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.”

Trust the Rookie: Wendell Carter Jr. draws Opening Night start against Joel Embiid, Sixers

Trust the Rookie: Wendell Carter Jr. draws Opening Night start against Joel Embiid, Sixers

In a five-game span Wendell Carter Jr. saw preseason action against Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic and Myles Turner. The 19-year-old rookie had his share of expected ups and downs but performed well enough that Fred Hoiberg officially announced him a starter for the team’s season opener tomorrow night.

His reward for all that hard work? A matchup against All-Pro center Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers.

It’ll be an eye-opening experience for the Duke product, who just a year ago was readying himself for his first season of college basketball and a season-opening matchup against Elon. It’s safe to assume Embiid will pose a few more problems than did Phoenix center Tyler Seibring.

“Joel Embiid was one of my role models growing up,” Embiid said before practice Wednesday. “He was someone I always wanted to pattern my game after. Just to go up against him is a remarkable feeling. He’s a very physical player. He’s a very talented player. I’m going to be able to stack up and see what all I need to work on to last in this league.”

While it’s no easy task against a talent like Embiid, who was named All-NBA Second Team last season, Carter’s most important job will be staying out of foul trouble. Carter piggy-backed an impressive Summer League with a preseason that included averages of 7.0 points and 5.6 rebounds in 21.1 minutes. But those numbers also included 7.7 fouls per 48 minutes. He racked up 17 fouls in five games, and had at least three in each.

Embiid only went to the line five times in Tuesday’s season-opening loss to the Celtics, but that was primarily against Defensive Player of the Year candidate Al Horford. Embiid won’t face as much resistance against Carter, putting the pressure on the rookie to stay on the floor.

“He’s going to have to navigate that without using his hands,” Fred Hoiberg said. “We have to be all five aware. It’s just not a one-man problem with Embiid. We have to have great awareness of him and try and mix up coverages and hopefully make him take tough shots, knowing that he’s going to hit some of those. You just can’t get deflated when he does.’’

The decision was a mere formality – Bobby Portis will start at power forward – after the frontcourt combination played considerably better in the Bulls’ final two preseason games. Though Jabari Parker was initially slotted in at power forward following Lauri Markkanen’s elbow sprain, Portis’ impressive preseason forced Hoiberg’s hand. Portis averaged 17.0 points and 5.8 rebounds and shot 55 percent from the field in just 22.4 minutes.

“It’s all about combinations out there and we felt like Bobby gave us a great start with the way he was playing,” Hoiberg said. “And then we kind of changed things up with that second unit and put the ball in Jabari’s hands, so it was more that in trying to get guys out there with the right combinations.”

Lopez may have an expanded role if Carter gets into foul trouble early, while Parker will be the facilitator on a second unit that doesn’t have much in the way of a point guard. It’s anyone’s guess as to how the frontcourt will play out once Markkanen returns in roughly a month; if Portis and Carter continue playing well, Hoiberg could opt to keep them together on the second unit and put Lopez back in the starting lineup.

But for at least Opening Night – the Bulls also get Andre Drummond and the Pistons on Saturday – it’ll be the seventh overall pick getting his NBA feet wet with a matchup against arguably the best center in basketball. But’s it a role he’s earned, and on a Bulls defense looking for any sort of improvement, Carter is the player who can anchor it.

“His defense is always going to be important for us. He’s the guy that’s the anchor in that starting unit at the rim,” Hoiberg said, “and he’s done a really solid job of making perimeter guys taking contested shots when he gets switched off, or staying vertical at the rim and trying to make a big finish over the top of him, so yeah, again it’s a great challenge, great opportunity for Wendell.”

Bulls Talk Podcast: The ultimate Bulls briefing to get you ready for Opening Night


Bulls Talk Podcast: The ultimate Bulls briefing to get you ready for Opening Night

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Mark Schanowski sits down with Kendall Gill and Will Perdue to discuss all the need-to-know topics to get you ready for the season opener. The guys analyze how Lauri’s injury will make its mark on the early season rotation, whether Jabari will return to the starting unit or embrace the 6th-man role and why Portis betting on himself is the right move. Plus, Kendall has the key to unlock a “6th Man of the Year” award for Portis this season.

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below: