Bulls

Bulls will depend on leaders to help youngsters get acclimated to playoffs

Bulls will depend on leaders to help youngsters get acclimated to playoffs

The parquet floor of the Boston Garden can be alluring to observers but unsettling to visitors as the youth of the Bulls will get thrown into the playoff water on the deep end without a life raft this weekend.

The team that the Bulls brass often touts as having so many players with three years of NBA experience or fewer, it’ll surely come into play in the first two games as the Bulls will try to steal a game in the Garden.

For that to happen, they’ll need to lean on the experience of the veterans who won’t be awed or overwhelmed by the atmosphere. Bulls guard Rajon Rondo spit out the clichéd line about the series not starting until a road team wins a game, but for these Bulls it holds as much truth as it does for most, as they’ll need some serious positive reinforcement.

The last time they walked into Boston on March 12, they were sent home smarting after a 20-point whipping during the period when the Bulls were trotting out 12 men in an attempt to “evaluate” players as opposed to trying to win.

Whether that game sticks out in their minds is anyone’s guess and despite some of the puzzling losses they’ve suffered since, they haven’t had their doors blown off since they started to find themselves shortly thereafter.

First-timers Jerian Grant, Paul Zipser and Bobby Portis look to be in line for serious reserve minutes, along with Nikola Mirotic going through the postseason for the second time and Cris Felicio getting back into the rotation recently after a lower back injury.

Denzel Valentine has been out of the rotation recently but as a 3-point threat he could be called upon at some point.

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The Bulls and Celtics tied the season series with two wins apiece, each winning on the other’s floor. The season opener was dramatic as Dwyane Wade punctuated his debut with a step-back 3-pointer that finished off a 105-99 win, as he scored 22.

“We weren’t the only team in the NBA to have a challenging season,” Dwyane Wade said. “This is what happens when you play in a challenging league. I’m proud of these young guys who have the opportunity to play in the playoffs.”

Wade has certainly had his share of battles with the Celtics over the years, both as a favorite and an underdog as a member of the Miami Heat. Rondo, of course, is a big part of recent Celtics lore, the point man for the 2008 title team and the others that were a conference fixture from that point on until the team was broken up after the 2012-13 season.

“I like this group, we have good, experienced guys,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Obviously with Wade and Rondo with their championship experience and Jimmy has played in some huge games.”

Hoiberg walking into the playoffs as a novice probably isn’t understated, either, but he knows enough to know the Celtics are not a club to be trifled with—as Isaiah Thomas is one of the best scoring guards in the league and the Celtics have plenty of wings to throw at Wade and Jimmy Butler in Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart.

“It’s obviously a very talented team, a very versatile team,” Hoiberg said. “They have skilled guys at all five positions on the floor, basically at all times. They have guys who can shoot it, make plays, put it on the floor.”

The Celtics are the No. 1 seed in the East, but certainly not the most feared—as long as LeBron James has working limbs, every conversation starts with him. But the Celtics have arrived as a threat a bit ahead of schedule at the top of the conference, almost trying to wait and season their young pieces while the James flame doesn’t burns slowly instead of being the towering inferno it’s been for the decade.

Come Sunday, the Bulls will find out if the Celtics are a bit premature with their arrival and if their young players are still in the incubator.

Kris Dunn looks to build off Saturday's late-game heroics on Monday against the Thunder

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USA TODAY

Kris Dunn looks to build off Saturday's late-game heroics on Monday against the Thunder

With all the talk about Zach LaVine, Lauri Markannen and Wendell Carter Jr. being foundation pieces for the next Bulls’ playoff team, you really couldn’t blame Kris Dunn for feeling a little left out.

After all, the 6 foot 4 point guard was an All-American at Providence and the fifth player selected in the 2016 draft. No one’s questioning his superior defensive skills, but his outside shooting and availability are still concerns as the Bulls’ front office plans for the future. Dunn only played in 52 games last season because of injuries, and he’s already missed 26 games this season because of a sprained knee. His career shooting averages are 42 percent from the field and 31 percent from the three-point line.

Still, Dunn showed Saturday night in San Antonio why he still could be the Bulls’ starting point guard for many years to come. He scored a team-high 24 points, including the two baskets that sealed the Bulls’ come-from-behind win. Paired with Ryan Arcidiacono in the backcourt because of LaVine’s ankle injury, Dunn played much more aggressively on the offensive end, taking advantage of favorable match-ups to make 11-of-18 shots from the field.

Now, the front office and coaching staff is waiting to see if he can post those numbers on a more consistent basis while also developing chemistry with LaVine as the Bulls’ starting backcourt. Having Dunn step forward as the clear-cut answer at point guard would definitely simplify some of the Bulls’ roster decisions for next summer and beyond.

Dunn will face a major challenge Monday night against former league MVP Russell Westbrook and a highly motivated Oklahoma City Thunder squad. The Bulls snapped OKC’s four-game winning streak back on Dec. 7 in Jim Boylen’s first home game as head coach, 114-112.

Westbrook came on strong in the second half after an indifferent start to post a triple double with 24 points, 17 rebounds and 13 assists, but he also turned the ball over 10 times. Paul George missed a wide open three in the closing seconds that would have won it for the Thunder, who are currently battling for one of the top seeds in the closely packed Western Conference.

Bottom line, the Bulls will have zero chance of catching the Thunder looking ahead to their next game. Physical center Steven Adams scored OKC’s first 12 points in the earlier meeting and you can expect Thunder coach Billy Donovan will go to his match-up with Carter early and often, especially given the rookie’s persistent foul problems.

The Bulls will need another big offensive game from Dunn and a return to form from Justin Holiday, who shot 1-of-12 from the field and 1-of-10 from the three-point line Saturday in San Antonio. Holiday scored 20 points against the Thunder earlier this month, making 4-of-6 tries from beyond the arc.

Look for Robin Lopez to get expanded playing time against the mountainous Adams and for Markkanen to take advantage of isolation match-ups against OKC’s undersized power forward Jerami Grant. Markkanen showed off a Dirk Nowitzki-esque step-back jumper agains the Spurs and appears to be finding his rhythm on offense after missing 2 months because of a sprained right elbow.

Boylen has talked about wanting to play at a slower tempo on the road to force opposing teams to defend for all 24 seconds on the shot clock, and of course, limiting possession for the explosive Westbrook is always a solid strategy. Here are a few other keys for keeping this game close.

1. Limit turnovers - The Bulls did a great job in this area on Saturday, only turning it over nine times against the Spurs. Westbrook and George love to play the passing lanes for steals and breakaway dunks which can be back-breakers for a young team playing in a loud arena like Oklahoma City’s.

2. Happy Holiday - Holiday was able to extend his franchise record three point streak to 41 games with his only field goal on Saturday, but the Bulls will need him to heat up from long range to hang with a powerful offensive team like OKC. Dunn’s ability to penetrate and draw help defenders should create some open looks for Holiday, Markkanen and Bobby Portis.

3. Keep Adams from dominating inside - Easier said than done with a player as physically imposing as the New Zealand native, but if the Bulls can win the rebound battle they should be able to stay in the game. Rebounding has been a key stat in just about every one of the Bulls’ seven victories, and it will be a point of emphasis again Monday night.

We invite you to join Kendall Gill, Will Perdue and me for Bulls Pre-Game Live at 6:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago and the MyTeams by NBC Sports app. Then as soon as the game goes final, flip back to NBC Sports Chicago for reaction and analysis on Bulls Postgame Live, followed by the always-entertaining Bulls Outsiders.

Make your plans to join us Monday night.

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Windy City Bulls roundup: JaKarr Sampson

Windy City Bulls roundup: JaKarr Sampson

In this edition of the Windy City roundup we look at JaKarr Sampson, who has been playing well in an intriguing role with the Windy City Bulls.

Sampson, a two-year player at St. John’s University, averaged 13 PPG and 6 RPG on 46 percent in his college career. However, the most impressive part of his college resume were the hustle stats. Over his two seasons in college, Sampson averaged just over two offensive rebounds per game and racked up 125 combined steals/blocks.

That mentality has followed him to the pros, where he has been great at getting to the rim, drawing fouls and blocking shots.

But Sampson hasn’t been spectacular with his finishing in the NBA. And on top of that, the lack of (any) noticeable progress with his shooting stroke makes it hard to find a spot for him, even in the increasingly position-less NBA.

But the Windy City Bulls and head coach Charlie Henry have been using Sampson as a small-ball center, with intriguing results.


Through 6 games in the 2018-19 NBA G League season, Sampson is averaging 21 points, 6 rebounds and shooting 55 percent from the field.

He is one of the tallest players on the team as, Windy City has no players taller than 6-foot 8 on the roster. Despite starting a 6-foot 8 player at center, Windy City has the 2nd best defensive rating in the league (100.6) over the last five games.

And while he has helped the Bulls have a great NBA G League defense, his offensive value also offers upside. Sampson has been able to use his quickness to beat lumbering bigs off the dribble. He has also gotten slightly better at timing his rolls to the basket to receive dump off passes from his guards.

For pretty much the first time in Sampson’s basketball career (even dating back to high school) he is starting to make an earnest attempt to stretch his range out to the 3-point line. He is taking just over two 3-point attempts per game. While he is shooting a poor 28 percent from deep, those couple 3-point attempts per night help Windy City’s offense by dragging opposing bigs out of the paint to contest shots.

Sampson’s aggressiveness is at an all-time high with the Bulls. He has a gargantuan usage rate that is north of 30 percent, impressive considering that he hasn’t had to shoulder a heavy load on offense in quite some time. He is turning the ball over a considerable amount and that is perhaps the one thing knocking down his offensive value.

He has an impressive assist rate from the center spot, so the skill is there and simply needs to be raised a level. That obviously becomes much easier when you play with better teammates.

If Sampson was to play with the Chicago Bulls, he obviously would be a low-usage player. This in turn could make his solid passing ability a huge plus, since the Bulls have some interesting offensive pieces with Kris Dunn, Bobby Portis and Lauri Markkanen all returning to join Zach LaVine in the rotation.

And with Sampson showing that he can be effective against centers who are non-scoring threats, he would be a nice player to give spot minutes to when Wendell Carter Jr. is in foul trouble (especially early in games).

Succeeding at the highest levels in today’s NBA is all about the 3-point shot, lineup versatility and a commitment to the defensive side of the ball. And Sampson checks off two of the three boxes with certainty, making him a solid bet to be one of the next Windy City Bulls players to receive a call up.