Bulls

Bulls get what they want in matchup with LeBron, Cavaliers

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Bulls get what they want in matchup with LeBron, Cavaliers

 

MILWAUKEE—This is what Joakim Noah wanted, a trip to Cleveland.

It’s what the NBA likely wanted, and for once there will be no outside accusations of league manipulation in terms of making sure Bulls and Cavs happened.

The two teams who love to hate each other in the East, in a matchup that seemed preordained from the moment LeBron James announced he was taking his talents back to Ohio and reinforced once James the executive pulled off some roster-changing moves to ensure the Cavaliers would have a championship-ready roster moves, bringing in Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert via trade.

“You know what? I never thought I'd say this, but I'm very excited to go to Cleveland."

Of course that was Noah, who found his game at the right time in Game 6 against the scrappy, pushy Milwaukee Bucks with 11 points and 10 rebounds, giving credit to assistant coach Ed Pinckney for the work they put in during the two days leading to Game 6.

[MORE: Bulls storm into matchup with Cavaliers with laugher in Milwaukee]

By the time halftime rolled around in Milwaukee, you can bet the Bulls’ thoughts shifted to Cleveland and the inevitability of said matchup. They can drop the niceties about not thinking about the Cavaliers, and focusing solely on the team in front of them.

After Game 6, they sounded like they had a full scouting report on their rivals, starting with the absence of Kevin Love—whose shoulder injury will cause him to miss the entire series, leading many to believe the Bulls and Cavaliers are now even, despite the Bulls’ struggles with the Bucks in round one.

“It's a little different when you take the range shooting 4 out,” Derrick Rose said. “You don't know what they're gonna do or what sets they're gonna (run) or strategy they're gonna have. It's gonna take going up there and playing them. When you don't have a player like Kevin Love, it's something to worry about a little bit.”

After two shaky games and a shaky finish to Game 4 where he let Jerryd Bayless sneak behind him for a game-winning layup, Rose is back staring down that old nemesis who always seems to be in his way in James.

[WATCH: Antetokounmpo tackles Dunleavy, gets tossed from Game 6]

James is the main reason the Bulls can’t play the “we took them too lightly” card that seemed to be within reach during their slip-ups against the Bucks. When a man puts you out of the playoffs seemingly every other year, you can’t forget him, you can’t avoid him.

James averaged 28.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists in four games against the Bulls this season, so whatever slippage people think exists with James in his 12th season, it doesn’t show on the stat sheet.

“Just make it hard on him. I'm not gonna sit here and say we have the game plan to stop him,” Rose said. “But he's gonna bring it. He's gonna play hard. He's won championships so you gotta give it to him. He's a hell of a player. So when we play against him, we just gotta make it tough. Nothing easy for him, make sure he sees bodies.”

They’ll need Rose and Jimmy Butler at their best and most efficient, and one wonders if it’s too much to ask those two to be superstars every night against James and Kyrie Irving—especially with the damning evidence the Bulls presented in terms of inconsistent performances against the Bucks.

“We know they're a great team. We're gonna have to play very well for 48 minutes,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We're gonna have to be ready from the start. They're well-rested, they've been sitting there.

“They have a lot of weapons, it's a lot more than LeBron and Kyrie. They play very well as a team, share the ball. They've got length at the rim, good competitors. We're gonna have to be ready.”

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

How sweet would it be for these Bulls to put away these Cavaliers? The players won’t say, but the eyes of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, two players who’ve had to endure James sending them away for the summer three times before, can’t lie.

Gibson wants to make sure every possible thing that can work in the Bulls’ favor will, starting with the famous “limit the distractions” speech.

“Every game is different; especially in the playoffs everybody adjusts; like Thibs said everybody has to sacrifice, focus on doing the right thing." Like Derrick said, "put away the poison. Take away everything your friends, your family, the girls, you have to put all that stuff away and focus on the team.”

As they say all the time, no excuses, because they’re showing up at the door of a bad man ready to send them back away with a bad feeling.

Let’s get it on.

Finding homes for Thad Young, Denzel Valentine if Bulls' season goes south

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USA Today

Finding homes for Thad Young, Denzel Valentine if Bulls' season goes south

The NBA’s Feb. 6 trade deadline is fast approaching, and the Bulls have decisions to make.

Their quandary isn’t an enviable one. With just over half of their games played, the Bulls have underwhelmed relative to preseason expectations in almost every phase. Yet, somehow, at 16-28, the playoffs are not yet an impossibility — even if the team’s current 1-17 record against teams with above-.500 records makes it seem so.

Thus, the Bulls aren’t likely headed for a big splash at the deadline. They simply aren’t yet competitive enough to risk parting with potentially valuable draft capital in pursuit of ‘one last piece’ to make a playoff push, but they’re also not quite out of it enough to sell off portions of their core, especially given how much the organization has recently invested in Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Coby White.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any movement at all. 

Based on how each of their seasons have played out so far, it’s fair to wonder about Thad Young and Denzel Valentine’s long-term fits with the Bulls. Young was brought in on a three year, $41 million deal in the offseason for his veteran leadership and two-way versatility, but through 43 games, he’s averaging the second-lowest minutes total of his career (22.3) and shooting more than eight points below his career field goal percentage (41.7%). Valentine started the year out of the rotation after missing all of 2018-19 with an ankle injury, then re-entered for about a month with Chandler Hutchison sidelined, but has logged three DNP-CDs in a row. He hasn’t played more than three minutes in a game since Jan. 2. 

To be clear: This is no Dewayne Dedmon scenario. Young and Valentine have remained professional through the ups and downs and no trade requests have been publicly filed (though Young has spoken about his desire for more playing time). But both also might benefit from a change of scenery and certainly have the potential to help a contender if the Bulls' season goes south.

The Clippers, as an example, have been repeatedly linked to Young, and a framework built around Moe Harkless makes as much sense as any hypothetical deal out there. Even with Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell in tow, recent reporting from Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report indicates the Clips might be on the hunt for a defensive-minded big to add to their rotation that wouldn’t sacrifice their offensive versatility. Understandable with the Lakers (with LeBron James and Anthony Davis), Nuggets (Nikola Jokic) and Jazz (Rudy Gobert) surrounding them atop the West.

(via TradeNBA)

If one or two second rounders, or a project like Jerome Robinson, in place of that first is more amicable, so be it. Harkless is a tough, switchable, solid-rebounding wing that would help the Bulls on both ends of the floor — especially if the team continues its recent endeavor into small-ball. Plus, he’s on an expiring deal. 

The two guaranteed years remaining on Young’s current contract might be a hurdle for the Bulls to clear, but if the playoff dreams melt away, it could ratchet up the motivation to move him for both sides. Young has been inconsistent this season, but perhaps a jolt of energy in a winning situation with more talent around him would be just what the doctor ordered. He certainly profiles as exactly what the Clippers could be reportedly seeking in a deal.

The Nuggets, Celtics and Miami Heat could make sense as candidates for Young’s services, too, all being contenders with need on the interior. But marrying salaries and value becomes tricky with them.

Valentine’s value league-wide is tougher to gauge, given his sporadic playing time with the Bulls. But with him set to enter restricted free agency this summer, it would behoove the Bulls to avoid potentially losing him — a former lottery pick — for nothing if his days of consistent playing time are done. 

Teams short bench scoring such as the Rockets or 76ers make a modicum of sense, and Valentines $3.3 million salary is simple enough to match:

(The Rockets could absorb Valentine’s salary using a trade exception created when they traded Brandon Knight to the Cavaliers last February)

Bring back Tyson Chandler! The second round pick would be the real haul, but if this move was made in contingency with a Young deal, Chandler slides nicely into a mentoring role for Carter and Daniel Gafford.

Not the most exciting swap (Bolden and Milton are also projects), but perhaps the Sixers (35.3% from three as a team, 17th in NBA) could use Valentine’s shotmaking (39.2% from three this season) and playmaking off the bench. Philadelphia ranks 27th in the league in bench scoring, getting only 29 points per game from their reserves. The Rockets bench is dead last with 26 points per contest.

The Bulls have eight games remaining before the deadline, beginning with the Bucks tomorrow. Three of those are against winning teams (Bucks, Pacers, Raptors), with two others (Spurs, Nets) against technically sub-.500 squads with the ability to play above that level on a given night.

That stretch is sure to, once and for all, instruct us on what to expect from this season. If it’s an unfavorable one, transactions on the fringes of the roster may begin.

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Zach LaVine continues All-Star push with historic outing against Cavaliers

Zach LaVine continues All-Star push with historic outing against Cavaliers

Forget statement games, Zach LaVine is having a statement month. 

In 10 January games, the Bulls’ 6-foot-6 messiah is the fourth-leading scorer in the NBA, averaging 30.6 points on 50% shooting (22.8 attempts). 

To borrow a word from Jim Boylen, his latest installment — 42 points on 19-for-31 shooting in a game the Bulls clawed back from down 19 in the second half to topple the Cavaliers 118-116 — was “herculean.”

“If that's not an all-star performance I don't know what is,” Boylen said. “He’s been a monster, man. He’s been a monster.”

To LaVine, there isn’t much supernatural about these types of nights; he’s been preaching his confidence and readiness to carry this team since day one. LaVine scored 21 of his 42 points in the fourth quarter, and on a night he conceded his legs were a tad worn, he attempted only six 3-pointers, instead finding most of his offense in the midrange and at the rim.

“Make or break time, we're not gonna get back in the game by just playing nicely. So I'm gonna attack their body, try to make them make a call. Had some tough finishes, made some tough shots, but I take that upon myself,” LaVine said. 

“Just playing the right way,” he added of his recent torrid streak. “I expect to. I put the work in for it.”

But All-Star berths and widespread acclaim aren’t dolled out based on individual point totals, alone, regardless of how effortless LaVine’s prolificity looks at times. And LaVine knows that. Casting the 42 points aside, he also finished the night with a team-high six rebounds, five steals and three assists. He was all-encompassing. Michael Jordan is the only player in Bulls history to post a line with those minimums in a game.

His contributions to a tightly clamped Bulls defense in the fourth were note-worthy for a player that's often advertised his motivation to grow as a two-way, all-around player. And most importantly, the game ended in victory.

“He [LaVine] wants to win. And he knows in order to win you gotta do multiple things in this league and I feel like he did that tonight,” Kris Dunn said. “He was guarding today, scoring the ball, getting rebounds, getting guys involved. We need that from him.”

LaVine lauded the Bulls’ new-look closing lineup of he, Dunn, Tomas Satoransky, Chandler Hutchison and Lauri Markkanen. The Bulls ventured to switch pick-and-rolls with that lineup late, as opposed to their usual blitzing, and outscored the Cavaliers 31-14 in the final period while forcing 10 turnovers.

“We made a lot of defensive stops, we got in transition. Chandler [Hutchison] came in and made some really big plays. Kris Dunn on the defensive end was incredible,” LaVine said. “And that helped me even recently get in some passing lanes. We put it together in the fourth.”

Tonight marked LaVine’s third 40-point game of the season and tenth straight with more than 20. His 31 field goal attempts were a season-high, three more than he hoisted in his record smashing 49-point night in Charlotte. Night in, night out, the on-court production and responsibility acceptance is there. But behind the scenes, he’s ever-improving, as well.

“He's been talking in the huddles, he's been chattering, he's been locked in,” Boylen said. “He's bouncing back from maybe a poor moment or a bad stretch. He's bouncing back now, he's not playing backward at all. And that's what the great ones do.”

“I stepped into this year from the get-go using my voice more, and you know, I've never been a real vocal person but you know, when I say something I think my voice carries weight,” LaVine added.

LaVine isn’t getting ahead of himself. He called this win — however exhilarating — an “ugly” one and lamented the familiar lackluster play that dug the Bulls their 18-point halftime deficit to begin with. Miracle comebacks shouldn't be necessary to beat a now 12-30 Cavaliers team on their last game of a six-game road trip.

Still, the statements are piling up. If his overall outing wasn’t enough, LaVine offered another one to the United Center crowd after his final bucket of the evening, an and-one finish through Collin Sexton with 16 seconds remaining to put him over 40 points and the Bulls ahead by four.

What did he say?

“You want the explicit version or the PG-13?” LaVine said with a chuckle. “This my stuff.” 

Continuing to stuff stat sheets, as he has been, is going to make All-Star jurors’ lives that much more difficult.

Attention Dish and Sling customers! You have lost your Bulls games on NBC Sports Chicago. To switch providers, visit mysportschicago.com.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.