to get a better handle of it. But as of now it seems that he will be a primarily midrange-focused shooter, at least in his NBA rookie season. But if he can’t develop that 3-point shot long-term, it definitely changes his ceiling as a prospect, even with improvements in his ball handling and elsewhere.

But when you are talking about a 19-year old with an NBA-ready frame, shot creation skills, strong defensive instincts and a team-first attitude, a lack of a projectable jumpshot does little to dissuade me from taking them somewhere in the bottom half of the top 10 at worst.

Keldon Johnson, Kentucky (vs Missouri): 5 PTS (1/6 FG), 6 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 3/3 FT

Keldon Johnson dropped out of Schanowski’s NBA Draft Big Board top-10 after version 3.0. He has done little to show that he deserves to be back in the top 10, but still seems like a player worthy of serious lottery consideration. On Tuesday, Johnson was third on the team in shot attempts, going 1/6 from the field (0/2 from 3-point range). Though, Mizzou’s guards shot the ball well, Johnson was great on help side defense, especially when it came to disrupting drives by getting his hand on the ball.

He plays within the team concept on offense, taking smart shots and picking his spots well. But when things get tight down the stretch, Johnson has not showcased the ability to go get an easy bucket in one-on-one situations. His passing is extremely underwhelming and he has yet to reach 5 assists in a game (NCAA career-high is 4 AST). Johnson only makes the simple skip pass right now and his lack of playmaking ability is a huge concern when coupled with his below average finishing at the rim.

If Johnson can’t string together great performances the rest of the season, a few big scoring nights against elite competition could do a lot to help his draft stock.

Johnson has shown that he can be a solid catch-and-shoot option on offense and a good defender in the right defensive scheme, which means that he definitely can be a good top-end starter in the NBA. But for Johnson to have a ceiling that is higher than “good NBA starter”, we will need to see more in terms of shot creation skills and finishing at the rim.