Bulls: Thibs must make most of versatile bench against Cavs


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.

Wendell Carter Jr. survives gauntlet of centers to begin career


Wendell Carter Jr. survives gauntlet of centers to begin career

Don't tell Wendell Carter Jr. the center position is a dying breed.

The 19-year-old rookie hasn't exactly been able to ease into the NBA, finding himself up against a handful of All-Stars and powerful frontcourts just five days into his career.

It culminated Monday night with a date against Mavericks center DeAndre Jordan, and once again the seventh overall pick held his own. It was much of the same as it was against Philadelphia's Joel Embiid and Detroit's Andre Drummond last week (and Nikola Jokic in the preseason finale): some good, some bad, plenty of poise and zero backing down. The NBA is unforgiving, but this could very well be the toughest stretch Carter faces all season.

"He’s playing against top level centers now," Fred Hoiberg said before Monday's game. "It’s a great experience for him. He’s going to learn and get better and he plays within himself, we will continue to look for him to be more aggressive."

He was as aggressive as the Bulls have seen him against Jordan and the Mavericks. He blew by the 20 and 18 minutes he played in the first two games of the year, totalling 32 minutes. His final line won't tell the story - 4 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and a block - of a Carter who defended well at the rim, picking and choosing his spots on when to attack shots and when to simply use his verticality.

He wasn't credited for a block but he contested a Jordan dunk that turned into a Bobby Portis dunk on the other end. Plus-minus isn't always a good indicator of a player's worth, but Carter was a +5 in a 14-point Bulls loss. He even attempted a corner 3-pointer early in the shot clock, showing no hesitation. Carter's had his moments, but it's also apparent he's got a 19-year-old body going up against veterans each night. That'll come with time in the weight room. For now the experience is 

"I appreciate the fact I’m able to play against these very talented bigs early in my career," Carter said after the loss to the Pistons. "What I need to work on is I have to get stronger; that’s the first thing I recognize; just being up against the best. I love the competition. It’s always a great feeling going against the best."

What the Bulls are finding out is they have a player mature beyond his years. As he progresses he'll continue to get more difficult assignments. He had his rookie moment late in Monday's loss, committing a turnover in the backcourt after the Bulls had cut the deficit to five with 35 seconds left. The fouls are also an issue, as Carter has committed 10 in three games (after committing 17 in five preseason games).

That doesn't necessarily seem important for a Lottery-bound team, but considering the continued struggles of Robin Lopez (and Cristiano Felicio is entirely out of the rotation) it is. Lopez had 2 points and 1 rebound in 10 minutes while committing five personal fouls. In three games he has 11 personal fouls and 11 points, and also has more turnovers (five) than rebounds (four). If the Bulls are going to compete until Lauri Markkanen returns, Carter will need to hover around the 32 minutes he played Monday.

He'll get a much easier test on Wednesday when the Charlotte Hornets arrive in town. Cody Zeller doesn't exactly have the credentials of a Jokic or Embiid, meaning Carter may have a little more room to work. 

The Bulls know they have something in Carter. It'll be abother month until they can deploy him alongside Markkanen, but if the first three games are any indication, Carter won't have any problems matching up with some of the league's best.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Moral victory for the Bears?


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Moral victory for the Bears?

David Schuster, Adam Jahns and Patrick Finley join Kap on the panel.

0:00- Dave Wannstedt joins the panel to discuss the Bears 38-31 loss to the Patriots? Was it a moral victory? Is Matt Nagy crazy to say Mitch Trubisky didn’t play that bad?

13:00- Joe Girardi pulls his name out of the Reds managerial search and Jon Heyman reports that industry sources believe he might wait to see if there’s an opening in Chicago. What are the chances that he replaces Joe Maddon?

14:30- Adam Amin joins Kap to preview the Bulls/Mavericks game and discuss the lack of defense in the NBA.