Bulls

Deng leads Bulls over Celtics

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Deng leads Bulls over Celtics

In a rematch of Sundays loss in Boston, the Bulls (25-7) were out for vengeance and received a satisfactory result, holding off the visiting Celtics (15-14), 89-80, Thursday night at the United Center.

You can never let your guard down against that team, said Thibodeau. I liked the fact that when they closed the gap, we showed a lot of resiliency to close it out.

Without Derrick Rose and his ailing back for the fourth consecutive game, All-Star Luol Deng stepped up as both a facilitator and scorer, while frontcourt partners Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer also made major contributions, along with an important spark off the bench from D-League call-up Mike James.

Veteran All-Star Paul Pierce (14 points) got off to a quick start, scoring the visitors first six points of the contest against his former assistant coachs squad. Meanwhile, the Bulls stuck with their usual balanced offensive attack and while they fell into a shallow hole, they recovered to play traditionally stout defense, following adjustments from Tom Thibodeau during an early timeout.

However, just like Sundays affair, Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo (17 points, eight assists, seven rebounds) began to get loose, pushing the tempo and scoring on delayed fast breaks on clever layups and even his much-improved mid-range jumper. Despite solid opening periods from starting forwards and Duke products Deng (23 points, 6-for-9 three-point shooting, 10 assists) and Boozer (23 points, 15 rebounds), the Bulls trailed, 24-18, after a quarter of play.

We came out and we were soft in the first quarter. They got us back on our heels. We weren't taking it up strong. They are very good defensively. We were being dominated on the boards in the first quarter and then, the second quarter, it changed. Our defense got better, our rebounding got better, our energy got better. Then, we got back into the game, said Thibodeau. Youre playing a tough team that plays very aggressively. Youve got to match that intensity. You cant be back on your heels, so once we started attacking more, we gave ourselves a chance and I thought we got a lift from a number of guys.

A disjointed, physical second quarter commenced, with the officiating crew letting both teams play through contact Rondo took advantage of this policy, drawing three fouls on C.J. Watson (11 points), who started for the injured Rose, forcing the newly re-acquired James to enter the contest, adding a physical, defensive-minded presence at point guard much to the dissatisfaction of the home crowd, which believed their beloved Bulls were getting the short end of the stick.

Im not going to let anybody smaller than me post me up, said James afterwards. Thibodeau put me in a lot of pick-and-rolls, where I had the freedom of making plays, not just for myself, but for others.

You have to be professional, you have to be ready. One thing I always say is, Its better to be ready than to get ready, and so, mentally, I approach every game the same exact way, so whether I get a DNP or I dont, Im constantly visualizing the game in my mind, he added. If Im not playing, well then, I sit and I try to be the best teammate and cheer my players on, but if I play, mentally Im already into the game.

But although the hosts allowed their guests to build a slim cushion, behind the play of Rondo and future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett (18 points, 10 rebounds), the Bulls, led by their frontcourt, fought back.

Dengs outside marksmanship and passing, Boozers finishing ability which included a posterization of Jermaine ONeal court vision and work on the boards, and Noahs (15 points, 16 rebounds) typical effort on the glass, as well as the ability to convert in traffic, were all critical in the team flipping the script and creating separation from Boston.

Luol was terrific. You cant say enough about all that he did throughout the game. Carlos was a monster on the boards in the second quarter. He got going and then Joakim got going as the game went along. Our big guys did a very good job, said Thibodeau. Our big guys are very unselfish and theyre excellent passers, and I think our team does a good job. They share the ball with each other and they hit the open man, so if we keep it moving and we drive into gaps, we should be able to get some good shots and I thought once we settled down, we were able to do that.

When the damage was done from that critical stretch the home team had a double-digit rebounding advantage, all three frontcourt starters were double-figure scorers and the club had 13 assists on 15 made field goals, just to name a few indicators of success the Bulls went into the intermission with a 44-35 lead, via a 22-7 run.

Explained Thibodeau: Everyone talks about easy baskets and the obvious is the fast break, but you also have to include your second shots, your post feeds and your cuts. All those things will lead to easy baskets and were trying to get as many as we can.

The Bulls didnt cool off after the break, rattling off the third quarters first seven points Watson scored the second halfs first five points before Celtics head coach Doc Rivers, a Chicago native, called a timeout to stop the bleeding.

With the frontcourt starters continuing to play strong all-around games, the gap grew to a comfortable double-digit winning margin, as Boozer and Noah, in particular, made sharp cuts and benefited from the passing of Deng and Watson.

Were moving the ball, guys are hitting shots. You guys have got to ask those guys, How come, all of a sudden, youre making shots? Deng joked about his passing. Deng is focusing on his playmaking especially early in the game. When Derrick is playing, Im more focused on being aggressive offensively and scoring, and attacking. Every game is different. The last two games, early, Ive been trying to move the ball and as the game goes on, I get a better rhythm.

Added Noah: Hes been huge for us. He just does a bunch of everything. You can just switch the pick-and-roll, you can switch the three-five, he can guard in the post, he can make plays, hes been shooting big shots for us, threes. Hes just been doing it all, so its good to have Sweet Lu playing at that level, even with the messed-up hand.

Thibodeau joined the chorus of praise: When Derricks playing, the balls in his hands more. Were going to some different things and I like what he didand he did that towards the end of last year, tooand hes a much better pick-and-roll player than you realize. Hes got good size, hes got vision, he can score, he can drive, he can pull up, so I like having the ball in his hands.

But Boston gradually mounted a comeback the beginning of which coincided with Boozer blowing a wide-open layup in transition trimming the deficit to single digits behind Garnetts work on the interior, Rondos playmaking and veteran sharpshooter Ray Allens (12 points) long-range accuracy.

For whatever reason, the Bulls went away from the crisp ball movement and unselfish play against the Celtics zone defense that marked their earlier run and heading into the final stanza, they held a tenuous 60-59 advantage.

The game continued to be a close-knit affair early in the fourth quarter, as the visitors defense seemingly confounded the Bulls, who forced contested outside jumpers and appeared to have lost their offensive rhythm.

But eventually, with James toughness when matched up against Rondo setting the tone, the hosts settled in, acquired a bit of breathing room and were again patient enough to get some easy offense, as Deng marvelously blended scoring and playmaking to give his team a double-digit lead, while creating easy opportunities for Boozer and Noah.

Mike is tough, Mike is a pro. He came in just ready, he stayed ready and we didnt miss a beat when he came in. a lot of teams, having someone whos gone or his first game back, the rhythm would be messed up a little bit, but hes been going in early and running the plays a little bit, Deng said of James. You guys need to stop calling me weak. I might get six fouls in the next game, just to show my toughness. No, but Mike is tough. Its not like hes a rookie. He knows the game, he knows what Rondos trying to do. He knows what theyre trying to run and all that, so hes prepared and ready. Hes not going to come in there and have somebody just bully him or run their offense going at him, but they tried to run some plays and he did a good job playing D.

Noah added, in his inimitable fashion: Hes a boy, so Mike came in and he doesnt play that post-me-up stuff. Jailhouse basketball, thats what we call him.

Chimed in Thibodeau: Mike James was terrific. Rondos a load to deal with in every aspect of the gametransition, pick-and-rolls, now theyre posting him moreso I thought Mike battled him tough in the post.

Mikes an excellent pick-and-roll player. Then, they went zone. He was able to get into some gaps and make some plays. Hes a very confident player. He knocked down a big three, but he did an excellent job of running the team, he continued. If you double-team, you dont want to bring someone else into the game. You dont want to bring their three-point shooting into the game and so, I thought if we had a little more size, we wouldnt have to double.

James role in the Bulls pulling away from the Celtics cant be discounted, as his pesky defense on Rondo and aggressive offensive play were catalysts as the contest entered the stretch run. Boston repeatedly threatened late, making it as close as a two-possession game, but a Deng corner triple with under a minute remaining sealed the deal.

Its good to win tonight, but theres definitely a lot of areas we need to work on in practice tomorrow, Noah observed. Were not satisfied. We could definitely play better and I think thats a positive. Were definitely not playing our best basketball right now and I think that when you add guys like Derrick and guys like Rip back, it could get ugly.

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.