Bulls

Bulls stun Cavaliers, spoil Tyronn Lue's NBA coaching debut

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Bulls stun Cavaliers, spoil Tyronn Lue's NBA coaching debut

CLEVELAND — The circumstances were all in place for the Bulls to succumb in an environment that was set for a blowout loss—and with the way they’d been playing, they didn’t need perfect circumstances for such an outcome.

They came in losing six of eight, it was the third game in four nights and the opponent on the other side was allegedly charged up for their new head coach’s debut.

But the other side of the bi-polar Bulls emerged to play spoiler for Tyronn Lue’s first game, flipping the switch to reverse the trend for a 96-83 victory at Quicken Loans Arena Saturday night.

The Cavs certainly looked out of sorts and just as fragile as the Bulls have been for the past several weeks, but the Bulls displayed a bit more fervor than they had recently, not allowing the Cavaliers to jump out early and keeping the crowd subdued.

“With a team like that and a leader like that in LeBron, you’re on alert, I’ll say that,” Derrick Rose said. “Coming into the game, you know the stadium is gonna be rocking and they’re gonna be real hype for the game.”

Pau Gasol re-emerged to score 25 and 10 rebounds, as the Bulls reversed a couple damning trends over the last couple weeks, such as turning the ball over too much and not controlling their defensive glass.

They outrebounded the Cavaliers 53-48, holding their playoff tormentors to 37 percent shooting and committing just eight turnovers, a contrast to their embarrassing showing in Boston.

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“They responded. We talked a lot about that,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We talked about coming out and playing with a lot of energy early and we had to match it. I thought we did that.”

It doesn’t show up in the box score, but Taj Gibson was single-handedly battling the Cavs bigs inside, keeping Kevin Love and Timofey Mozgov off the glass. His 3-point play opportunity with 1:49 left gave the Bulls an 11-point lead, effectively ending whatever threat the Cavs intended to pull off.

He scored 15 and eight rebounds, outperforming Love’s 14 and five rebound performance. After getting poked in the eye late in Boston, he had to play with goggles and Rose joked he might have to continue playing with the goggles if he keeps producing like this.

“I couldn’t see out of my eye, it was completely black,” Gibson said. “I didn’t know if I was gonna play today. It was scary. It was still a little blurry.”

The Bulls were thought to need heroic performances from Jimmy Butler and Rose, but they had relatively off-nights despite being effective, with 20 and 12, respectively.

But then again, some things were out of their control. The Cavs uncharacteristically started out 1 for 10 from the free-throw line. When they hit their second free throw late in the third quarter, the Quicken Loans Arena crowd cheered wildly—out of sarcasm, and finished nine of 22 from the stripe.

By that point, they were nearing panic mode as the Bulls led by 10 despite not shooting the ball well, but received necessary contributions from Nikola Mirotic, who at that point in the evening outscored LeBron James 14-10.

It’s funny how we always get up to play the big teams,” Gibson said. “It’s just funny how we muster up and play great. We have to learn from it. Niko played great. These are games that help guys overcome hurdles from the past.”

[MORE: First place Cleveland Cavaliers fire head coach David Blatt]

Mirotic hit a triple to start the fourth quarter, giving the Bulls their biggest lead of night at 77-60.

Gasol, just as he did in Game 1 of their playoff series last May, kept the bigs at bay with his mid-range shooting, hitting 11 of 15 shots and even finished on a fast break feed from Gibson, the Bulls’ only basket in that category.

Neither will take this game film and frame it, but entering the arena there was a different feel, and the Bulls will caution against any long-term views by going up 2-0 in the season series.

“We’ve been 2-0 many times against the past,” Gibson said. “It’s about when it’s time to knuckle up and it’s playoff time. I’d rather be up 2-0 against the Cavs in the playoffs.”

Butler and James were the only two on the floor two and a half hours before the charged up contest, as Butler was in full lather going through his array of shots with assistant coach Jim Boylen.

Butler scored 13 in the first half, while James couldn’t get much of anything going outside the perimeter. It was to the point Butler was giving James the outside shot and James couldn’t hit it, going 0 for 5 beyond the three-point line. James neared a triple-double with 23, 13 rebounds and nine assists but took 27 shots and hit only 11.

As drama-filled as the Cavaliers’ present is, as well as their future, it’s only matched by the Bulls’ unpredictability—and the playoffs are still four months away.

Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

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USA TODAY

Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

In talking with Bulls' fans over the summer and reading posts on social media, it seems like expectations for the 2018-19 season are all over the board.

Some fans think the Bulls will finish at or slightly above the .500 mark and contend for a playoff spot, others are looking for more modest improvement with a win total in the low to mid 30's, while others believe Fred Hoiberg's team will be among the worst in the league.

Reality probably lies in the middle ground. Bulls' General Manager Gar Forman told us on media day the goals will be to win as many games as possible while still focusing on individual player development. The Bulls will again be among the NBA's youngest teams with 9 of their top 11 players under the age of 25. 

Bulls' Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson made it clear at the end of last year's 27-55 campaign that he couldn't endure another season of manipulating the roster and player rotations to improve draft lottery chances, while Hoiberg enters the 4th season of his 5 year contract needing to show improvement to keep his position as head coach. 

Clearly, no one in the front office or coaching staff is talking about tanking with the hopes of landing a top 3 pick in the 2019 draft. The Bulls will play to win this season, but they’ll also have to ride out the normal highs and lows of competing with such a young roster.

So, as a Bulls' fan, what should you be watching for this season to judge how much the team has improved? Here's what I'll be looking for:

1. Will Lauri Markkanen take the next step towards All-Star status?

Losing your best player on the 3rd day of training camp isn't the ideal way to start a season, but the good news is Markkanen should return from his elbow injury around Thanksgiving with plenty of time to re-establish himself as one of the league's rising stars. The 1st team All-Rookie selection put on needed bulk and muscle in the off-season to improve his low post game and he's ready to punish smaller defenders who switch on to him in pick and roll situations. Markkanen has all the tools to become a top 30 player in the league. The question is, how much closer will he come to reaching that status this season?

2. Is Zach LaVine all the way back?

Judging by what we saw during the preseason, LaVine appears to be ready to pick up where he left off during his 3rd year in Minnesota when he was averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting nearly 39% from 3 point range before an ACL injury set him back. LaVine should average 20 points a game or more this season, but how much he improves in other areas of his game (particularly on the defensive end), will be the key to whether the Bulls made the right decision in matching that 4 year, 78 million dollar offer sheet LaVine signed with the Sacramento Kings back in July. If LaVine reclaims his status as one of the league’s most promising wing players, the Bulls will have at least two foundation pieces in place. 

3. Can the backcourt pairing of LaVine and Kris Dunn succeed long term?

The Bulls' young guards didn't get a chance to play many minutes together last season because of LaVine's ACL rehab and Dunn's scary fall after making a breakaway dunk against Golden State. Both players are most comfortable with the ball in their hands, and both showed the ability to make big shots at the end of games. Dunn will need to sacrifice some of his offensive game to get the ball into the hands of the team's best shooters, but he's already one of the better defensive point guards in the league and looks like a potential leader on future Bulls' playoff squads. Developing better chemistry with LaVine is critical in year 2 of the rebuild.

4. Is Wendell Carter Jr. the answer at center?

The Bulls used the 7th pick in last June's draft to grab the 6'10" big man, who played in the considerable shadow of Marvin Bagley during their one season together at Duke. Carter Jr. showed enough during Summer League play and pre-season games to move into the starting line-up ahead of 10 year veteran Robin Lopez, but whether he's ready to stay there is another question. Carter Jr. is an excellent rim protector and also has the lateral quickness to switch out on to smaller perimeter players, but right now he's a reluctant shooter. Given the fact Carter Jr. is only 19, it will be fascinating to track how much he improves throughout his rookie season. Did the Bulls strike gold again with the #7 pick?

5. How does Jabari Parker fit?

More than a few eyebrows were raised around the league when the Bulls decided to sign the Chicago native to a 2 year, 40 million dollar free agent contract. Parker was expecting to move to the small forward spot, but returned to power forward when Markkanen was injured, and then moved to the bench when the coaching staff wasn't happy with how the starting line-up was playing early in the pre-season. Parker could be a valuable weapon as a big-time scorer and facilitator with the 2nd unit, but if he's unhappy with his role or playing time, this season could turn out to be an unhappy homecoming. How Parker adapts to the challenges of establishing his role will determine whether the Bulls exercise the team option on the 2nd year of his contract. 

6. Which other players will be part of the roster when the Bulls are a playoff team again?

Questions remain about a number of the team's young players. Bobby Portis has established himself as a legitimate NBA scorer and team leader; his improved 3 point shooting will be critical to the team's success, whether he starts or comes off the bench. But after failing to reach agreement on a contract extension by the Monday deadline, will Portis be chasing stats as he looks ahead to restricted free agency next summer? Denzel Valentine, Cameron Payne and rookie Chandler Hutchison will all have to make the most of limited minutes, with each player needing to prove to the coaching staff and front office they deserve to be in the rotation long term.

So, don't get caught up in the Bulls chasing some arbitrary win total number. Even though the Eastern Conference is weaker overall than the West, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Indiana, Milwaukee, Washington, Miami and Detroit all appear to be likely playoff teams, barring an injury to a key player. 

Hoiberg's offense will continue to emphasize pace, floor spacing and 3 point shooting which should bring out the best in a young and developing roster. 

2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition

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USA TODAY

2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition

The theme of the 2018-19 NBA season will be: “old faces in new places”. Like a season-long game of the NBA on TNT crew’s “Who he play for?” game, this year will be about fans trying to get used to the idea of LeBron James in purple (I won’t call it ‘Forum Blue’)-and-gold, DeMarcus Cousins being on a championship-contending franchise and Kawhi Leonard being the new face of Toronto.

The Warriors are still the easy favorite to make it four NBA championships in five years, but they will be tested perhaps more than any year before in a loaded Western Conference, where even the lowliest of teams (here’s to you Phoenix and Memphis!) made solid offseason moves geared towards winning games.

Over in the now-LeBron-less East, there is hope amongst at least four-to-five teams that they could actually have a shot to win the conference. The Pacers still have budding superstar Victor Oladipo, the Sixers still have Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and the Raptors and Bucks made head coaching changes that could lead to deep playoff runs. But with the rest of the Eastern conference being stuck between lottery contention and middle of the pack, expect the half-experienced, half-youthful Celtics to takeover as East juggernaut.

But whether or not your favorite franchise is aiming for a high draft pick or a postseason berth, there is tons to be excited in a 2018-19 NBA season that will surely be an intriguing one. Check out Week 1 of our NBA Power Rankings right here.