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.

What to watch for: Bulls face an uphill battle against Milwaukee Bucks

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USA Today

What to watch for: Bulls face an uphill battle against Milwaukee Bucks

On the heels of an epic comeback over the Cavaliers on Saturday, the Bulls visit the Bucks in search of a signature win. The game tips off at 4 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:

Bucks’ last five games: (5-0)

  • Jan. 18 — W at Nets: 117-97

  • Jan. 16 — W at Celtics: 128-123

  • Jan. 14 — W vs. Knicks: 128-102

  • Jan. 11 — W at Trail Blazers: 122-101

  • Jan. 10 — W at Kings: 127-106

Storyline(s) to watch

There’s a lot working against the Bulls in this one. On top of the Bucks being, far and away, the best team in the NBA so far this season (their current +12.6 point differential is almost two points better than the 2015-16 Warriors), they’re currently in the midst of a six-game win streak and own the league’s second-best home record at 20-2. These teams have met three times already this season, with the Bucks winning all three by an average margin of 14.7 points. The Bulls will be happy the fourth meeting is the last.

It’s another game against a winning team, famously the Bulls’ kryptonite. The comeback over Cleveland was great theater, but the Bucks represent the harshest of reality checks. In those aforementioned three matchups, Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 31.3 points, 12 rebounds and four assists while shooting 56.7%. As a team, the Bucks averaged 55 rebounds per games (to the Bulls' 46), blocked 6.3 shots per game and held the Bulls to a cumulative 39.4% shooting from the field in those three games.

On the flip side, pulling out a win, though unlikely, would be that much more of a confidence boost.

Player(s) to watch: The shooters

Antetokounmpo is unstoppable. The ever-looming threat of him getting rolling is the most pressing issue facing the Bulls today, especially without both of their top two centers. 

But the Bucks are truly devastating to match up with because of the shooting they’ve surrounded him with. As a team, Milwaukee attempts the fourth-most 3-pointers per game (38.8) and cans them at a 36% clip. That’s not mind-bending efficiency, but between *deep breath* George Hill (53.3% from deep, three attempts per game), Kyle Korver (42.6%, 3.9 attempts), Khris Middleton (41.5%, 5.2 attempts), Ersan Ilyasova (37%, 2.5 attempts), Wes Matthews (36%, 4.2 attempts), Eric Bledsoe (35.4%, 3.6 attempts) and others, they’re a threat to have at least one or more guys catch fire from deep every night. Even in a down shooting year, Brook Lopez (29.9%, 4.7 attempts) isn’t afraid to chuck, either, especially above the break.

The Bucks have made at least 10 3-pointers in all but three of their 44 games this season. The bright side? The Bulls are responsible for one of those and have outshot the Bucks from behind the arc in two of their three meet-ups — though, of course, none have resulted in wins. Without Wendell Carter Jr. and Daniel Gafford, here inlies an opponent that will seriously strain the Bulls’ blitzing screen-and-roll coverages if Jim Boylen decides to revert back to playing with two bigs after going small down the stretch against Cleveland on Saturday.

Matchup to watch: Zach LaVine vs. the Bucks defense

LaVine is the engine behind most every competent offensive stretch of basketball for the Bulls this season, but he's struggled versus Milwaukee, averaging just 18.3 points and 32.2% shooting in their previous three meetings. This season, the Bulls own a 99.8 offensive rating with LaVine off the floor (per Cleaning the Glass) and are 3-10 in games in which he scores under 20 points. LaVine's 31 20-point games are leagues more than the rest of his teammates have combined (20), as are his 14 30-point outings (Lauri Markkanen has two of those).

LaVine is on a rare kind of tear of late, but the Bucks are multiple steps up from the quality of opponent he has been eviscerating. With the unique amount of length and athleticism they'll be able to throw at him (as a team, the Bucks own a 101.4 defensive rating, first in the NBA), the Bulls will have to be creative in finding ways to get LaVine going. If they can't, it will likely spell doom.

Trend to watch: A return to small-ball?

Against the Cavaliers, Boylen rode a new-look lineup of Kris Dunn, LaVine, Tomas Satoransky, Chandler Hutchison and Markkanen down the stretch to enormous success. Boylen has stated that he wants everyone on this team to be interchangeable relative a consistent style of play, but the Bulls deviated from their norm and switched a ton of pick-and-roll in the fourth quarter of that game, forcing 10 Cavaliers turnovers while holding them to 14 points and 26.7% shooting.

Yes, that was the Cavs and these are the Bucks. Still, LaVine and Dunn were both highly complimentary of that lineup’s speed and versatility after the game, and it’ll be interesting to see if Boylen goes back to the well with it — or at least starts switching more in pick-and-roll situations as a different look defensively. The Bucks are the top rebounding team in the league, but the quickness and fluidity of that group could help chasing around their litany of shooters. And Hutchison, who logged his highest minutes total (22:17) since Nov. 16 against Cleveland, could be worth trying out guarding Antetokounmpo.

Injury report


The Bulls are undermanned in the frontcourt, at present, so evading R. Lopez minutes off the bench is helpful.

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NBA Power Rankings: All-Star starter announcement could impact LaVine's chances to make east squad

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USA Today

NBA Power Rankings: All-Star starter announcement could impact LaVine's chances to make east squad

The NBA will announce the starters for next month’s All-Star game at the United Center before the nationally televised TNT doubleheader on Tuesday.

The choices are pretty obvious in the West with Luka Doncic and James Harden well ahead of the field in the backcourt and the frontline set with Kawhi Leonard joining Laker teammates Anthony Davis and LeBron James.

The East frontcourt also should be easy to choose with Joel Embiid at center, flanked by forwards Giannis Antetokounmpo and Pascal Siakam. You could make the argument for former Bull Jimmy Butler being named over Siakam since the Toronto forward missed 11 games because of injury, but Siakam was the driving force behind Toronto’s fast start after losing Leonard as a free agent last summer.

Embiid has missed 13 games because of knee maintenance and a dislocated finger, but he’s the most dominant center in the East, and should get a starting spot if healthy.

Now to the East backcourt, where there really aren’t any clear cut choices to start. I would give a spot to Atlanta’s Trae Young, despite the fact the Hawks are having a terrible season with the worst record in the East. His numbers are just too impressive to ignore. Young is fourth in the league in scoring at 28.8 and also fourth in assists at 8.5.

Boston’s Kemba Walker would be my other starter. HIs arrival has allowed young perimeter players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to thrive, but Walker is also the player with the ball in his hands at the end of close games. He brings so many of the intangible qualities that Kyrie Irving lacked in Boston.

Speaking of Irving, it’s unlikely he’ll get a spot after missing most of the first half of the season because of a shoulder injury. Eastern conference coaches will name two guards, three frontcourt players and two wild card selections as reserves, which means Zach LaVine’s fate is in their hands.

If the coaches decide to reward players from winning teams, look for Ben Simmons and Kyle Lowry to get the two reserve guard spots, leaving Bradley Beal, LaVine, Spencer Dinwiddie, Derrick Rose and Malcolm Brogdon in the running for a possible wild card selection.

Will LaVine make it? The odds are against him right now, but he’s doing everything in his power to impact the coaches’ vote with a spectacular month of January. I’ll have my All-Star reserve picks next week.

Now on to the power rankings.