Bulls

Bulls go punchless against Knicks

Bulls go punchless against Knicks

NEW YORK — Explaining a rhyme or reason to the Bulls season is like figuring out what the Knicks’ plan is for the long-term, or playing trivia on where players like Maurice Ndour and Mindaugas Kuzminskas went to school.

But those were the players taking the Bulls to school, when the Bulls were the ones who apparently had something to play for, when they came in on a season-high four game winning streak.

Like most other times when the Bulls had quick highs, the lows came hard and fast as the New York Knicks completed a season sweep of the Bulls with a 100-91 win at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night.

In position to actually come within a game of the Milwaukee Bucks for fifth seed in the East, they played like they’d rather be in Bora Bora come April 13 with a woeful performance that seemingly stretched all night.

They broke trends they established during the win streak such as 3-point shooting and dominating the glass, getting beat by a 53-36 margin on the boards and shooting six of 23 from the 3-point line.

The rebound disparity caused the usually-mild Fred Hoiberg to unleash an expletive in his postgame media session.

“Tonight we just got our asses kicked on the boards and you’re not going to win when you have an effort like that,” Hoiberg said. “Look at the numbers on the glass, that tells you everything you need to know. They had their way with us. It’s not how you win games.”

After trading baskets to start the game, the offense slowed to a crawl and the Bulls didn’t fall back on their defense to keep them in it.

“We gotta let our defense lead to our offense instead of our offense go to our defense,” said Jimmy Butler, who led the Bulls with 26 points and four assists. “It looks good when we’re making shots, but you can’t rely on that every single night like you want to. You gotta guard, rebound, get loose balls.”

The Bulls shot 38 percent, a number that was inflated by a late comeback that made the game look respectable—although they didn’t perform like a team that respected its opponent.

“We didn’t come out with the fire we needed to,” Butler said. “They came out like they were playing for something and we didn’t. They whipped our tail in every aspect of the game.”

Yes, Carmelo Anthony returned after an injury and contributed 18 points, including a highlight-reel crossover on Nikola Mirotic and triple from 30 feet, but it was more of the lesser-known Knicks who delivered the blows to the Bulls.

Like Kuzminskas, who probably gave Hoiberg a conniption on the sideline with his easy drive past Bobby Portis and dunk over Joffrey Lauvergne in the third quarter.

Like Ndour, who trapped and agitated and ran the floor to the tune of 12 points and 10 rebounds—only playing because the Knicks want to get an extended look of their young players, as playoff possibilities are far out of reach.

Or Justin Holiday, who took the place of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah as former Bulls who came back to torture their former teams. Holiday was only a Bull for a short time before being shipped with Rose to New York right before the draft but fit the bull of young and athletic, scoring 12 off the bench.

With the last four games against teams like the Knicks—out of the playoffs and giving players an opportunity to prove themselves, the Bulls can’t let their guard down if they hope to play beyond 82 games.

“The next three teams we play are gonna play as hard as any team in the league,” Hoiberg said. “They’re gonna play free, they’re gonna play loose. We gotta come prepared and we gotta come ready.”

And an old bugaboo reared its head again, as Robin Lopez pointed to a lack of accountability on the defensive end.

“It’s an accountability issue. We gotta stay on each other’s backs,” Lopez said. “Keep reminding each other how important each one of these individual games are.”

But given they’ve been at this exercise since October, expecting the light to magically appear doesn’t seem realistic.

“That’s a very good point. We’ve been up and down all season long and that’s when you want to build good habits,” Lopez said. “We’ve done a good job holding each other accountable this past stretch and we didn’t see that tonight. It’s something we have to keep up as we go into the playoffs—if we go into the playoffs.”

The second quarter was as bad a display of basketball as you’ll see, given the plight of the Knicks and the alleged newfound life that had been on display from the Bulls. Perhaps the fatigue played a part but if fatigue could talk, it would tell the Bulls not to use him as a scapegoat as they played their third game in four nights.

Butler even had his moments, although he tried to bring the Bulls back from the dead in the second half.  But Paul Zipser went scoreless and Rajon Rondo was a minus-21 when he was on the floor. Denzel Valentine went scoreless, missing his six shots.

Whenever you think you have a handle on these Bulls and they’ve found something, an old layer revealed itself and you feel silly for believing anything, one way or the other.

Take a deep breath: The injured, rebuilding Bulls are exactly where they’re supposed to be

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USA TODAY

Take a deep breath: The injured, rebuilding Bulls are exactly where they’re supposed to be

There wasn’t a snowball’s chance that Saturday night was going to be anything other than abysmal. Already shorthanded, the Bulls were without leading scorer Zach LaVine on the second night of a back-to-back facing the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors. Even without Kawhi Leonard and on its own tail end of a back-to-back, Toronto’s roster made the end result feel inevitable. And it was.

The Bulls offense was invisible without LaVine, tallying just 55 points through three quarters and finishing with 22 turnovers and 21 assists. They shot 35 percent from the field while the Raptors scored at will; the 122-83 loss was the fourth worst home loss in Bulls history, and the Raptors largest road win in their history. It was even uglier than the final score.

In a vacuum the Bulls are 4-13, the fourth worst record in the NBA, with the league’s third worst offense and seventh worst defense. The season is exactly one month old and the Bulls already have two four-game losing streaks, another three-game skid and only wins against four sub-.500 teams with a combined record of 16-45. Its best win came against a 7-8 Hornets team that was finishing a four-game-in-six-nights road trip. “Let’s go Raptors” chants breaking out at home while trailing by 38 is probably a new low in a season that’s quickly getting away from the Bulls.

"We have to find a way to stick together through this tough stretch that we've had, and we've got to find a way to build on the good things that we do and start to limit the bad stretches that we have, which are way too many right now," Hoiberg said. "Got to find a way."

It’s been ugly. But in context, the 4-13 Bulls are playing exactly like a team that a) is missing three of its top players, including its best, and b) is in Year 2 of a bare bones rebuild. The Bulls are one year removed from a 27-win season, the franchise’s worst in 14 years. They’re the youngest team in the NBA and on Saturday night played seven players with three years of NBA experience or less.

VP John Paxson told reporters after last season that the tanking Bulls “don’t ever want to be in this position again.” It was an uplifting quote at the time, a sign that Year 2 of the rebuild wouldn’t be as bumpy as Year 1. The reality was that, even when healthy, this rebuild is barely in the simmering stages of fully cooking.

Perhaps Paxson meant he didn’t want to be playing Cris Felicio 30 minutes a night and be actively benching healthy veterans (to the point that the NBA stepped in). But it certainly didn’t mean more wins than losses. Trying to win is different than expecting to win. Las Vegas projected a healthy Bulls team to win 28.5 games for a reason, even in a weak Eastern Conference.

The 2018-19 season’s most important goal was assessing five players: To that point, Zach LaVine is averaging 25 points per game and outplaying the contract some believed he didn’t deserve. Wendell Carter Jr. is on pace to be the first rookie since Joel Embiid to average 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. The other three – Markkanen, Dunn and Portis – are on the shelf and may not be fully up and running until late December or early January.

Only the Denver Nuggets have had more games missed to injury than the Bulls. Denver knew Isaiah Thomas would miss time when they signed him in July as he rehabbed from hip surgery and that rookie Michael Porter Jr. would miss time with a back injury. The Bulls’ four injuries were sprung on them after media day and training camp began.

The result is them changing lineups, rotations, responsibilities and roles on the absolute fly. Cameron Payne hadn’t played significant minutes in 10 days and had 4 points in 22 minutes as a starter on Saturday. Robin Lopez and Felicio remain in a coin flip each night for backup duties behind Carter.

The truth is it’s really not important from a long-term perspective, which is entirely what the Bulls are focused on. Maybe Justin Holiday plays well enough to be traded. That isn’t going to move the needle on the rebuild. Don’t focus on the micro during a macro rebuild.

Markkanen’s magical rookie season, Carter’s impressive start and LaVine hitting everything in sight seems to have increased team expectations. The reality is the roster is still far from competing, even when healthy. The core pieces appear to be there. They’re also 23, 21 and 19 years old.

Rebuilds take time.

The goals will change when Hoiberg’s coaching with a full deck. LaVine and Markkanen must develop a two-man game on the perimeter that punishes defense with a pick-your-poison effect. Dunn and Carter’s pick-and-roll progression will be something to watch, as will Dunn’s perimeter shooting. Bobby Portis is playing for millions of dollars, either on the open market or in Chicago.

The rest is fluff. They’re supposed to look bad right now. The roster wasn’t exactly built to withstand injuries to three major contributors. How many in the league are?

That’s not to say there haven’t been negatives. Jabari Parker has been a bust. There’s no denying the Bulls swung and missed on paying the Chicago native $20 million only to take low-percentage shots, jog back on defense and own up to very little of either. Cameron Payne had an opportunity to showcase his ability as a former Lottery pick and cement his status as the backup behind Dunn. It didn’t happen. Chandler Hutchison to this point has been underwhelming, but like the core pieces he should have a larger role when the calendar flips to 2019.

They’ll have another Lottery pick in a draft class that looks absolutely star-studded. Maybe it won’t be Zion Williamson. But after drafting Markkanen and Carter seventh overall in consecutive drafts, there’s optimism they can find another gem regardless of where they draft. They’ll also have a boatload of money in free agency. Maybe it won’t be Kevin Durant. But Chicago looks liked a much more desired destination than it did 12 months ago.

It certainly can be frustrating to watch given the future seems so far away. But this is what the front office signed up for. The time to evaluate the roster – and even Hoiberg – won’t come for another few months. If you’re truly upset with how the Bulls are playing down three of their top players, you’ve either wagered on them to win 29 games or are Jabari Parker’s agent.

For now, it’s about withstanding the lows and searching for the progression that ultimately will lead to the highs.  Take a deep breath, Bulls fans: the rebuild is where it’s supposed to be.

Lauri, Kris and Bobby are on his way to begin the next chapter.

Justin Holiday continues to string together solid efforts amid tough Bulls losses

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USA TODAY

Justin Holiday continues to string together solid efforts amid tough Bulls losses

The Bulls came out on fire against the Bucks, putting up 40 points in an explosive first quarter. Unfortunately they followed that up by scoring 41 points in the second half. But the offense of Jabari Parker and Justin Holiday was pretty much the only thing working for Chicago on Friday night.


Holiday’s effectiveness as an aggressive, dependable floor-spacer continues to showcase what makes him such a valuable NBA player. Unfortunately, that value has been mostly squandered on a Bulls team that lacks a diverse offensive attack.

Holiday contributed 9 points on 3-3 shooting from the 3-point line in the first quarter. He kept this momentum rolling in the second, and ended up not missing a single shot in the first half. Holiday ended the first half 6-6 from the 3-point line but went on to only score once more in the second half. He ended the game with 20 points, the second-leading scorer on the night for Chicago.


On a night where Zach LaVine was clearly gassed from the burden of carrying the offense all season (6-20 from the field), only Parker could provide a solid secondary option. Parker’s effectiveness also tapered off dramatically in the second half, as he stopped taking 3-pointers and didn’t get to the free throw line at all. Early season struggles were to be expected from Parker, as he is on a new team with a roster full of young players. But his shot selection is what has been so frustrating to watch. 

Results do not have to be immediate, but seeing as Parker is taking a greater percentage of his shots from long 2-point range than last season, it is clear he hasn’t fully bought in to the idea of getting all the way to the basket or shooting the 3-pointer without hesitation. And that is why players like Holiday—one of Hoiberg’s loyal soldiers from his first year as Bulls coach—are so crucial.

It is clear that Hoiberg’s preferred playing style has stuck with Holiday and hopefully, that it can rub off on the other players.

We have discussed before how his 3-point attempt rate (72 percent) is the perfect indicator of how often he is hunting the 3-point shot. But the problem is that this current Bulls roster needs more players who create 3-point looks for others, rather than knock them down.

Heading into Friday night’s game, Holiday had been assisted on 72 percent of his 2-point shots and 95 percent of his 3-point shots. This season, he has been assisted on 57 percent of his 2-point shots and 90 percent of his 3-point shots. This is an alarming sign for the Holiday, as he has never been a player known for creating his own shot and the decline in assisted baskets means he is being forced outside of his comfort zone on offense.

It is no coincidence that Holiday’s 3-point percentage in November (35 percent) is lower than his 3-point percentage in October (40 percent). He played 34 minutes per game in October before that number got increased to 37 minutes per game in November. Holiday has been in the top 10 in minutes all year and there is no end in sight for his tremendous minutes load with the Bulls being so thin on the wing.

The 2019 NBA offseason for Chicago will likely be about finding players they can comfortably play at the small forward spot. But Bulls fans should appreciate Holiday’s play while he’s here, as he has been one of the team’s more consistent players. Holiday has done a decent amount of leading by example—especially when it comes to playing the way Hoiberg wants to—and continues to show why he can continue to be a valuable piece on this Bulls team.