Bulls

Bulls' inconsistent ways return in loss to Mavericks

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Bulls' inconsistent ways return in loss to Mavericks

Observations from the Bulls’ 118-111 loss to the Dallas Mavericks 

Execution, where are you?: The games are adding up where the late-game execution, or lack thereof, has been glaringly absent for a veteran Bulls’ team. The most shocking was a five-second call on an inbound play with 11 seconds left and the Bulls trying to tie the game with a 3-pointer. Whether it was a slow-developing play or the Mavericks jumped every conceivable option to leave Derrick Rose without a lane to pass, it falls on the ledger as another failure for all involved.

Rose had another jump-pass turnover, a no-no under traditional standards, with 59 seconds left and the Bulls trailing by two. It’s a habit the Bulls will have to live with considering it’s a staple for Rose, and he’s had varying degrees of success with it.

But the breakdowns for a team that’s been together for so long and a coach who’s been noted for offensive creativity leaves many to shake their heads in amazement.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Backup’s paradise: Perhaps the Bulls would’ve been better off playing against starter Deron Williams, who was out with a hamstring injury, as opposed to backup J.J. Barea burning the Bulls all night.

The generously-listed 6-foot guard made a career-high seven triples against the Bulls, giving them fits on the pick and roll with his herky-jerky play and ability to negotiate whatever coverages the Bulls threw his way, finishing with 26 points in 33 minutes.

The Mavericks kept the game plan simple for Barea, which was a heavy dose of pick and roll basketball. He only committed one turnover and had a team-high tying five assists as the Mavs went to three guards in the starting lineup, putting Barea alongside Raymond Felton and Wesley Matthews.

Resurgence: Before Rose’s jump-pass turnover, one could argue he played his most efficient game of the season, scoring 25 points with five rebounds and four assists.

One could also argue the official went from “four” to “five” seconds rather quickly on Rose’s inbound pass with 11 seconds left, but they will be attached to his name nonetheless.

In 37 minutes, though, Rose went to the basket under control and finished that way, not throwing up wild and awkward attempts at the basket that indicated he didn’t have leg strength, confidence or balance.

He took only one triple in his 20 shots, and although he didn’t get to the foul line, Rose has had four games that should be characterized as “positive” in the last six, with the two middle stinkers being against the Knicks and Nets—as one could attribute those performances to a hangover after the four-overtime affair against the Pistons a week before Christmas.

[MORE: Poise the word as Bulls pull out win over Thunder]

And let’s not forget Nikola Mirotic, who had his best game in over a month with 23 points, seven rebounds and three blocks. It was his first double-figure scoring game since Dec. 14 against the 76ers, which considering the opponent has a demerit attached.

Mirotic has improved defensively and is a good rebounder, but his bread and butter is his shooting, as he’s yet to put together any form of consistent stretch in that department this season.

Hitting four triples for the third time this season illustrates he’s capable of being a streak shooter but the numbers say the inconsistency is maddening. With Jimmy Butler struggling with his shot, they needed every bit of Mirotic’s production and his offense is no longer a luxury, if it ever was.

Bench disappearance: With Joakim Noah on the floor, the bench has been at times a game-changing unit. But without him anchoring things on both ends, it fell apart Saturday, and Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg had little patience for the group as a whole with their struggles.

Bobby Portis looked like…a rookie with four turnovers in 10 minutes and while Doug McDermott went 3-4, he’s again become a target for opposing offenses who want to take him out the game. Aaron Brooks missed six of his nine shots and Hoiberg kept Tony Snell on the bench for the entire night.

With a quick turnaround after Friday’s inspiring win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Christmas Day, an emotional letdown was predictable. But with the jumble of teams in the East not looking to have any separation, games and finishes like this will have to disappear if the Bulls want to sit in the top-four come playoff time.

Kris Dunn thinks Zach LaVine could be 'a good defender in this league'

Kris Dunn thinks Zach LaVine could be 'a good defender in this league'

We all know what Zach LaVine is capable of doing on the offensive side of things. But what about his defense?

It's no secret that LaVine has had his fair share of struggles on defense, but Kris Dunn thinks highly of his 23-year-old teammate and what his potential is at the other end.

"On the defensive end I just told him, 'You're as fast as me. You're more athletic than me. There's no way you shouldn't be a good defender in this league. You could be one of those guys who could be dynamic in the passing lanes because you're so athletic and fast.'" Dunn said of LaVine. "And personally, I like to score. If you get in a passing lane, that's a dunk for yourself and because you've got so much bounce that's when you get the crowd on their feet — maybe do a windmill, a 360, something.

"But I think he's been going a good job on the defensive end. It's not going to be easy. We all got to learn and I think we're all trying."

Improving his defense would obviously be a big step forward for LaVine (and the Bulls), and he knows it. 

“I think I had a lot better focus on the defensive end,” LaVine said when assessing his preseason. “I had some mistakes too, but I wanted to go out there and just really hone in on being more focused down there. I felt like I did OK with that. Still some areas I want to get better at, definitely off-the-ball I think I did a lot better than I had before.’’

LaVine and the Bulls travel to Philadelphia to face the 76ers on Thursday night in their season opener. You can watch Bulls Pre- and Postgame Live on NBC Sports Chicago before and after the game for highlights and analysis.

3 keys for Bulls in season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers

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USA TODAY

3 keys for Bulls in season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers

1. Provide help defense on Joel Embiid early and often. Embiid's high usage rate means going to score regardless, and has even added moves like a step-back jumper that he can go to comfortably from 15-feet. But if you make him see multiple defenders and force him to be unsettled, you can harass him into poor shooting nights like Boston did (Embiid shot 9-for-21 on Tuesday night). There were plays where as soon as Embiid took one or two dribbles, a help defender—even a guard—was flying in to go for block shot opportunities.

Wendell Carter Jr. earned the starting center job with his ahead-of-his-age defensive IQ, but no matter how ahead of the curve he is, stopping Embiid will take a group effort. He can become enamored with the 3-point shot, so the Bulls will have to work together to coax Embiid into taking poor shot attempts. Boston did a great job of denying him deep post position om Tuesday night, cutting off the Sixers' easiest source of offensive production.

Wendell Carter Jr. will get his first big defensive test on Thursday night, as he will have to use his lower body strength to prevent Embiid's low post dominance. We have seen Carter struggle with bigger low post scorers in the preseason, and if the Bulls don't provide help fast, Carter will be in trouble.

If Carter does what many rookies do, and tries to use his hands to stop Embiid from gaining ground, the referees will call a foul quickly, especially since he is a rookie learning the ropes. Helpside defense will be the difference in this game for the Bulls.

2. Get back quickly and build a wall on transition defense. Below is the combined shot chart of Embiid and Ben Simmons from Tuesday night against the Celtics. Notice where the attempts are mostly concentrated. 

Ben Simmons and Embiid like to put pressure on the opposing defense by putting pressure on the front of the basket, and with good reason. They are both dominant finishers in the paint and questionable outside shooters.

In 207-18 Embiid shot 57 percent when 0-3 feet from the basket, Simmons shot a staggering 83 percent in the 0-3 foot range, which is even more impressive when you consider that defenses are gameplanning for his drives. We all know that Simmons will likely never be an even average 3-point shooter, and Embiid shot a dreadful 25 percent from the 3-point line last season despite a career-high 214 attempts. But the above the break 3-point shot is a major part of the Philadelphia offense, with Embiid shooting a much better 30.4 percent on above the break 3-pointers. 

Chicago would be wise to let the Sixers get these shots. 

In transition Simmons (or Markelle Fultz) will run the break with Embiid trailing directly behind them, either looking for a straight-line drive to the basket or an above the break 3-pointer after their forward momentum has been stopped. 

If the Bulls can summon the words of former Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy and form a wall around the restricted area, they can wall off aggressive drives from the Sixers young, dynamic duo. The Bulls need to force this game to be about turnovers and free throw makes, areas in which the Sixers have struggled last season (dead-last in the league in turnovers and 23rd in FT percentage).

3. Force the defense to move side-to-side. Philadelphia had a top-five defensive rating last season, and a big reason for that was that while the Sixers would often switch one through four, they wouldn't switch the five, meaning Embiid was often dropping back on pick-and-roll D and stationing himself near the basket. Staying as close as possibe to the rim is obviously beneficial to Embiid, who has averaged 2 blocks per game for his career. But when you get Philly's aggressive defense to shift, they try to jump passing lanes to ignite their fastbreak, which can lead to plays like this:

The above play contains the exact type of ball-movement and cutting principles that Fred Hoiberg has stressed throughout the preseason.

Zach LaVine is the type of quick, explosive guard that the Sixers can have trouble containing with their personnel, more so that they are depending on Fultz so much. But if the Bulls get bogged down into a bunch of one-on-one play, it will allow Embiid to sit back and be a huge deterrent at the rim.

Carter's ability to stretch the floor—along with Bobby Portis' shooting—should be enough of a threat to keep Embiid occupied, but if not he will not respect their shots, and simply clog up driving lanes.

Handoff plays contained some of Carter's best moments this preseason, so we should expect to see Hoiberg call for lots of plays that get a Bulls guard or wing attacking a backpedaling big.