Bulls

Bulls stave off comeback, down Bucks

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Bulls stave off comeback, down Bucks

The Bulls had blown leads of 27 and 15 in their two losses at home to the Bucks this season and they finally got some payback with a 104-88 win in Milwaukee.

In the Bucks' victory at the United Center Jan. 9, Brandon Jennings scored a game-high 35 points to lead Milwaukee to a 104-96 win.

Jennings scored 20 of those points in the third quarter – mimicking Robinson’s usual celebration after a made three-pointer in front of the Bulls bench – after some apparent trash talking by Robinson before the second half, in which he scored 13 of his 19 in the first quarter.
 
“I guess he felt like he had it going, he was getting the best of me,” Jennings said. “I really don't take trash talking too kindly because I don't really do a lot of trash talking. I warned him, so, hey, it happens."

While Robinson’s talk irked Jennings, the Bulls were frustrated with blowing another lead at home at the way the Bucks strutted off the court afterwards.

To say this one was personal, not only with Robinson, but for the Bulls would be an understatement.

“We didn’t like the way they celebrated on our court,” Taj Gibson said, who scored 14 points and collected nine rebounds starting in place of Carlos Boozer. “[Robinson] really took pride in that last game. Brandon scored so many points against him on our court. Nate is one of those players where he doesn’t like that. So tonight, he said when he gets out there, he’s just going to go at him. Try to lock him up on defense, frustrate him and he did that."

Robinson scored 16 of his game-high 24 in the second quarter in which the Bulls outscored the Bucks, 32-18. The outburst was punctuated with Robinson’s first dunk of the season and first in two seasons with 1:53 remaining to put the Bulls ahead, 53-35.

The dunk surprised not only his teammates, but Robinson himself.

“My teammates have been teasing me all season, talking about how I’m a three-time Slam Dunk champion and I’m not getting any dunks,” Robinson said. “I just had the opportunity and I don’t dunk off one foot, so that kind of surprised everybody, including myself. I only probably had one dunk in my entire career off one foot and that was the second one. My fans have been asking when I’m going to dunk again, hopefully they can get off my back now that they have seen me dunk. I don’t have to dunk anymore for the rest of the season.”

Robinson would draw an offensive foul on Jennings with 2:54 remaining in the fourth and the Bulls ahead, 94-84.

Jennings flipped the ball towards the ref and had something to say to him afterwards and the exchange was enough to warrant two quick technical fouls and an early shower.

“They were going at it, Brandon Jennings is a big-time player,” Jimmy Butler said. “When you get frustrated a lot of different things can happen and he definitely got frustrated.”

Robinson downplayed the on-going duel between he and Jennings afterwards saying: “I took a charge, he shoved off. I don’t know about all the extra stuff – that’s on him. For us as a team, we played Chicago Bulls defense and we went out there and got the win.”

His dunk was also to the chagrin of several of teammates, mostly Richard Hamilton, who had a bet with him on who would dunk first during the season.

“He has to do 100 finger-tip pushups and I can’t wait,” Robinson said within an earshot of Hamilton.

He also had some outstanding bets that had gone forgotten. Joakim Noah confessed that he now owes Robinson some money.

“Well tell him to pay up,” Robinson said. “I didn’t even know that. He owes me lunch. I’ll take lunch over the money.”

It was payback all around for the Bulls at the Bradley Center.

Take a deep breath: The injured, rebuilding Bulls are exactly where they’re supposed to be

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USA TODAY

Take a deep breath: The injured, rebuilding Bulls are exactly where they’re supposed to be

There wasn’t a snowball’s chance that Saturday night was going to be anything other than abysmal. Already shorthanded, the Bulls were without leading scorer Zach LaVine on the second night of a back-to-back facing the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors. Even without Kawhi Leonard and on its own tail end of a back-to-back, Toronto’s roster made the end result feel inevitable. And it was.

The Bulls offense was invisible without LaVine, tallying just 55 points through three quarters and finishing with 22 turnovers and 21 assists. They shot 35 percent from the field while the Raptors scored at will; the 122-83 loss was the fourth worst home loss in Bulls history, and the Raptors largest road win in their history. It was even uglier than the final score.

In a vacuum the Bulls are 4-13, the fourth worst record in the NBA, with the league’s third worst offense and seventh worst defense. The season is exactly one month old and the Bulls already have two four-game losing streaks, another three-game skid and only wins against four sub-.500 teams with a combined record of 16-45. Its best win came against a 7-8 Hornets team that was finishing a four-game-in-six-nights road trip. “Let’s go Raptors” chants breaking out at home while trailing by 38 is probably a new low in a season that’s quickly getting away from the Bulls.

"We have to find a way to stick together through this tough stretch that we've had, and we've got to find a way to build on the good things that we do and start to limit the bad stretches that we have, which are way too many right now," Hoiberg said. "Got to find a way."

It’s been ugly. But in context, the 4-13 Bulls are playing exactly like a team that a) is missing three of its top players, including its best, and b) is in Year 2 of a bare bones rebuild. The Bulls are one year removed from a 27-win season, the franchise’s worst in 14 years. They’re the youngest team in the NBA and on Saturday night played seven players with three years of NBA experience or less.

VP John Paxson told reporters after last season that the tanking Bulls “don’t ever want to be in this position again.” It was an uplifting quote at the time, a sign that Year 2 of the rebuild wouldn’t be as bumpy as Year 1. The reality was that, even when healthy, this rebuild is barely in the simmering stages of fully cooking.

Perhaps Paxson meant he didn’t want to be playing Cris Felicio 30 minutes a night and be actively benching healthy veterans (to the point that the NBA stepped in). But it certainly didn’t mean more wins than losses. Trying to win is different than expecting to win. Las Vegas projected a healthy Bulls team to win 28.5 games for a reason, even in a weak Eastern Conference.

The 2018-19 season’s most important goal was assessing five players: To that point, Zach LaVine is averaging 25 points per game and outplaying the contract some believed he didn’t deserve. Wendell Carter Jr. is on pace to be the first rookie since Joel Embiid to average 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. The other three – Markkanen, Dunn and Portis – are on the shelf and may not be fully up and running until late December or early January.

Only the Denver Nuggets have had more games missed to injury than the Bulls. Denver knew Isaiah Thomas would miss time when they signed him in July as he rehabbed from hip surgery and that rookie Michael Porter Jr. would miss time with a back injury. The Bulls’ four injuries were sprung on them after media day and training camp began.

The result is them changing lineups, rotations, responsibilities and roles on the absolute fly. Cameron Payne hadn’t played significant minutes in 10 days and had 4 points in 22 minutes as a starter on Saturday. Robin Lopez and Felicio remain in a coin flip each night for backup duties behind Carter.

The truth is it’s really not important from a long-term perspective, which is entirely what the Bulls are focused on. Maybe Justin Holiday plays well enough to be traded. That isn’t going to move the needle on the rebuild. Don’t focus on the micro during a macro rebuild.

Markkanen’s magical rookie season, Carter’s impressive start and LaVine hitting everything in sight seems to have increased team expectations. The reality is the roster is still far from competing, even when healthy. The core pieces appear to be there. They’re also 23, 21 and 19 years old.

Rebuilds take time.

The goals will change when Hoiberg’s coaching with a full deck. LaVine and Markkanen must develop a two-man game on the perimeter that punishes defense with a pick-your-poison effect. Dunn and Carter’s pick-and-roll progression will be something to watch, as will Dunn’s perimeter shooting. Bobby Portis is playing for millions of dollars, either on the open market or in Chicago.

The rest is fluff. They’re supposed to look bad right now. The roster wasn’t exactly built to withstand injuries to three major contributors. How many in the league are?

That’s not to say there haven’t been negatives. Jabari Parker has been a bust. There’s no denying the Bulls swung and missed on paying the Chicago native $20 million only to take low-percentage shots, jog back on defense and own up to very little of either. Cameron Payne had an opportunity to showcase his ability as a former Lottery pick and cement his status as the backup behind Dunn. It didn’t happen. Chandler Hutchison to this point has been underwhelming, but like the core pieces he should have a larger role when the calendar flips to 2019.

They’ll have another Lottery pick in a draft class that looks absolutely star-studded. Maybe it won’t be Zion Williamson. But after drafting Markkanen and Carter seventh overall in consecutive drafts, there’s optimism they can find another gem regardless of where they draft. They’ll also have a boatload of money in free agency. Maybe it won’t be Kevin Durant. But Chicago looks liked a much more desired destination than it did 12 months ago.

It certainly can be frustrating to watch given the future seems so far away. But this is what the front office signed up for. The time to evaluate the roster – and even Hoiberg – won’t come for another few months. If you’re truly upset with how the Bulls are playing down three of their top players, you’ve either wagered on them to win 29 games or are Jabari Parker’s agent.

For now, it’s about withstanding the lows and searching for the progression that ultimately will lead to the highs.  Take a deep breath, Bulls fans: the rebuild is where it’s supposed to be.

Lauri, Kris and Bobby are on their way to begin the next chapter.

Justin Holiday continues to string together solid efforts amid tough Bulls losses

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USA TODAY

Justin Holiday continues to string together solid efforts amid tough Bulls losses

The Bulls came out on fire against the Bucks, putting up 40 points in an explosive first quarter. Unfortunately they followed that up by scoring 41 points in the second half. But the offense of Jabari Parker and Justin Holiday was pretty much the only thing working for Chicago on Friday night.


Holiday’s effectiveness as an aggressive, dependable floor-spacer continues to showcase what makes him such a valuable NBA player. Unfortunately, that value has been mostly squandered on a Bulls team that lacks a diverse offensive attack.

Holiday contributed 9 points on 3-3 shooting from the 3-point line in the first quarter. He kept this momentum rolling in the second, and ended up not missing a single shot in the first half. Holiday ended the first half 6-6 from the 3-point line but went on to only score once more in the second half. He ended the game with 20 points, the second-leading scorer on the night for Chicago.


On a night where Zach LaVine was clearly gassed from the burden of carrying the offense all season (6-20 from the field), only Parker could provide a solid secondary option. Parker’s effectiveness also tapered off dramatically in the second half, as he stopped taking 3-pointers and didn’t get to the free throw line at all. Early season struggles were to be expected from Parker, as he is on a new team with a roster full of young players. But his shot selection is what has been so frustrating to watch. 

Results do not have to be immediate, but seeing as Parker is taking a greater percentage of his shots from long 2-point range than last season, it is clear he hasn’t fully bought in to the idea of getting all the way to the basket or shooting the 3-pointer without hesitation. And that is why players like Holiday—one of Hoiberg’s loyal soldiers from his first year as Bulls coach—are so crucial.

It is clear that Hoiberg’s preferred playing style has stuck with Holiday and hopefully, that it can rub off on the other players.

We have discussed before how his 3-point attempt rate (72 percent) is the perfect indicator of how often he is hunting the 3-point shot. But the problem is that this current Bulls roster needs more players who create 3-point looks for others, rather than knock them down.

Heading into Friday night’s game, Holiday had been assisted on 72 percent of his 2-point shots and 95 percent of his 3-point shots. This season, he has been assisted on 57 percent of his 2-point shots and 90 percent of his 3-point shots. This is an alarming sign for the Holiday, as he has never been a player known for creating his own shot and the decline in assisted baskets means he is being forced outside of his comfort zone on offense.

It is no coincidence that Holiday’s 3-point percentage in November (35 percent) is lower than his 3-point percentage in October (40 percent). He played 34 minutes per game in October before that number got increased to 37 minutes per game in November. Holiday has been in the top 10 in minutes all year and there is no end in sight for his tremendous minutes load with the Bulls being so thin on the wing.

The 2019 NBA offseason for Chicago will likely be about finding players they can comfortably play at the small forward spot. But Bulls fans should appreciate Holiday’s play while he’s here, as he has been one of the team’s more consistent players. Holiday has done a decent amount of leading by example—especially when it comes to playing the way Hoiberg wants to—and continues to show why he can continue to be a valuable piece on this Bulls team.