Bulls

Bulls: Thibs must make most of versatile bench against Cavs

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Bulls: Thibs must make most of versatile bench against Cavs

It doesn’t take an expert to tell you the Cleveland Cavaliers will miss Kevin Love in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Bulls. Sure, Love struggled at times in playing the third wheel to LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, but he’s still one of the NBA’s elite power forwards, capable of putting up 20-point, 10-rebound games with regularity, while providing the floor spacing that’s so important to the Cavaliers offense.

But the loss of Love (and J.R. Smith for the first two games because of a league suspension), has an even greater impact when the two teams go to their benches. It’s expected Cleveland coach David Blatt will start 6-foot-9 Tristan Thompson in Love’s spot, and Thompson had great success against the Bulls during the regular season, averaging 5.5 offensive rebounds per game. The combination of Thompson and Timofey Mozgov inside will definitely pose some problems for Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah inside, and keeping the Cleveland bigs from dominating the offensive boards will be one of the keys to the series.

But what does Blatt do when Thompson and Mozgov need to rest? Enforcer Kendrick Perkins will get some playing time in the middle, looking to punish Derrick Rose and any other Bulls who drive to the basket. But the power forward spot provides some interesting options for Blatt. Does he go with seldom-used veteran Shawn Marion, or simply slide LeBron James to that spot and go with either James Jones or Mike Miller at small forward? Miller might be an option at shooting guard as well in the first two games when Smith serves his suspension for punching Jae Crowder in the final game of their first-round series against Boston.

[MORE: Bulls will be at full strength facing LeBron, Cavs]

No matter which option Blatt chooses, Thibodeau should have a deeper and more talented reserve group throughout the series. Taj Gibson is one of the league’s top sixth men, and has the size and quickness to guard James if he moves to the power forward spot. Gibson’s post-up skills could also cause problems for Cleveland if they try to defend him with Marion. Look for Gibson to log extended minutes throughout the series.

Nikola Mirotic is the ultimate X factor for the Bulls, giving Thibodeau a 6-foot-10 stretch forward who can hurt the Cavs with his outside shooting or his ability to drive to the basket. Mirotic wasn’t very effective after suffering a leg injury in Game 2 against Milwaukee, but the additional time off should have him close to full strength for this round. Thibodeau will have to pick his spots in using the European rookie to protect him against bad defensive matchups, but he could give the Bulls the offensive boost they need in close games.

It’s a similar story in the backcourt, where Bulls’ reserves Aaron Brooks, Kirk Hinrich and Tony Snell all bring something a little different to the table against Cleveland’s duo of Iman Shumpert and Australian Matthew Dellavedova. Shumpert figures to start the first two games of the series while Smith is out, but he’s not nearly the same type of threat on the offensive end. When Smith returns for Game 3, look for Shumpert to come off the bench as a wing defender to match up with Jimmy Butler when James slides to the power forward spot.

Thibodeau should be able to mix and match his reserve guards depending on the lineup Cleveland has on the floor. Given the size of Cleveland’s shooting guards and Irving’s quick strike scoring ability, Brooks will again be a negative on the defensive end. Thibodeau will try to use Brooks at point guard when Dellavedova is on the court and hope he can provide the scoring punch that made him such a valuable reserve during the regular season.

[MORE: Bulls get what they want in matchup with LeBron, Cavaliers]

Look for Hinrich to get limited minutes in a defensive role against Irving, but the real wild card in this series could be Snell. Remember how good he was in the Bulls’ lone win over Cleveland during the regular season, scoring 22 points on 9-for-11 shooting in a starting role and playing solid defense against James? Snell has the quickness and length at 6-foot-7 to give Butler some help in guarding James and Smith on the perimeter. And, if Snell is knocking down that 3-point shot, he gives Thibodeau another floor spacer to make the Cavs pay for sending double teams at Rose or Butler.

This series figures to be extremely close, with bench scoring capable of swinging one or more games in the Bulls’ favor. Let’s see how creative Thibodeau can be in using his five primary reserves and find out if the Bulls can really take it to the Cavs when the 30-somethings such as Marion, Perkins, Miller and Jones are on the floor.

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Bulls fail to close another close game in loss to Raptors

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NBC SPORTS CHICAGO

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Bulls fail to close another close game in loss to Raptors

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, Matt Peck, David Watson, and John Sabine react to the Bulls 93-92 loss to Toronto.

0:45 - Reaction to losing another close game

2:00 - Kendall Gill stops by to give Matt Peck a hard time about Derrick Rose

3:30 - On Wendell Carter Jr and wanting more

4:45 - Viewer comment on Bulls shooting 46 three-point attempts

7:20 - Concern over Lauri Markkanen

8:10 - Viewer comment still believing in Lauri

9:40 - Viewer comment on Wendell Carter and Daniel Gafford

12:10 - Viewer comment on running more pick n roll w Zach and Lauri

15:35 - Viewer question on Otto Porter and Hutchison

16:30 - Viewer trade idea: Kevin Love for Markkanen

17:15 - Any comfort in coming close to beating two of the top teams in the East?

20:30 - Viewer comment on losing games

23:00 - Viewer comment on Coby should start

24:05 - Viewer comment pandering to John Sabine

24:40 - Sabine shares his weird dream that involves Jim Boylen

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

In Bulls' loss to Toronto Raptors, Denzel Valentine and Daniel Gafford rejuvenated the United Center

In Bulls' loss to Toronto Raptors, Denzel Valentine and Daniel Gafford rejuvenated the United Center

Monday night, 14,775 fans attended the Bulls' latest in a line of hard-fought defeats: a 93-92 loss to the Toronto Raptors. That's the smallest reported crowd at the United Center for a Bulls game since Dec. 16, 2004.

For stretches, though, it felt like a full house. 

"The UC was great tonight, the fans were awesome," Denzel Valentine said.

The starters carried the team, to start: Of the Bulls' 50 first-half points, 46 were scored by Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter. But it wasn't the usual suspects that pushed the Chicago faithful's decibel count to levels unheard of in the earlygoing of this season.

Thank Valentine and Daniel Gafford, in large part, for that. With the Bulls trailing 61-58 at the 4:45 mark of the third, Jim Boylen turned to a bench-dominated unit of Coby White, Valentine, Thad Young, Gafford and LaVine to spark his group. It was a potential tipping point in the game: The Raptors were in the midst of an 11-3 run and the Bulls' offense was fizzling. White, Valentine, Young and Gafford had four points between them upon entry.

With that move, the fates tilted towards the home side. For a time.

"It was great minutes from them," Satoransky said of Valentine and Gafford after the game. "I think [Denzel] is feeling more himself right now. And DG will always bring that energy. He's one of the most athletic guys I've ever seen, his energy... will always refresh our game."

It certainly did in this one. Gafford blocked three shots and notched 10 points over the game's final quarter-and-a-half. Valentine scored all 13 of his points for the night after that juncture in the third, shooting 5-for-9 from the floor and 3-for-7 from 3-point range. The Bulls finished the night 12-for-46 from 3-point land.

"Just energy," Valentine said, of what that bench unit brought. "We started playing defense. It started on the defensive end, started in transition, getting rebounds. Played with a little bit more life. Playing with each other too. We were moving the ball together."

"We go in, we produce with the minutes that we get," Gafford said. And on what the fans gave back: "There was definitely energy. I was blocking shots, Denzel was knocking down shots, we were getting stops on defense. We were doing everything we needed to do to win the game, and the crowd helped us do that."

Of course, they didn't do it alone. In spite of not scoring, White played a solid defensive game and finished the night with eight rebounds and five assists. Young and Kris Dunn each hit crucial 3-pointers in the third. But watching Valentine and Gafford ignite the home crowd made it even more surreal that neither of them cracked the regular rotation until mid-to-late November.

"We got a bond," Gafford said. "He finds me when I'm open, and I find him when he's open... We just go out and play basketball."

That strategy helped the Bulls build an 85-77 lead with eight minutes left in the game, but the team's good fortunes faded fast from there. After an alley-oop from Valentine to Gafford gave them their 84th and 85th points of the night, the Bulls didn't score for the next five-and-a-half minutes of game action. The Raptors surged down the stretch. The Bulls scrapped, but ultimately faltered when it mattered most.

Both Gafford and Valentine found themselves in the Bulls' closing lineup — Valentine by way of the hot-hand, Gafford in Carter's stead after he fouled out with just under four minutes remaining. A Valentine transition layup, Markkanen 3-pointer and Gafford layup represented the Bulls' only points of the final eight minutes.

"We gotta learn how to put it away. If we can't at the end of the third quarter, we gotta put it away at the beginning of the fourth," Gafford said. "We just gotta learn how to put it away, seal the deal." 

But, as a team, they didn't. And thus, the bottom line doesn't change. The Bulls won a(nother) moral victory or two tonight, but when the final points were tallied, they were on the short end. That's the only stat that matters, especially to those 14,775 that stood behind their team, in person, tonight.

"It’s disappointing when we don’t win games. It’s disappointing when we don’t win home games," Boylen, who has presided over only 10 home victories in his tenure, said. "Nobody is running from that."

"No excuses, nobody cares, we just gotta come out and play hard and learn from our mistakes," Valentine said. "It's tough, because we lose the last three and we were up in the fourth [quarter], I think, in all of those games. So it's tough. But hopefully at some point we'll figure it out."

Gafford and Valentine provided a jolt, but because of the result, they're only would-be heroes — their combined performance amounts to nothing more than an all-too-familiar silver lining. In some ways, that stings even more.

"That's why this game is so frustrating," Satoransky said. "Because I know we were there. Fans were engaged and I think we played very well, and we missed a lot of shots. You know, that always hurts."

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