Bulls

Bulls need to play 'perfect game' or Warriors 'could tear us apart'

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Bulls need to play 'perfect game' or Warriors 'could tear us apart'

It's just one of 82 regular season home games. Win by 20 or lose by 50, they'll still be at least seven games over .500 and in the top four in the Eastern Conference. By season's end Wednesday night's game will be a blip on the radar of a long, up-and-down season they hope ends on a high note.

All those statements are true of the Bulls' matchup against the defending champion Golden State Warriors tonight at the United Center. But even some of their most veteran players, ever cautious not to get caught up in the moment, understand the importance of tonight's game.

"It’s the hottest team in the NBA, team with the best record, so yeah it does feel a little different because of the challenge they present," said veteran Pau Gasol. "We’re going to have to play our best basketball in order to be able to have an opportunity to win tonight."

[MORE BULLS: Bulls prepare for daunting task against champion Warriors]

Such is life for every opponent facing the Warriors, who at 38-4 are on pace to break the 1996 Bulls' 72-10 record and are the favorites to repeat as NBA champions. But beyond what reigning MVP Stephen Curry and the run-and-gun Warriors may accomplish by June, they're a matchup nightmare on both ends of the floor and tout not only the most lethal starting unit in the league, but also a bench that rarely skips a beat when called upon.

Led by Curry's league-leading 30.0 points per game - despite him averaging 33.9 minutes per game, 33rd most in the NBA thanks to the Warriors' copious blowouts - the Warriors rank first in the NBA in offensive efficiency (112.4), effective field goal percentage (56.0%), assists per game (28.7) and made 3-pointers per game (12.8). Stretch forward Draymond Green has become a legitimate MVP candidate, a five-category contributor who leads the NBA with eight triple-doubles, and Klay Thompson is averaging career-bests in field goal percentage and 3-pointers per game.

They showed signs of mortality last week, losing games to the Denver Nuggets and Detroit Pistons, the latter by 25 points. But they responded with arguably their most impressive win of the year - which says a lot considering they've already got 38 of them - handing LeBron James his worst home loss in a 43-point drubbing of the Cavaliers in Cleveland.

[LIVE STREAM: Bulls-Warriors pregame warm-ups at 4:30 p.m.]

"They present a very difficult matchup," Gasol added. "They move extremely well without the basketball, they have great shooting on the floor, they spread the floor really well with Steph being such a threat from anywhere on the floor he creates attention. He allows Draymond to make plays for himself and others and so they have great balance overall. They’re a tough matchup."

Working in the Bulls' favor, aside from playing at home where they're 16-7, is that they played the Warriors close in Oracle Arena back in November, falling 106-94 without point guard Derrick Rose. The Bulls led that game with less than 9 minutes to play and were within a single possession inside 2 minutes before the Warriors closed on a 12-3 run.

Also, the Bulls have played their best basketball against some of the league's best competition. Though they've got a handful of inexplicable losses, their impressive resume of wins includes victories over Oklahoma City (twice), Cleveland and San Antonio. Of the teams with the six best records in the NBA - the Bulls have the seventh at 24-16 - they've beaten time of them a total of six times, with the Warriors being their only miss.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

The Bulls have lost four of six but enter Wednesday night games with some confidence, having knocked off the Pistons on the road Monday afternoon. A loss certainly wouldn't be a sign of a team falling off, while a win would signal once again that the Bulls have the talent to compete with any team in the NBA. In order to do that, the defense that has faltered the last few weeks will need to step up in a big way against a Warriors offense that can rattle off points in a hurry and won't slow up, like they did Monday night when they scored 132 points on the Cavaliers.

"We have to have pretty much a perfect game from beginning to end, top to bottom," Gasol admitted. It’s going to come down to us being the more aggressive team tonight and if we can do that and get into them defensively, make it uncomfortable for them, make them take tougher shots than usual, rebounding the ball, not giving them second opportunities, kind of taking control of the game, which is a tough test, we’ll have a better chance and a good chance to win.

"If we allow them to play their game, to be comfortable out there, to take any shot they want with the shooters they’ve got out there, they could tear us apart."

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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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.