Bulls

Bulls steal Christmas opener from Lakers

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Bulls steal Christmas opener from Lakers

LOS ANGELES Who, our guys? Tom Thibodeau wondered quizzically before diverting the focus of the question. It was a brief crack in the ever-impassive at least when dealing with the media, if not on the sidelines Bulls head coachs facade, but his initial response to a question about whether his players panicked while facing a seemingly insurmountable in final minutes of Sundays thrilling 88-87 win over the Lakers revealed his belief in the team.

The Bulls (1-0) delivered upon Thibodeaus faith in them, giving the coach, who dismissed pregame queries about Christmas gifts in a Scrooge-like manner, the only present a basketball lifer could ask for. Reigning league MVP Derrick Roses go-ahead floater with 4.8 seconds remaining in a back-and-forth affair was the difference on the scoreboard, but a key stop against Lakers (0-1) superstar Kobe Bryants attempted game-winner put the cherry on top of a Christmas Day battle for the defensive-minded Bulls.

I feel like we showed a lot of character tonight. Things werent going our way. Offensively, we were getting a lot of calls against us and I feel like we just fought until the end, said center Joakim Noah, who scored the teams first points of the 2011-12 campaign and finished with a game-high nine rebounds, despite battling foul trouble for the entire contest, as well as being one of a swarm of defenders surrounding Bryant on his failed final attempt. Derrick told us with three minutes to go, Weve been in this position before. Just keep fighting. I feel like we didnt play our best basketball, but to just come up and win in this fashion, just says a lot about this team.

Concurred Thibodeau: What I like a lot was the resolve at the end to find a way to win the game. We had a lot of guys dig in and make some hustle plays. Of course, Lu with the big steal and Derrick with the big shot, and some real good team defense on the last play.

Indeed, the resiliency the Bulls displayed throughout their 62-win regular season a year ago returned in the season opener, as an abysmal third quarter shooting the ball and a fourth quarter in which it appeared the home team would expose the visitors as still not having all the answers. However, that was far from the case in the early going, as the Bulls unselfishness and balanced scoring led to 16 first-half assists and three double-figure scorers in Carlos Boozer (15 points, six rebounds), Luol Deng and Rose, who had 10 in the second quarter after a scoreless opening period.

The ball moved great in the first half. We had 16 assists in the first half and then we came out after halftime, and were holding onto it. It was sticking and then were dancing with it, and when we start doing that, were going to struggle to score, explained Thibodeau. Against a good defensive team, if youre holding onto the ball and youre dancing with it, youve got everyone else sitting there, staring at you, so youre not going to get good shots and thats what happened.

The games second stanza was marked by the Bench Mob reprising their role from last season, pushing the tempo and keeping the Bulls in position, although strong first-half efforts from Bryant and fellow All-Star Pau Gasol (14 points, eight rebounds, three blocked shots) the Lakers lone proven big man, with usual starting center Andrew Bynum suspended and sixth-man extraordinaire Lamar Odom recently jettisoned to Dallas made it a close-knit affair through the contests intermission. After the break came a ghastly third quarter in which the Bulls shot a horrific 21.7 percent from the floor; the Lakers, while not much better at 38.1 percent, used their own brand of defense Boozer, in particular, struggled to score against Gasols length as the team attempted to run its offense through him, while new acquisition Rip Hamilton couldnt shake free of Bryant, his longtime acquaintance, to accurately launch his vaunted mid-range jumper to gather momentum in the final period and mounted a double-digit lead behind Bryants determined scoring.

The thing about Kobe is the way he does everything just cutting, his pick-and-roll game, catch-and-shoot game, post-up game, isolation game just so many different aspects of his game that you have to really gear your team toward helping, observed Thibodeau about the Lakers guard, who dealt with an injured wrist, as well as lingering dissatisfaction over the Odom trade and his own personal, yet publicized marital issues. What that often does is it pulls you off bodies, and then when the ball is shot, youre scrambling to get back and if you dont finish to get back, youre going to get hurt with the second shot.

Chimed in Deng: With Kobe, on the iso, I really try to crowd him and send him to the defense, whatever side the help was.

He made a couple tough shots on the baseline, spinning, but thats expected.

"Shots like that are what we want.

Against all odds, facing one of the games premier closers in Bryant and with star-studded crowd featuring the likes of music artists Lil Wayne and Chicago native Kanye West watching breathlessly, the Bulls fought back during the games stretch run. Deng, the longest-tenured Bull, made play after play a traditional three-point play after a driving layup, followed by a pair of free throws to make it a one-point game with 20.4 seconds left in the clutch on both ends, including stellar defense on Bryant.

Lu you know how Lu is hes going to keep it simple, do what he has to do: play defense, rebound the ball, push it, play smart, lauded Rose, who scored a team-high 22 points, to go along with five assists, though he matched that total in turnovers. His I.Q. of the game is very high and thats what I like about him.

After Dengs free throws, the Bulls trapped Bryant (game-high 28 points, seven rebounds, six assists) and uncharacteristically, the future Hall of Famer turned the ball over, throwing a pass that Deng stole. The ball would end up in Roses hands and the All-Star point guard made yet another play that will be part of his budding legend and highlight reel of his young career.

I think it was a great call by Coach Thibs to trap him. We didnt go for the foul; we trapped him to get it out of his hands. We went for the first trap, and he did exactly what we wanted. It was just a great, great plan by Coach, Deng, who scored 21 points, snatched seven rebounds, swiped four steals and dished out three assists, recounted. When I got the steal and I dribbled down the side, and my mindset was just looking for Derrick, and I jumped up and he got open at the last second and I just let it go. But as soon as I got the steal, I just wanted to find him.

Said Thibodeau: Its one big shot after the next and its been that way certainly all last year and at the start of this year.

"Hes something."

Rose himself downplayed the shot.

It was really a floater. Thats something that Im just used to doing if Im going to my right hand and they let me get to my right hand, explained Rose, who said he suffered no aftereffects from the nasty knock to the head he took earlier in the contest, briefly rendering him motionless. If it wasnt for my teammates by making the steal, getting the ball to me at the end theres no way I would have got that shot off and us winning this game.

Bryant and the Lakers had one more chance to hold off the visitors, but with 4.8 seconds left and Deng defending Bryant, the man known for his heroics in pressure situations was forced into a swarm of Bulls, including Noah, and couldnt convert.

I trust our defense. I trust our bigs. I wanted to crowd him so he didnt have the jump shot and if he drove, I knew our bigs were going to be there and thats exactly what happened, said Deng. I really have a lot of confidence in our defense. No matter who it is in the league, I just feel like Im confident enough, whoever Im guarding, to know that my guys are right behind me and we did a good job down the stretch, just talking. As a defender, that gives me a lot of confidence, knowing that my guys behind me are alert.

I think everyone knows by now, we play hard. We play hard, we play together and we stick with it, whether were down 30 or down two, were always going to play until the end.

Concurred Rose: We showed fight. We definitely dont want to be in a position like that, but we fought our way back.

We just played harder. We stepped up our intensity on the defensive end, he continued. I told them that weve been in this situation before. Theyre a new team, they have new players, a new system. I said that they hadnt been in that circumstance yet and weve been there. Thank God that we got a couple of steals, a great couple of plays and we won the game.

Im not complaining. Im not complaining at all, as you can see. We got the win, weve got another game Monday and weve got to take it from there.

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.”