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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.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

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.

Jabari Parker unafraid of history, expectations that come with Chicago's homegrown stars: "There's no fear"

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Jabari Parker unafraid of history, expectations that come with Chicago's homegrown stars: "There's no fear"

The Chicago sunlight followed Jabari Parker as he walked through the East Atrium doors of the United Center, facing Michael Jordan’s statue before meeting with the media, introduced as a Chicago Bull for the first time.


For his sake, the brighter days are ahead instead of to his back as he’ll challenge the perception of being the hometown kid who can’t outrun his own shadow.


Parker re-enters Chicago as the No. 2 pick in the draft that the Milwaukee Bucks allowed to walk without compensation despite holding the cards through restricted free agency, damaged goods on the floor but not giving the Bulls a discount to don that white, red and black jersey he’s always dreamed of wearing.


“There were other teams but as soon as I heard Chicago, I just jumped on it,” Parker said.


It took a two-year, $40 million deal (2019-20 team option) to get Parker home, along with the selling point that he’ll start at small forward—a position that’s tough to envision him playing with on the defensive end considering three of the game’s top six scorers occupy that space.
It was a dream come true for his father, Sonny Parker, and high school coach, Simeon Academy’s Robert Smith, who both couldn’t hide their joy following the first question-and-answer session with the media.


“This is where he wanted to be,” Sonny Parker said. “His family’s happy, the support is there. All I know is the United Center will sell out every game. He can’t wait.”


“Normally guys get drafted here. He signed to come here. He had a couple offers from other teams but he wanted to come here.”


The biggest examples of Chicagoans who arrived with outsized expectations for this franchise had varying results, but Derrick Rose and Eddy Curry both came away with scars of sorts that had many wondering why any hometown product would willingly choose to play for the Bulls.


The risk seems to far outweigh the reward; the emotional toll doesn’t seem worth the fare. And with the roster makeup not being ideal for Parker, no one could blame him for going to a better situation—or at least one more tailored to his skills rather than his heart.
“I think every situation is different. Derrick was excelling,” Bulls executive vice-president John Paxson said to NBCSportsChicago.com. “MVP of the league in his hometown before the injury. Eddy was just a young kid who didn’t have the savvy Derrick had. I think every situation is different. Jabari is such a grounded, solid person that he’s gonna be just fine.”


“You don’t have to spend a whole lot of time with him to figure out he’s got it together. He knows who he is. Comfortable in his own skin. A quiet guy. Hopefully he’ll thrive here. The goal is it works great for him and works great for us.”


It seemed like he was bred to be a pro—and not just any pro, but the type Chicago demands of its own when a covenant to play 82 nights a year has been reached. If the constant prodding from his father didn’t break his façade, or older brother Darryl doing everything he could to coax emotion from the most gifted of the Parker clan couldn’t do it, two ACL surgeries on his left knee may pale in comparison.


The numbers from Parker’s recent stint with the Bucks don’t bear it out, but Smith sees a player who’s back on track to being what his talent has always dictated he should become.


“Even watching him work out lately, it’s like whoa,” Smith said. “But of course, everything with Chicago period you have to be cautious. With his family and the support system he has, this thing is about winning basketball games and giving back to the community.”


“He’s had that (target) on his back since he stepped on the court at Simeon, coming behind Derrick and being one of the top five players as a freshman and No. 1 player as a junior. I don’t think it’s a huge problem, it can help him a little bit. If he has those moments if something doesn’t go right, he has someone to help him.”


Parker is more known for his restarts than his unique skill set in his young career, but even at 23 years old speaks with a sage of someone 20 years his senior, unwilling to tab this portion of his journey as a fresh start.


After all, it would be easy to envision his career beginning from the moment he left Simeon as a phenom followed by his one season at Duke—having two games where he totaled just 24 minutes with just two points to start the Bucks’ first-round series against the Boston Celtics isn’t typical of a star’s story if he sees himself that way.


“I don’t. I don’t want to forget all the hard work I had,” Parker said. “To forget I hurt myself and came back is to discredit my success. That in of itself is something outside the norm. I want to always remember the setbacks and failures I’ve had in my career so far. I want to use that as a sense of motivation.”


Bringing up his awkward pro beginnings in Milwaukee, where Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ascension to an unexpected strata mirrored thoughts he might’ve had of himself before his injuries, didn’t cause him to growl.


“I’ve never got jealous a day in my life. That’s why it wasn’t hard because I wasn’t jealous,” Parker said to NBCSportsChicago.com. “My journey is my journey. I gotta be proud of that and be patient. I took that and I move forward.”


The mention of his defense didn’t make him defensive, either, as he definitively pointed out the truth as he saw it, that today’s game is far more offensive-minded than the bruise-fests of the previous decades. Telling by his words in subsequent interviews, the best defense is a great offense and when he’s right, there aren’t many who can get a bucket as easily and with as much diversity as himself.


The only time Parker broke serve was at the notion he’d be following in the footsteps of Rose’s perceived failures, the setbacks Rose suffered when his knees began to fail after reaching inspiring heights players like Parker wanted to emulate.


At the podium for all to see, he corrected a question formed around Rose’s “rise and fall”, a sound byte copied and pasted by a couple Chicago-bred NBA players on social media in support of Parker’s words and feelings.


“Derrick had no lows. He didn’t. He still maintained. Derrick’s a legend, no matter what…no rise and falls. Injuries are part of life. Derrick is one of the best icons in Chicago. He accomplished his duty already.”


And later, he wanted to set the record straight again, drawing a line from how the media has presented Rose compared to how the people of Chicago see him, and vice-versa.


“We didn’t turn on Derrick, the media (did),” Parker told NBCSportsChicago.com. “We’re hometown. I speak for everybody, we love our hometown.”


The love of Chicago meant more than the prospect of not being able to live up to a glorious prep past, even though he should be well aware wanderlust can turn to villainy in a heartbeat—or the wrong step.


“There’s no pressure for me,” Parker said to NBCSportsChicago.com. “I’m just happy I get to play with some young guys, and I don’t harp on the negative. Anybody and everybody is gonna have an opinion. I value more my dreams than their opinions.”


And the dreamer steps forward, with a confident gait, eyes wide open and a city hoping it doesn’t repeat the same mistakes of its past.


“There’s no fear,” Parker said. “I haven’t faced any other pressure than bouncing back. I’m back on my feet and moving on.”


“When you struggle more, you succeed more.”

Sports Talk Live Podcast: With Jabari Parker in the mix, are the Bulls playoff contenders?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: With Jabari Parker in the mix, are the Bulls playoff contenders?

David Haugh, Patrick Finley and KC Johnson join Kap on the panel. Jabari Parker is officially a Chicago Bull. So does that make the Bulls a playoff team? And who will play defense for Fred Hoiberg’s young team? Vincent Goodwill and Mark Schanowski drop by to discuss.

Plus with Manny Machado now a Dodger, are the Cubs no longer the best team in the NL?

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