Circus trip will test Bulls defense that came up big against Pacers


Circus trip will test Bulls defense that came up big against Pacers

The Bulls head out on their two-week long circus trip while the United Center is being preoccupied, giving them a chance to knock out a long road trip early in the season.

But this trip won’t be as strenuous and arduous as it usually has been in previous years, giving this team a lot of off-time and chance to close quarters as a unit.

Like last season, the Bulls head west with a 7-3 record and also like last season, Derrick Rose’s status is on a bit of shaky ground, as his left ankle sprain has him listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Phoenix, the first of the three-game western leg that’ll be completed in the next seven days.

Rose missed the first four games of the seven-game trip with injury, a left hamstring ailment that seemed to bother him upon returning midway through the trip. This time around, an ankle sprain is fairly common and shouldn’t be such a huge cause of concern although it’s hard to tell Bulls nation not to feel a certain way.

“That’s too far ahead,” said Rose after the Bulls’ 96-95 win over the Pacers Monday night. “Right now I just need to get treatment, put some ice on it for a little bit. After this, just get off my feet and put more ice on it.”

[MORE: Bulls Road Ahead - A spread out Circus Trip]

He’ll have plenty of time to recover until Friday’s game in Oakland, where the Bulls are the last team to beat the NBA champion Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena in the regular season, a thriller last January.

“It’s exciting, it gives us a chance to bond as a team,” Rose said. “We have a young group. I’m one of the veterans on the team. It gives us a chance to really come together as a team, go out and learn more about each other and help us grow.”

If this trip is to be successful, Monday’s win is as good a primer as possible considering their pretty offense slowed to a crawl in the second half, particularly in the fourth quarter and they had to rely on their old standby, tough defense.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has coyly put more defensive-minded units on the floor in second halves, choosing to sit the likes of Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic for Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson—a clear message that he’s not just an offensive coach and has some idea of what this team’s foundation has been over the last several years—a foundation that has served them well.

“Defensive effort, you really can’t strategize for that,” Jimmy Butler said. “You can have schemes but you gotta play hard. We got guys that play crazy hard. They take it personal when they get scored on, so when it’s time to get stops we get stops.”

Butler, the man who blocked Paul George’s fadeaway jumper with seconds remaining, has clearly been preaching defense early in the season, along with Rose.

“The talk is always gonna be there, we can’t get involved in that,” Rose said. “Our job is to believe in each other, play well and get better individually.”

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The Bulls will be tested defensively, particularly on the perimeter during the trip by explosive backcourts. Phoenix’s tandem of Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe can go a mile a minute, as Knight just finished a 30-point, 15-rebound, 10-assist triple-double performance against the Lakers.

Golden State’s backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are the best in basketball, period. Curry leads the NBA in scoring at 33.4 points per game and is unguardable.

And while the Portland Trailblazers are struggling at 4-8, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are both putting up over 20 points a night, with Lillard scoring 25.3 points a night, good for eighth in the league.

“It’s tough on the road, the crowd’s against us,” Butler said.

And not only that, the guards standing across the way will put up shots all night, every night.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction


Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks


Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

Denzel Valentine’s troublesome left ankle is going to keep him on the sideline for at least the next two weeks. Fred Hoiberg said Saturday before the Bulls’ home opener against the Detroit Pistons that Valentine is suffering from a bone bruise in the ankle he sprained on the second day of training camp. Valentine will be evaluated in two weeks.

“It sucks because of all the work I put in this summer and being around the guys you want to be out there so bad,” he said. “Things happen for a reason, and now that we know what’s going on I at least have a time frame and be patient with it; it’s bad news but good news at the same time as it gives me time to get ready.”

Valentine had been practicing earlier in the week and appeared close to a return after spraining the ankle on Sept. 25. But the third year wing complained of discomfort in the ankle and missed practice on Friday. A scan of the left ankle revealed the bone bruise, and Hoiberg wouldn’t speculate on when exactly Valentine might return.

It’s the same ankle Valentine had surgery on in May 2017. Valentine also missed the last two weeks of last season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. The injury couldn’t come at a worse time for Valentine or the Bulls, who are in desparate need of help both in the backcourt and on the wing.

Though Valentine isn’t a true point guard, he averaged 3.2 assists per game off the bench last season. The Bulls could use that kind of production when Kris Dunn returns on Monday, as Cameron Payne and Ryan Arcidiacono haven’t exactly showed promise in the early going.

Instead, Valentine is on the mend and it’s unclear when he might return. Given he’s had surgery on the same ankle before, the Bulls will be cautious upon his return.

“I’m a fighter, I’m not going to quit; just deal with the hand dealt," Valentine said. "I can’t sit here and be negative, I just got to fight, stay mentally strong and this will be bittersweet when I come back and have a great year.”