Bulls

Bulls' Jimmy Butler calling for better defense, including his own

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Bulls' Jimmy Butler calling for better defense, including his own

Neither a time to panic nor one to praise midway through the Bulls preseason, Jimmy Butler believes, as they have four games remaining before the curtain is up on the 2015-16 season 14 days from Tuesday.

They’ve certainly shown signs of growth offensively, the biggest thing Butler is impressed with as a whole, even though his own individual offense has been up and down. Scoring 115 points—as they did in Monday’s loss to the New Orleans Pelicans—is certainly enough to win most nights even in today’s offense-happy NBA.

But their defense, a staple in recent seasons, has taken a step back. Predictably it was bound to slip when a franchise replaces Tom Thibodeau with an offensive-minded coach like Fred Hoiberg, but Butler doesn’t care for the slippage.

“Everybody’s confident on offense that’s for sure,” Butler said. “Everybody knows their strengths and they go to it. We share the ball extremely well. We rebound extremely well. The only thing we lay down on defense at times and we recklessly foul.”

Fouling the Pelicans to the tune of 37 free-throw attempts is prime for the preseason, when everybody down to the clock operators is still getting adjusted.

[MORE: Bulls blow 20-point lead in preseason loss to Pelicans]

“We can always play better to tell you the truth,” Butler said. “We rely too much on our offense than our defense. That can’t happen. It’s preseason, everybody’s learning. It’s all very new to us. That’s what practice is for.”

Asked to grade his own defense—a previous staple he vowed to return to this season—he believes there’s room for improvement, much like this Bulls team as a whole.

“Ehh, it’s alright. It’s not good. I’m not gonna say it’s bad by any means,” he said. “I have to start on that end. I have to let my defense lead to offense. We’ll pick that up on Wednesday.”

When it was suggested a “C” or “C-minus”, he wouldn’t wade into those waters:

“I was never a grade school teacher so I can’t give you pluses or minuses, but it’s ‘aiight’. You give me the grade.”

It looked as if the Bulls get into a comfort zone when scoring becomes too easy, and Butler didn’t wholeheartedly disagree.

“Maybe but I don’t think that’s the thing,” Butler said. “I think whenever we’re scoring the ball well in the first half, we think we’re gonna continue to make shots and we don’t have to guard. It happens. We take that foot off that pedal and stop guarding. Then we’re not making shots, still not guarding, they’re making shots, still not guarding and before you know it, they got the lead.”

[RELATED: Until Butler and Rose succeed together, speculation will always loom]

After a stellar start to the preseason, a 23-point, six-assist showing against the Milwaukee Bucks, Butler is shooting just 18 percent in the three games since. After a 2-for-13 game Monday, he was respectfully dismissive about the notion of being concerned with his own offense.

“Not at all. Continue to take the right shots. It’ll turn around, it happens all the time,” Butler said. “(It’ll) Probably happen during the regular season, to tell you the truth. I know I put in the work, taking the right shots. Keep getting to the paint. More than anything, Continue to make the right play. With the offense we have it’s so spread we have a lot of space. I’m not worried about scoring the ball at all.”

With the only real dud coming in Boulder, Colo. against the Denver Nuggets, he’s more encouraged than discouraged, especially with the number of players being out has limited getting a jump start on their continuity.

“Hell yeah. I like the way we’re moving,” he said. “Let’s just get this defense under way and figure out how to do that. Before you know it, we’ll be winning these preseason games.”

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

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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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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.”