Bulls rotation of bigs pays dividends in opener


Bulls rotation of bigs pays dividends in opener

First games in the NBA can usually be breeding ground for overarching generalizations that won’t hold water over the course of 82 games, so Fred Hoiberg moving Nikola Mirotic to the starting five in place of Joakim Noah could very well come back to haunt him.

But the logic of having the offensive-minded Mirotic play with Pau Gasol and placing Noah with the energetic Taj Gibson on the second unit paid dividends in their first test, a 97-95 win over the rival Cleveland Cavaliers.

Noah bumped knees with Cavs forward Tristan Thompson in the fourth quarter, suffering a left knee contusion that prevented Hoiberg from re-inserting him later in the game for defensive purposes.

“I tried to put him back in, but the trainer wouldn’t let me,” Hoiberg said. Noah’s status for Wednesday’s game in Brooklyn will be evaluated in the morning.

Up until that point, Noah had been a havoc on the boards with nine in 15 minutes, while Gibson (10 rebounds) used all six of his fouls judiciously in 22 minutes, the last nailing LeBron James with an elbow to the face on a box-out of a free throw in the fourth quarter.

Better James than a teammate he sent to surgery with an accidental elbow on the first day of training camp, it should be said. Gibson also blocked a Kevin Love corner triple in the third, leading to a wing jumper of his own that helped trigger a run that built a double-digit lead.

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“It’s gonna be fun,” Noah said of his pairing with Gibson while reporters mobbed around the locker of a teammate who scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds in 25 minutes, Mirotic.

Mirotic started the Bulls off early with 11 in the first and went quiet for quite a while until midway through the fourth, when his three-point play helped stabilize matters after the Cavaliers took a brief lead.

And Mirotic took a brief tumble into press row near courtside after being hit by Thompson after his inside move bounced in the basket but emerged unscathed.

“Niko was great,” Hoiberg said. “Not only with his shots but he battled aggressively. He also battled very strongly on the defensive end, and that’s going to allow us to play him at power forward.”

Being matched up against Love, a tough rebounder but used in similar ways to Mirotic, as a floor stretcher for James, didn’t start off with the best of scenarios as Love discarded Mirotic on the first play of the game to get an easy dunk.

But he rebounded to hit three of four triples and wasn’t as much of a liability for more than spots on the evening.

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“It’s a good start. I made some threes tonight, and I really feel comfortable shooting threes,” Mirotic said. “The good thing is my teammates are looking for me. A couple of times I was shooting alone, so it’s great.

“My goal this year is defense. I need to show the people that I can really play defense. That’s my goal. Offensively, sometimes you can miss, sometimes you can score, but my goal is playing good defense.”

A bruiser isn’t a word that will be used to describe Mirotic’s play, but making himself serviceable on that end will keep him on the floor, especially if Gasol can repeat performances like his six-block showing, the last of which came with 3.6 seconds left on James.

It overshadowed the fact Gasol didn’t score until 9:36 left in the third quarter for his only basket. Such nights usually would spell disaster for the Bulls, but for one night, at least, they survived against a quality opponent.

“It’s gonna be different every night,” Hoiberg said. “I liked how Niko and Pau played together. There was times when Niko and Taj were out there together. Then Bobby (Portis), he’s gonna play some key minutes for us too.”

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?


Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

John Calipari's 2017 recruiting class featured five McDonald's All-Americans and Hamidou Diallo, a former five-star recruit who nearly jumped to the NBA the previous year. It also included a lanky 6-foot-6 point guard named Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. And for the first part of the 2017-18 season, the Toronto native who played his final two high school years in Tennessee, appeared to be a nice fit off the bench for Calipari.

But something flipped. Gilgeous-Alexander was inserted into the starting lineup for good on January 9 and never looked back. He played his best basketball beginning in late February to the end of the season, a span of 10 games against eight NCAA Tournament opponents. In those games Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 19.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists. He shot 51 percent from the field, 50 percent from deep and 84 percent from the free throw line, and added 1.4 steals in nearly 38 minutes per game for good measure. He was one of the best players in the country, and on a team with five McDonald's All-Americans, he was Calipari's best freshman.

"I knew with how hard I worked that anything was possible," SGA said at last week's NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. "It was just a matter of time before it started clicking and I started to get it rolling."

That stretch included a 17-point, 10-assist double-double against Ole Miss, a 29-point showing against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament, and 27 more points in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Buffalo. Even in his worst game of the stretch, a 15-point effort against Kansas State in the Tournament, he made up for 2 of 10 shooting by getting to the free throw line 12, converting 11 of them.

It made his decision to make the jump to the NBA an easy one - that, and another loaded Calipari recruiting class incoming. He stands taller than just about any other point guard in the class and might have as good a jump shot as any. He's adept at getting to the rim, averaging 4.7 free throw attempts per game (that number jumped to 5.6 after he became a starter, and 7.5 in those final 10 games of the season. He isn't the quickest guard in the class, but he uses his feet well, is able to find open shooters due to his height and improved on making mistakes on drive-and-kicks as the season went on.

"I think I translate really well to the next level with there being so much more space on the floor and the open court stretched out," he said. "It only benefits me and my ability to get in the lane and make plays."

There's something to be said for him being the next in line of the Calipari point guards. The ever-growing list includes players like Derrick Rose, John Wall, Tyreke Evans, Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Murray and DeAaron Fox. It's the NBA's version of Penn State linebackers or Alabama defensive linemen. The success rate is nearly 100 percent when it comes to Calipari's freshmen point guards; even Brandon Knight averaged 18.1 points over a three-year span in the NBA.

"That’s why guys go to Kentucky," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "It prepares them for the next level. Coach (Calipari) does a really good job, especially with point guards, getting them ready for that next level in a short amount of time."

Gilgeous-Alexander didn't test or play in the 5-on-5 scrimmages, but he still came out of Chicago a winner. He measured 6-foot-6 in shoes with a ridiculous 6-foot-11 1/2 wingspan, a full three inches longer than any other point guard at the Combine. He also added, rather uniquely, that he watches of film Kawhi Leonard playing defense. Most players don't mention watching film on different-position players; most players aren't 6-foot-6 point guards.

"(It's) obviously a more versatile league and playing small ball. And with me being able to guard multiple positions, a lot of teams are switching things like the pick and roll off ball screens, so me being able to switch and guard multiple positions can help an organization."

Gilgeous-Alexander's arrow is pointing way up. He appears to be teetering near Lottery pick status, though that could go one way or the other in private team workouts, especially if he's pitted against fellow top point guards like Trae Young and Collin Sexton. But if his rise at Kentucky is any indication, he'll only continue to improve his game, his stock and eventually his draft position.

The Celtics tied MJ's and the '96 Bulls' record for consecutive home playoff wins


The Celtics tied MJ's and the '96 Bulls' record for consecutive home playoff wins

The Boston Celtics have been the surprise of the 2018 NBA Playoffs, and after last night's Game 5 win against LeBron James and the Cavs are one game away from a trip to the NBA Finals.

They've done it with some of the most interesting splits in league history for a team that's advanced this far: they're 10-0 at home and  1-6 on the road.

The six road losses are something else, but with the convincing 96-83 victory over Cleveland, the Celtics tied a record held by the 1996 Bulls for the most consecutive postseason home wins in a season.

Boston earned home wins against the Bucks in Round 1 in Games 1, 2, 5 and 7. They crushed the heavily favored Sixers in five games, earning home wins in Games 1, 2 and 5 (and their only road win in Game 3). They took the first two games of the series from the Cavaliers at home and then again in Game 5. If they can't close the series in Cleveland they'll have a chance to break the record Sunday in a potential Game 7. If they do close the series in Cleveland their next chance will be in Game 3 of the NBA Finals; Boston will be on the road regardless of whether Houston or Golden State comes out of the West.

Jordan's Bulls won 10 consecutive games during their historic 72-10 season. They swept the Heat in Round 1, winning at home by 17 and 31 points. In the second round they knocked off the Knicks in Games 1 and 2 at the United Center, winning by 7 and 11 points. After the Knicks earned a Game 3 win at Madison Square Garden the Bulls won the final two games of that series, including a 13-point win at home to clinch the series and a fifth straight home win.

The conference finals were no problem for the Bulls at home or on the road. They began their eventual sweep of Orlando with a 38-point shellacking in Game 1 at home. A five-point win in Game 2 gave them their seventh consecutive home win and they wouldn't be back at the United Center until Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

They smoked the Sonics by 17 in Game a 1 and held on for a four-point win in Game 2. Seattle took Games 4 and 5 at their place to avoid being swept, but when the series returned to Chicago the Bulls were back to their winning ways, earning a 12-point win - their 10th consecutive in the postseason - and their fourth NBA title.

Yes, the Bulls lost just three times (half as many as the Celtics) and actually won the title. Boston, of course, has plenty to do before they reach that status, and they'll do so with at least six losses. We're not comparing the two teams. Simply pointing out a record.

And if you're wondering, Steph Curry and the Warriors have simply been too good to get to 10 wins. Last year they swept all three rounds of the West playoffs, giving them six straight home wins. Then they only needed five games to beat the Cavaliers in the Finals, with three of those coming at home. So they went 9-0 at Oracle Arena before winning it all. They recently had their streak of 16 consecutive postseason home wins, regardless of year, snapped when the Rockets earned a Game 4 win on Tuesday.