Bulls

Bulls grind out preseason-opening win against Pacers

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Bulls grind out preseason-opening win against Pacers

INDIANAPOLIS--It was if the Bulls and Pacers decided to use their preseason opener to resume the fierce battle they waged in April, when the two teams faced off in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. The play was physical, ragged and intense, Carlos Boozer struggled throughout the contest, Chicago's defense was dominant, the second unit gave the team a major boost and the Bulls methodically came back from a large deficit to eventually leave the unfriendly confines of Conseco Fieldhouse with a 95-86 victory Friday night.

"To me, your first game, you've got to establish who you are. What our identity is not going to be based on what happened last year. We have to re-establish who we are this year, so this is the first step," Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said afterwards. "There's a lot of things we've got to clean up, obviously.

"Defensively, I thought our defense was horrid in the first quarter and then the last three quarters, I thought it was better, but it's still not anywhere near where it needs to be. I thought we gave up a ton of second shots, so that has to be cleaned up," the reigning NBA Coach of the Year continued about his team, which committed turnovers on the evening. "I always say, 'You have to eliminate the ways in which you beat yourself,' and it starts with those turnovers."

Concurred Derrick Rose: "Turnovers. We can deal with missed shots; that's going to happen in the game. But turnovers, that's something that we've definitely got to change and that starts with me. A perfect game to me is no turnovers. I don't care about any other stat, other than turnovers."

A sloppy start, compounded by Rose (16 points, 10-of-10 from the free-throw line, six turnovers) picking up two fouls in the first two minutes of the contest, didn't bode well for the Bulls. Playing catch-up from the outset against the Central Division rival Pacers, a mix of unforced turnovers and untimely fouls didn't help the situation.

"The first five minutes of the game, I didn't like the tone at all, on either end," said Thibodeau. "It was real easy for them."

Although the Bulls faced a double-digit deficit, backup point guard C.J. Watson (15 points) was a bright spot, filling in for Rose with ten first-quarter points to keep the visitors afloat. However, the rugged inside presence of Pacers power forward Tyler Hansbrough and a strong overall team showing allowed the home team to take a 33-22 advantage into the second stanza.

After Watson picked up his own second foul late in the opening period, Thibodeau reinserted Rose, who mostly played orchestrator for his teammates, guiding them back into close contact with the Pacers behind stalwart defense from the reserve post duo of Taj Gibson (12 points, nine rebounds, two blocked shots) and Omer Asik. By the midway point of the quarter, the Bulls had knotted up the count at 37 apiece, following rookie Jimmy Butler (eight points, 3-for-3 from the field) hitting the third of his first three NBA shot attempts.

"I was nervous at first, but those guys told me to calm down and do what I've been doing for however many years and that's play basketball. They wanted me to be successful and they said I did all right," said the beaming NBA novice after the game.

"Everything about the game surprised me," he continued. "You can get away with stuff in college by being more athletic or your length. At this level, everybody can do everything, so it was definitely a learning experience out there.

"That first jumper, off the glass--I didn't call it, so I don't know--but after that, I think my nerves started to calm and after my first defensive trip, I was like, 'Maybe I do belong here.'"

His teammates and coaches took notice.

"He's great, man. He's a great addition to our team, with him being so young and understanding the game. He has a lot of confidence--quiet confidence--but when he's out there, he's always doing something good. He can defend, plays smart--especially to be a rookie--and I think he's going to be one of the pieces Coach is going to use a lot," said Rose.

Added Thibodeau: "And like all rookies, he did some things well, some things not so well, but overall, I was very pleased with what he did. He's worked very hard, he's studied hard, he's prepared himself well thus far and now he has to show he can do it over the course of the season, but I think he's got the right attitude and the right approach, and that's the first step."

Thibodeau was pleased, in general--after all, he's never completely satisfied--with how his reserves performed.

"The defense was great," Thibodeau observed. "That group the second unit gave us a good lift.

"I love our depth," he added, choosing his words carefully, so as to avoid a fine so early into the campaign. "It was interesting today because of course, Derrick had a couple calls that were tough calls, but it was good because it got C.J. into the game early and I thought he gave us a big lift. I think we all have a lot of confidence in his ability."

Chicago would seize its first lead of the game at 40-39 and with Luol Deng (16 points, six rebounds) having one of his quietly effective nights, the Bulls slowly built a small cushion against their hosts. Despite neither Boozer nor Rose--who did hit seven free throws--making a first-half field goal, the visitors, buoyed by a defense that held the Pacers to 2-of-23 shooting went into the intermission with a 52-47 advantage, after a Deng bucket in the waning moments of the period.

While the Bulls maintained their slim lead, the feisty Pacers continued to battle, keeping things close behind center Roy Hibbert's (14 points, seven rebounds) aggressive interior offense. Rose, however, started to find his offensive mojo--as both a scorer and a playmaker, and even on the offensive glass-but with active swingman Paul George (17 points, 10 rebounds) and other comrades providing high-energy plays, the contest evolved into a back-and-forth affair.

"I charged, traveled, like some high school turnovers, but I just know that comes with being excited," said Rose. "But I know my game is definitely going to come back to me, since I've been working so hard this summer.

"It feels good just being in the training room, just seeing guys excited about going out there playing, and the fans, seeing them come, cheer, boo against us, it doesn't matter. Just us being in this atmosphere is great," he continued. "I hope the fans like it. We were out there, really getting at it. A lot of tough plays, really diving for the ball, rebounding, a lot of intensity and it shows that both teams are trying to do something this year."

Boozer (seven points on 3-for-3 shooting, six rebounds, three turnovers) wasn't as appreciative of the rowdy Indianapolis crowd, many of whom targeted Bulls players--especially him--for verbal abuse.

"Some of them are funny, some of them are not so funny," he quipped. "I've got to knock the rust off, knock the cobwebs off and then, now we can start getting loose a little bit more.

"It seems like we've played them 20 times," he went on to say. "Doesn't it seem like we played them a lot over the last 12, 16 months? We're very familiar with them, to say the least.

Added Thibodeau: "I did like the way Boozer and Ronnie were playing off each other. I thought his floor game was very good. I thought he had some bunnies that he normally makes, that he didn't make. But some good, some bad. Just got to keep building."

The on-court action couldn't be described as crisp, but the Central Division rivals exhibited midseason effort, in terms of hustle, as if they were picking up from where they left off in their spring first-round playoff series, as the brand of "smash-mouth basketball" Pacers sideline skipper Frank Vogel--the league's youngest head coach, hired on a permanent basis in the offseason after ending the franchise's postseason drought as an interim coach--employs paid dividends. However, through three quarters of play, the Bulls held a tenuous 72-71 lead.

Gibson continued his consistent play, using his left-handed jump hook--a product of post move-intensive summer workouts--a mid-range jumper and solid awareness to provide the Bulls with a scoring presence, along with Watson resuming his first-half efforts. But the Bulls were mainly propelled by their defense, which led the league a season ago and looked to be top form--rebounding, contesting of shots, hustle plays and help-side defense were all at a high level--despite it only being the preseason opener, helping the Conseco Fieldhouse guests gain some separation from home-standing Indiana.

Joakim Noah (10 points, eight rebounds began to put his stamp on the contest's stretch run, with plenty of activity on both ends of the floor, particularly the backboards, while also playing his usual role as the team's formidable back line of defense. As the game wound down, the Bulls, equipped with a double-digit lead, would cruise to a hard-fought triumph, with a rematch looming Tuesday in Chicago.

"They're a good team, I'll say. There's no other way you can put it. They're a good team and when you play against good teams, sometimes the games aren't going to be that pretty," Rose explained. "We know each other--know the players, coaches--like the back of our hand. It's the same way with them. We make things tough on them sometimes, too."

Jabari Parker and Tyler Ulis shine at open run in Chicago

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USA TODAY

Jabari Parker and Tyler Ulis shine at open run in Chicago

Jabari Parker is looking forward to what will surely be an intriguing season for he and the Chicago Bulls.


Parker signed a two-year, $40 million contract, that essentially acts as a tryout for the Bulls. The second year of the contract is a team option, meaning should things not go well, the organization can cut ties with him. But after 183 career games with the Bucks over four seasons, it was clear that Parker was in need of a fresh start. In Chicago, he will slide in as the day one starting small forward, and is already paid like a player who is definitely appreciated by his organization.


But with all of the off the court stuff taken care of for now, Parker's main focus is getting in to the best shape of his life, as he prepares for a full season as a wing player. 


Part of Parker's preparation was a great pickup game in downtown Chicago organized by the Chicago Basketball Club.

 

For Bulls fans itching to get a look at Parker on the court, the video shows off some flashy passing ability, impressive handles and a flurry of pull-up jumpers from the 23-year old forward. He also finishes well in transition in the video, though that is to be taken with a grain of salt as Parker was easily the biggest player on the court. 


Other players in the pickup game included former Simeon teammate of Parker's, Kendrick Nunn; and NBA free agent and former Marion Catholic star Tyler Ulis (a possible Bulls target?). If Parker looks as dynamic against NBA competition as he did in the pickup game below, the Bulls are going to have one of the more valuable contracts in the league in 2020, and would be likely to lock up Parker to a long-term deal. 

Bulls need to develop a secondary playmaker

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USA TODAY

Bulls need to develop a secondary playmaker

These are the career points per 36 minutes numbers for the three players who figure to get majority of the field goal attempts on the 2018-19 Bulls:

Zach LaVine: 17.6 
Lauri Markkanen: 18.4 
Jabari Parker: 17.9

There is no debating that this current Bulls roster has multiple players who can flat-out put the ball in the basket. The the biggest questions come into play when you try to imagine how these players will keep each other involved, assuming they take the lion's share of the field goal attempts.

Kris Dunn finished just outside the top 10 in the league in assist percentage (33.3 percent), a higer mark than Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry or Stephen Curry. And though he is a talented passer, what this figure really shows is that the Bulls severely lack a secondary playmaker to take pressure off of Dunn to create shots for others.

Per Ben Falk's site Cleaning The Glass, Markkanen was not able to create for others with his offense, but shockingly, Parker and LaVine did an OK job in the play-making department, considering their reputation as shoot-first players.

Assist rate is a great way to see how much a player is distributing when they are on the floor. And usage rate is perhaps the best way to get an idea of how many possessions a player uses on offense. So naturally, assist to usage ratio is one of the best tools to use to assess a player's ability and willingness to create opportunities for others on offense. What the statistic boils down to is: how often did a player get an assist given how much they had the ball. 

Parker finished last season in the 67th percentile in assist to usage ratio, and LaVine finished in the 58th percentile. These numbers show that both players are capable passers and clearly have the potential to be great setup men.

This is crucial because Markkanen’s development will heavily depend on if he can expand his scoring repertoire, something that looks increasingly difficult with Parker and LaVine, who have averaged a combined 29.5 field goal attempts per 36 minutes for their careers. 

Many times throughout the offseason you likely heard about how the Bulls have many mouths to feed in the locker room. But this doesn’t pertain to just shots, ball-control will be a major concern as well. With incumbent point guard Kris Dunn still a relatively weak floor-spacer (32 percent from 3-point range last season), Fred Hoiberg will need to get creative with his rotations to keep the offense running efficiently. Backup point guard Cam Payne shot 38 percent from the 3-point line last season, and when inserting him into the game for Dunn, Parker would flourish as a point-forward (possibly) surrounded by four competent shooters. Parker could derail the Bulls offense because he is not an elite 3-point shooter, but that issue is mitigated when you put the ball in his hands to let him create.


Parker was fourth in the pecking order in Milwaukee last season, and so it comes as no surprise that his free throw attempts, points and field goal percentage dropped from his 2017 numbers. If you look at the 2017 season (Parker’s breakout season) you see that Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo pretty much split the No. 1 options duties on offense. They each took about 16 shots apiece and combined for 8.2 assists per game. This is a best case scenario for the Parker-LaVine wing duo. 


LaVine has the benefit of coming into the league as a point guard, and he has still retained the ability to make the right pass when it presents itself. And last season, he had an impressive turnover percentage that was just below 10 percent. However, the reason for this was that he averaged 4.34 seconds per touch, a very long time in an NBA possession, usually looking to score and nothing else. It’s easy to avoid turnovers when you aren’t looking to pass.


LaVine usually makes the obvious play if it is one pass away, but he does not move the ball around to prevent the offense from becoming stagnant.


Both LaVine and Parker will have their struggles on defense (understatement of the year), but much more important to their development is understanding that if you give the ball up on offense, it will find its way back to you. This is perhaps the only way a Bulls team that ranked 28th last season in offensive rating, can make a big enough leap in scoring efficiency to make their way back to the postseason.