Bulls

Bulls lose Jimmy Butler, 18-point lead, game vs. Nuggets

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Bulls lose Jimmy Butler, 18-point lead, game vs. Nuggets

DENVER — They never make it easy for themselves, through their own actions or unfortunate circumstances, but the Bulls continue to be utterly confounding.

This time, they were joined by the scoring crew, which might have changed the entire complexion of the game with some questionable scorekeeping in the fourth quarter.

Every emotion was felt, as the Nuggets came back from an 18-point deficit to outscore the Bulls, 42-21, in the fourth, winning, 115-110, at the Pepsi Center.

That is, if the scorekeepers are to be believed, as they missed a Derrick Rose basket and later might have missed a Doug McDermott layup in the fourth when the Nuggets were charging.

“Not until the coaches got into it,” said Rose when asked if he knew about the discrepancy. “But this always happens to me or something, man. Always something. But it is what it is, and they fixed it.”

On the official scoresheet, it looks as if the score wasn’t fixed for Rose, but the league claims it went to the replay center in New York to correct the issue.

Rose scored 30 with nine rebounds and eight assists and McDermott scored 15 off the bench, but offense wasn’t the problem, no matter the score.

[MORE BULLS: Catch a replay of the game right here]

It doesn’t take second place to Jimmy Butler injuring his left knee late in the second quarter on a drive to the basket, but it added a layer of bizarre to a wild night. Butler scored 19 in 18 minutes before going down, adding to the lot of Bulls out with injury as Pau Gasol sat out with a sprained left hand and Cameron Bairstow started in his place.

Whether it was the lack of healthy bodies, or the Bulls’ continued inability to handle runs or small bursts of prosperity, the Nuggets took the game from the Bulls in the last 12 minutes — after a third quarter that saw the home team look dead to rights when the Bulls took an 18-point lead.

Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari scored 33, including an easy jumper over Tony Snell with 52 seconds left to give the Nuggets their first lead of the second half. The 16-point lead at the start of the fourth was down to four with 7:03 left, with the Nuggets hitting a barrage of triples — not unlike the Bulls’ performance from deep against the Kings two nights ago.

“They came out and got the momentum right away in the fourth, we let them back in with some confidence, a couple turnovers led to runouts, then they got some 3s,” Hoiberg said. “Then they got confident.”

And the Bulls, while not completely wilting with the pressure, made crucial mistakes when they could’ve turned the tide, capped off by Kenneth Faried outworking Taj Gibson for an offensive rebound and score after Emmanuel Mudiay missed the second of two free throws, with the Bulls trailing by two.

“They got the momentum, got the crowd into it and finished it,” Hoiberg said. “Then defensively we missed some assignments late that allowed them to seal it.”

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It was a role reversal from the third when the Bulls took control of the game and looked to be on their way to their second straight win, before old demons emerged from the closet.

“We did some really good things to get that lead,” Hoiberg said. “Guys went out in the third quarter and nobody really knowing what the prognosis was with Jimmy, and those guys went out and battled, got us the lead. We were in complete attack mode and completely took over the momentum of the game. I did see heads hanging, walking down the floor, lost the attack, lost what got us the lead.”

And when the Nuggets smelled blood, they kept attacking, with Gallinari and Will Barton providing the necessary energy.

“No defense and no communication,” Rose said. “They were pushing the ball and just playing the up-tempo pace of basketball, just trying to get back into the game, and we didn’t communicate the way we're supposed to.’’

Regardless of how long this will hurt on a weird road trip that just got weirder, the prevailing thought from all sides is, “What happened?”

Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

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USA TODAY

Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

In talking with Bulls' fans over the summer and reading posts on social media, it seems like expectations for the 2018-19 season are all over the board.

Some fans think the Bulls will finish at or slightly above the .500 mark and contend for a playoff spot, others are looking for more modest improvement with a win total in the low to mid 30's, while others believe Fred Hoiberg's team will be among the worst in the league.

Reality probably lies in the middle ground. Bulls' General Manager Gar Forman told us on media day the goals will be to win as many games as possible while still focusing on individual player development. The Bulls will again be among the NBA's youngest teams with 9 of their top 11 players under the age of 25. 

Bulls' Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson made it clear at the end of last year's 27-55 campaign that he couldn't endure another season of manipulating the roster and player rotations to improve draft lottery chances, while Hoiberg enters the 4th season of his 5 year contract needing to show improvement to keep his position as head coach. 

Clearly, no one in the front office or coaching staff is talking about tanking with the hopes of landing a top 3 pick in the 2019 draft. The Bulls will play to win this season, but they’ll also have to ride out the normal highs and lows of competing with such a young roster.

So, as a Bulls' fan, what should you be watching for this season to judge how much the team has improved? Here's what I'll be looking for:

1. Will Lauri Markkanen take the next step towards All-Star status?

Losing your best player on the 3rd day of training camp isn't the ideal way to start a season, but the good news is Markkanen should return from his elbow injury around Thanksgiving with plenty of time to re-establish himself as one of the league's rising stars. The 1st team All-Rookie selection put on needed bulk and muscle in the off-season to improve his low post game and he's ready to punish smaller defenders who switch on to him in pick and roll situations. Markkanen has all the tools to become a top 30 player in the league. The question is, how much closer will he come to reaching that status this season?

2. Is Zach LaVine all the way back?

Judging by what we saw during the preseason, LaVine appears to be ready to pick up where he left off during his 3rd year in Minnesota when he was averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting nearly 39% from 3 point range before an ACL injury set him back. LaVine should average 20 points a game or more this season, but how much he improves in other areas of his game (particularly on the defensive end), will be the key to whether the Bulls made the right decision in matching that 4 year, 78 million dollar offer sheet LaVine signed with the Sacramento Kings back in July. If LaVine reclaims his status as one of the league’s most promising wing players, the Bulls will have at least two foundation pieces in place. 

3. Can the backcourt pairing of LaVine and Kris Dunn succeed long term?

The Bulls' young guards didn't get a chance to play many minutes together last season because of LaVine's ACL rehab and Dunn's scary fall after making a breakaway dunk against Golden State. Both players are most comfortable with the ball in their hands, and both showed the ability to make big shots at the end of games. Dunn will need to sacrifice some of his offensive game to get the ball into the hands of the team's best shooters, but he's already one of the better defensive point guards in the league and looks like a potential leader on future Bulls' playoff squads. Developing better chemistry with LaVine is critical in year 2 of the rebuild.

4. Is Wendell Carter Jr. the answer at center?

The Bulls used the 7th pick in last June's draft to grab the 6'10" big man, who played in the considerable shadow of Marvin Bagley during their one season together at Duke. Carter Jr. showed enough during Summer League play and pre-season games to move into the starting line-up ahead of 10 year veteran Robin Lopez, but whether he's ready to stay there is another question. Carter Jr. is an excellent rim protector and also has the lateral quickness to switch out on to smaller perimeter players, but right now he's a reluctant shooter. Given the fact Carter Jr. is only 19, it will be fascinating to track how much he improves throughout his rookie season. Did the Bulls strike gold again with the #7 pick?

5. How does Jabari Parker fit?

More than a few eyebrows were raised around the league when the Bulls decided to sign the Chicago native to a 2 year, 40 million dollar free agent contract. Parker was expecting to move to the small forward spot, but returned to power forward when Markkanen was injured, and then moved to the bench when the coaching staff wasn't happy with how the starting line-up was playing early in the pre-season. Parker could be a valuable weapon as a big-time scorer and facilitator with the 2nd unit, but if he's unhappy with his role or playing time, this season could turn out to be an unhappy homecoming. How Parker adapts to the challenges of establishing his role will determine whether the Bulls exercise the team option on the 2nd year of his contract. 

6. Which other players will be part of the roster when the Bulls are a playoff team again?

Questions remain about a number of the team's young players. Bobby Portis has established himself as a legitimate NBA scorer and team leader; his improved 3 point shooting will be critical to the team's success, whether he starts or comes off the bench. But after failing to reach agreement on a contract extension by the Monday deadline, will Portis be chasing stats as he looks ahead to restricted free agency next summer? Denzel Valentine, Cameron Payne and rookie Chandler Hutchison will all have to make the most of limited minutes, with each player needing to prove to the coaching staff and front office they deserve to be in the rotation long term.

So, don't get caught up in the Bulls chasing some arbitrary win total number. Even though the Eastern Conference is weaker overall than the West, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Indiana, Milwaukee, Washington, Miami and Detroit all appear to be likely playoff teams, barring an injury to a key player. 

Hoiberg's offense will continue to emphasize pace, floor spacing and 3 point shooting which should bring out the best in a young and developing roster. 

2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition

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2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition

The theme of the 2018-19 NBA season will be: “old faces in new places”. Like a season-long game of the NBA on TNT crew’s “Who he play for?” game, this year will be about fans trying to get used to the idea of LeBron James in purple (I won’t call it ‘Forum Blue’)-and-gold, DeMarcus Cousins being on a championship-contending franchise and Kawhi Leonard being the new face of Toronto.

The Warriors are still the easy favorite to make it four NBA championships in five years, but they will be tested perhaps more than any year before in a loaded Western Conference, where even the lowliest of teams (here’s to you Phoenix and Memphis!) made solid offseason moves geared towards winning games.

Over in the now-LeBron-less East, there is hope amongst at least four-to-five teams that they could actually have a shot to win the conference. The Pacers still have budding superstar Victor Oladipo, the Sixers still have Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and the Raptors and Bucks made head coaching changes that could lead to deep playoff runs. But with the rest of the Eastern conference being stuck between lottery contention and middle of the pack, expect the half-experienced, half-youthful Celtics to takeover as East juggernaut.

But whether or not your favorite franchise is aiming for a high draft pick or a postseason berth, there is tons to be excited in a 2018-19 NBA season that will surely be an intriguing one. Check out Week 1 of our NBA Power Rankings right here.