Bulls

Bulls hang on for win over Rockets, stay alive in playoff race

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Bulls hang on for win over Rockets, stay alive in playoff race

After a huge fourth quarter turned a nine-point deficit into an eight-point lead, somehow the Bulls appeared to be on the verge of another collapse.

But thankfully for the desperate Bulls, clawing to stay in the race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Trevor Ariza's attempt at a game-tying buzzer-beating 3-pointer bounced off the rim, and the Bulls ran out of Houston with a 103-100 win on Thursday night.

The score was knotted at 52 at halftime, Nikola Mirotic scoring 21 first-half points as the Bulls went 7-for-16 from behind the 3-point line.

But the third quarter belonged to the Rockets, who scored nine straight after halftime and used a 14-2 run to build a double-digit lead that sat at nine at the start of the fourth quarter, a lead only that small thanks to 13 third-quarter points from Jimmy Butler.

The Bulls chopped that lead down to next to nothing, though, with the bench providing almost all the scoring. The Rockets were ahead by just a point after the Bulls' reserves scored seven unanswered. With about six and a half minutes to go, Doug McDermott's tip in gave the Bulls a one-point lead at 87-86.

The game was tied at 89, with Michael Beasley giving the Rockets the lead back on a layup with a little more than three minutes to play. Mirotic answered with a triple — his fifth of the game — to put the Bulls back in front, and Butler slammed home a dunk to grow the lead, only to be assessed a technical foul for hanging on the rim. E'Twaun Moore splashed home a 3, and the Bulls had a six-point lead with a minute and a half left thanks to an 8-0 run. That run extended to 10-0, making it an eight-point lead for the Bulls with under a minute to go.

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The Rockets refused to give up and in less than a minute chipped that lead all the way down to as little as two. It was three after Justin Holiday split a pair of free throws with nine seconds left, and Ariza got a wide-open look at a potential game-tying triple. But the shot was no good, and the Bulls clung to victory.

After a stellar performance from 3 in the first half, the Bulls were 4-for-8 from behind the arc in the second half and shot 48.1 percent from the field on the game as a whole, significantly better than the Rockets' 40-percent effort. The Rockets dominated the points in the paint category, outscoring the Bulls, 48-30, but the Bulls' bench outscored Rockets reserves, 67-31.

Mirotic led the way with 28 points, going 8-for-14 from the field and 5-for-10 from 3-point range, also hitting seven of eight free throws. Butler finished with 21 points, eight rebounds and six assists. McDermott scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds. Pau Gasol had 12 points but was just 6-for-14 from the field.

Derrick Rose, despite battling elbow soreness, made the start, but he exited the game briefly after the first quarter. He made a short return but did not appear after halftime, with the Bulls announcing he would sit out the remainder of the game with a left elbow contusion.

The win improved the Bulls' standing in the playoff picture, moving them just one game behind the Pacers, who lost Thursday, for the No. 8 seed in the East.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

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USA TODAY

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

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USA TODAY

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

Denzel Valentine’s troublesome left ankle is going to keep him on the sideline for at least the next two weeks. Fred Hoiberg said Saturday before the Bulls’ home opener against the Detroit Pistons that Valentine is suffering from a bone bruise in the ankle he sprained on the second day of training camp. Valentine will be evaluated in two weeks.

“It sucks because of all the work I put in this summer and being around the guys you want to be out there so bad,” he said. “Things happen for a reason, and now that we know what’s going on I at least have a time frame and be patient with it; it’s bad news but good news at the same time as it gives me time to get ready.”

Valentine had been practicing earlier in the week and appeared close to a return after spraining the ankle on Sept. 25. But the third year wing complained of discomfort in the ankle and missed practice on Friday. A scan of the left ankle revealed the bone bruise, and Hoiberg wouldn’t speculate on when exactly Valentine might return.

It’s the same ankle Valentine had surgery on in May 2017. Valentine also missed the last two weeks of last season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. The injury couldn’t come at a worse time for Valentine or the Bulls, who are in desparate need of help both in the backcourt and on the wing.

Though Valentine isn’t a true point guard, he averaged 3.2 assists per game off the bench last season. The Bulls could use that kind of production when Kris Dunn returns on Monday, as Cameron Payne and Ryan Arcidiacono haven’t exactly showed promise in the early going.

Instead, Valentine is on the mend and it’s unclear when he might return. Given he’s had surgery on the same ankle before, the Bulls will be cautious upon his return.

“I’m a fighter, I’m not going to quit; just deal with the hand dealt," Valentine said. "I can’t sit here and be negative, I just got to fight, stay mentally strong and this will be bittersweet when I come back and have a great year.”