Bulls

Bulls: Rose, Butler rebound from ugly start, show their importance

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Bulls: Rose, Butler rebound from ugly start, show their importance

The worst nightmare and greatest feeling of optimism for the Bulls was on full display in Game 2 against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Consider the imagery.

Those long, drawn-out scoring droughts that can be deadly against the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Round 2 juxtaposed with Jimmy Butler catching fire in the fourth quarter and Derrick Rose recognizing it, making sure to be aggressive enough to have his presence felt but not domineering enough to take Butler out of his rhythm.

The delicate dance the backcourt will walk in this postseason will likely play the biggest part in their fortunes, as no matter how Rose looked in Game 1, Game 2 was a reminder he’s in his seventh game back from knee surgery — it just so happens to be in the high-pressure, no-excuses environment of the playoffs.

“When you’re missing shots, you have to do other things to help the team,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Whether it’s playing defense or making plays, I thought Derrick did that. He got lost in the game and started doing other things then found his offensive rhythm.”

[SHOP: Buy a short-sleeve Derrick Rose jersey]

The duo combined for 36 of the Bulls’ 52 second-half points after a near-disastrous start — the kind they can’t afford to have from this point forward. Rose went scoreless in the first half, missing all seven of his shot attempts while Butler missed his first six 3-point attempts.

“First half, I was missing shots,” Rose said. “I was just trying to get everybody into the game. We went up one at halftime. The second half, it’s a different game. It’s kind of like the restart button where you forget about the first half and just go out and play.”

No one would ever accuse Rose of hesitating, so it was no surprise when he unexpectedly received a kickout pass from Mike Dunleavy, he looked down before stepping back to launch a triple — where finally he and the ball were on the same accord.

A few possessions later, the crevices of a ridiculously tough Bucks defense provided just enough sunlight for Rose to slide through and get a lefty layup to fall, right before he tossed a crosscourt lob pass to Butler for a layup that signaled the Bulls finally finding their offensive rhythm.

For Butler, it didn’t take much for him to catch the feeling Rose had in the third quarter of Game 1 — having the ball on a string, the game in your hands and knowing no one can truly stop you on a given night.

[MORE: Butler's 31-point performance sends Bulls to 2-0 series lead over Bucks]

“I think I took a lot of bad shots that happened to go in,” said Butler, who shot 10 for 19 from the field for a game-high 31 points and nine rebounds.

But Butler’s emergence is the strongest reminder that Rose doesn’t have to do it all by himself anymore, which he certainly has appeared to recognize given his strong floor game. Rose’s nine assists were his 11th playoff game with nine or more, and he didn’t turn the ball over at all in the second half.

“He definitely makes it a lot easier,” Butler said. “When he’s on the floor, people pay attention to him a lot more than they do me. So all I have to do is step up and make my shots.”

Rose’s jumper with less than a minute remaining complemented Butler’s fourth-quarter explosion where Butler scored 14, and quietly, is averaging 28 points on 55 percent shooting in the first two games this series.

“Huge. Huge. It’s always a plus when you got a guy that talented and confident in his game,” said Rose of Butler. “We’ve seen him put the work in. And he’s actually out there showing that it’s paying off. If anything, it pushes us as a team to work on our game individually and with everyone doing that, it gives us a good chance to win.”

The Bulls still shot just 37 percent in the second half, but Rose and Butler combined to go 11-for-18 — meaning their teammates hit just five of their 25 attempts after halftime.

“We’re playing the game the right way, and that will get guys their shots,” Butler said. “Any night someone can score 30. All I have to do is step up and make my shots.”

It’s a reminder they need to play more to develop more continuity, because they’ll need it sooner rather than later.

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.”