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Bulls' stout defense masks ongoing offensive struggles

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Bulls' stout defense masks ongoing offensive struggles

Monday night's victory against the San Antonio Spurs looked like vintage Bulls. On both ends of the United Center floor.

On one hand, Fred Hoiberg's group continued its stellar defensive play in the early season. The Bulls limited San Antonio to 89 points, one off the Spurs' season-low, including just 16 in the decisive fourth quarter. The Spurs shot 41 percent from the field and made two 3-pointers, uncharacteristic of a Gregg Popovich team ranked third in field goal percentage entering the game.

The Spurs made three field goals in the final 5:30 and Pau Gasol blocked three shots, including a LaMarcus Aldridge layup attempt in the final minute of a tie game. Three Bulls free throws later Jimmy Butler stifled a Kawhi Leonard jumper in the closing seconds before Derrick Rose tipped a Tony Parker desperation 3 at the buzzer.

It was a classic Bulls performance on the defensive end, one that would have made Tom Thibodeau proud. And yet, despite the gritty effort it was only just enough to skate by because of ongoing offensive struggles that don't seem to be going away.

[MORE: Bulls' defense holds up late to top Leonard, Spurs]

Granted, the 92-89 victory came against a Spurs team leading the league in defensive efficiency and opponent points per game, and third in field goal percentage defense. Though the Bulls would have preferred an up-tempo pace they're transitioning into under Hoiberg, Popovich's staple has been to never react to an opposition's style. Monday night was just that, as the two teams combined for 14 fast-break points and battled much of the night in halfcourt sets.

And again, the Bulls struggled. They shot 43 percent from the field, helped largely by a second-quarter burst in which they scored 32 points on 50 percent shooting. In the other three quarters they shot 24-for-60 and committed 10 turnovers. They earned a victory - their fifth in six tries at home - despite not making a field goal in the game's final 6:30, when Taj Gibson's putback dunk gave the Bulls a five-point lead.

"We kept defending, and that’s the big thing. If your offense isn’t going, if you’re not making shots – we had a couple good looks, had a couple at the rim there that just didn’t fall," Hoiberg said after the game, "but we kept it going on the defensive end and that’s what won the game for us."

In a vacuum Monday night was a classic case of a team doing what it needed to earn a victory. The Bulls have now won games in which they've scored as few as 92 points and as many as 115. The veteran core, even under a first-year head coach, played within the game, understanding points were going to be difficult to come by against San Antonio's stingy defense, and matched the Spurs with one more defensive stop.

Added Gasol, who went 6-for-18: "You get to the line and you defend and you figure it out, you find a way to win. That’s the most important part of what happened tonight."

It was enough Monday night, but may not be moving forward.

Entering Monday's contest the Bulls ranked 26th in offensive efficiency, better than only the Pistons, Nets, Lakers and 76ers. Those four teams are a combined 15-54, with Brooklyn, Los Angeles and Philadelphia touting the three worst records in the NBA. For all the gripes about Tom Thibodeau's shortcomings to maximize the Bulls' offensive potential, Chicago ranked 10th in the same category a season ago.

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As they've become more familiar with Hoiberg's offense, the Bulls have significantly cut down on their turnovers. After averaging 15.1 giveaways in the first seven games of the year, they've cut that number down to 13.2 in their last eight. Committing only 11 against a Spurs team averaging 14.6 takeaways per game was yet another step in the right direction, and the Bulls handed out 25 assists on their 37 made baskets, including a season-high seven from Joakim Noah.

But the offense still isn't clicking, and Fred Hoiberg's decision to utilize Nikola Mirotic (eight points in 24 minutes) in a starter and using Doug McDermott (12 points in 30 minutes) in a larger role has put an obvious emphasis on shooting and scoring. Results have varied. Jimmy Butler is playing at an All-Star pace again, McDermott and Tony Snell have filled the void in place of the injured Mike Dunleavy, and E'Twaun Moore has provided unexpected production, especially as Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich have dealt with injuries. And yet the product as a whole is still questionable.

Derrick Rose was the ignitor in the second quarter Monday night, scoring on three consecutive trips and handing out four assists to help the Bulls to a one-point halftime lead. But he finished the night 5-for-17 and didn't log an assist in the second half. It's been an ongoing struggle for the point guard, who said after the game that while his vision is still blurred it's no longer affecting him. He's shot just 16-for-53 (30.1 percent) in three games since returning from a two-game absence (ankle), and his field goal percentage sits at 35.6 percent, which would be the lowest mark of his career - excluding his 10-game season in 2013.

The Bulls' offensive rating with Rose on the floor is 98.0, and jumps to 103.4 with him off the floor. That on/off difference of -5.4 points ranks third worst among starting point guards, ahead of only Houston's Ty Lawson (-7.5), who was benched last week, and Orlando's 21-year-old Elfrid Payton (-9.0).

Thanks in large part to the second unit performing well, the Bulls again were more efficient with Rose off the floor. McDermott, Tony Snell and E'Twaun Moore combined to go 12-for-23, scoring 29 points. With Rose off the floor the Bulls' offensive rating was 107.8. In Rose's 34 minutes, the Bulls had a rating of 97.3.

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Rose is hoping the Bulls' busy upcoming schedule will help him continue to shake off the rust and become more acclimated to Hoiberg's system. Whereas the team played four games in a two-week span on the road, the Bulls now have a three-game week followed by back-to-back four-game weeks.

"(I'm) getting there, man. I’m happy we play back-to-back-to-back now. Will give me a chance to get a couple of games under my belt, give me a chance to catch a rhythm," he said. "I love playing these games like this where it’s one day off then a game. I love that."

It's hard to argue with the Bulls' results. Before the calendar flipped to December the Bulls already tout home victories over Cleveland, Indiana, Oklahoma City and San Antonio, four teams that are expected to play deep into May. They're 10-5 and will play nine of their next 11 games at home, with eight of those opponents currently sitting in the bottom half of defensive efficiency. The Bulls are 7th in the league in defensive efficiency, as the core group known for their prowess on that side of the ball clearly still takes pride in shutting teams down.

Monday night was an impressive victory in which the Bulls went back to their old ways of defending down the stretch. But they'll need to take a new-school approach in righting the ship on offense to give themselves a chance in the long run.

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.”