Do-or-die time for Bulls' revamped offense to show up


Do-or-die time for Bulls' revamped offense to show up

One year and two weeks ago the Bulls took the United Center floor facing elimination. Squaring off against an upbeat Washington Wizards team led by a pair of blossoming guards in John Wall and Bradley Beal, Tom Thibodeau's group proceeded to shoot 33 percent from the field and tied a franchise playoff-low with 69 points in a Game 5 loss, a disappointing end to a season in which they admittedly overachieved yet still fell short of the championship aspirations they had when the season began.

With that infamous performance in mind, GM Gar Forman and the Bulls used that offseason to re-tool their offensive arsenal. A healthy Derrick Rose returned after essentially two years away from the game. The front office agreed to a deal with overseas rookie Nikola Mirotic. Jimmy Butler locked himself in a Houston house with no internet or cable, focusing on nothing but basketball. The team signed veteran Pau Gasol two weeks after trading up for and drafting sharpshooter Doug McDermott. They also added shoot-first point guard Aaron Brooks to complement a second unit that touted Taj Gibson and Tony Snell.

The massive overhaul was indeed a required one. The Bulls had ranked dead last in points per game the previous two seasons, and even under a defensive genius in Thibodeau realized the current group simply wasn't going to cut it in the playoffs, when every team has the ability to tally 100 points on a given night.

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The results were telling. Despite a myriad of injuries to key players over the course of the season, the Bulls finished the regular season ranked 10th in offensive efficiency, showed off terrific balance as one of three teams (OKC, ORL) with three players averaging 17 or more points per game (Butler/Gasol/Rose) and went 35-10 when scoring 100 or more points. Their defensive prowess continued, finishing 11th in defensive efficiency, and they also proved they could win games by outscoring teams rather than simply out-uglying their opponent in a 12-round boxing tilt.

And still, 54 weeks later, the Bulls find themselves in the same predicament, facing elimination at home without any idea of which offensive group will show up Thursday night against LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Rose has lost his hot shooting touch from earlier in the series. Gasol is banged up and will give all he can with a bum hamstring. The bench, which was supposed to be a major advantage against Cleveland, has done nothing but fire blanks. Joakim Noah has become a shell of himself that the Cavaliers defense isn't honoring in the slightest, switching any ball screen he sets and not worrying about what may happen on a mismatch in the post.

The Cavaliers defense has been superb in the series. Though they were better defensively in the regular season with Kevin Love off the court, they're still down one of their superstars while trying to hide a hobbled Kyrie Irving on defensive sets whenever possible. Even LeBron James has been matched up with Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy a considerable amount in an attempt to keep him fresh for offensive sets, where his playoff usage is at a career-high without Love and a 100 percent Irving.

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And how have the Bulls responded? By shooting less than 41 percent from the field - less than 39 percent since their offensive barrage in Game 1 - including 39.5 percent combined shooting form their backcourt duo of Rose and Butler, which also was supposed to be an advantage and their main key to success. Chicago's effective field goal percentage - which weighs 3-pointers more heavily - in the series is 45.6 percent, a number that would have tied Charlotte for worst in the NBA in the regular season.

The maddening part of it all is that the offense has been crisp everywhere else. They've turned the ball over on 12 percent of possessions, the best mark in the second round of the eight teams remaining, and their 28.6 percent offensive rebounding rate is also the NBA's best mark this round - they have 83 second-chance points in five games. They haven't earned as many trips to the free throw line against a stout Cavaliers defense that has defended to near-perfection at the rim (Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson should teach verticality classes in the offseason) and received stellar contributions from Iman Shumpert on the perimeter. Still, their offensive execution has been there, minus that little part about putting the ball in the hoop.

Thibodeau, ever a perfectionist on the defensive end, noted after Game 5 that offense wasn't the problem, citing the Bulls' 101 points in a losing effort. But to get to the century mark the Bulls needed a frantic fourth quarter in which they shot 7-for-13 in a 7-minute span that cut the Cavs' lead from 17 to two. And even then, the Bulls still shot just 40 percent from the field and needed 41 shots in the paint to score 38 points (in contrast, Cleveland took 32 shot in the paint to score 40 points).

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

It would be easy to point to Gasol's absence as a factor in the low offensive output. But the Spaniard shot a combined 6-for-15 in Games 2 and 3 and can't be expected to carry a load playing in Game 6 on a hamstring he admitted was at 40 percent two days ago.

The onus must be put on Rose and Butler, the team's two volume shooters and healthy stars, to find the right shots and knock them down with confidence like they did in Game 1, when they combined for 45 points. Of course, it goes deeper than that. The Bulls need to find ways to free up Dunleavy, Noah must face the basket and find open cutters (and not take any more lefty layups) and a bench which has combined to shoot under 39 percent has to give some kind of spark when Butler and Rose get their few minutes of rest.

Slowing down James and a Cavaliers offense that's hitting their stride late in the series would be the optimal solution for the Bulls. It just isn't feasible. At some point - with that "point" being a do-or-die Game 6 occurring later tonight - the Bulls must make good on what their entire offseason plan of attack was predicated on: finding the scoring to compete in the postseason.

They'll score more than 69 points. But if they can't start making shots, the end result will feel just the same.

Steve Kerr stays positive, keeps perspective with new Warriors' challenge


Steve Kerr stays positive, keeps perspective with new Warriors' challenge

Kevin Durant chose to leave for the Nets in free agency. Klay Thompson faced rehabilitation after tearing his left ACL during Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

Yes, Steve Kerr knew this Warriors season would be different.

But nobody knew that Steph Curry would break his left hand and be sidelined until likely after the All-Star break at the earliest. Nobody knew D’Angelo Russell, the Warriors’ prized offseason acquisition, would miss nine games with a sprained right thumb.

But just as he kept perspective and an even keel throughout the Warriors’ dynasty, which produced three championships and five straight trips to the NBA Finals, the ever-grounded Kerr is doing the same with a team that lugs a league-worst 4-19 mark into Friday’s meeting with the Bulls.

“I’m enjoying coaching the young guys and going through the details of what they need to learn and helping them develop,” Kerr said in an interview following Thursday’s practice at University of Illinois Chicago. “I basically survived my whole career. I was never really in a position where I felt like, ‘OK, I’ve made it.’ From year to year, it was just survival. So I can relate to a lot of these young guys and I can relate a lot of experiences to them. That’s a satisfying process when you see them do well.”

That said, Kerr is a competitor. There’s a broken clipboard and some bloody towels from last Wednesday’s home victory over the Bulls to prove it.

So the teaching element may be rewarding. The losing?

“It sucks. It sucks,” Kerr said, repeating himself for emphasis. “We’re 1-8 in close games. That’s part of having a young team, learning how to close games. That part of it is a struggle.

“You want your players to feel rewarded when they play well. We had a stretch of two weeks where we played well every night and we had one win to show for it. And that was Chicago. It’s frustrating to walk in the locker room and see guys with their heads down because you know how hard they’re working and how much they want it.”

Kerr experienced a dynasty as a player with the Bulls and as a coach with the Warriors. Invariably throughout last season, he’d remind anyone willing to listen to savor how special those times are.

Does he think people listened?

“No,” he said, laughing. “It’s human nature to think we’re going to win it again and we’re going to keep going forever. Life changes quickly.

“I talked not only to the media and our fans but to our team. Last year there were several times when I said, ‘This is going to be our best chance to win a championship.’ We’ve got an incredible opportunity that may never come up again. That’s something that’s important for everybody to realize---fans, management, players. It is lightning in a bottle. You can do everything perfectly and you still may not get to where you think you might be.”

The Warriors’ dynasty may be over. But with Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green still under contract, an attractive young piece in Russell and a huge trade exception from the Andre Iguodala deal, the Warriors are solidly positioned for the future.

And if this season produces a lottery pick, well, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Until then, Kerr keeps coaching and teaching. Thursday’s film session and practice stretched to the 2 1/2-hour mark.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys. Draymond has been fantastic, basically helping coach the team and talking guys through different situations. They’ve been thrown in the fire every day. It’s not easy. But they’re doing a good job,” Kerr said. “We have to figure it out as a staff: How much do you throw at them? Too much information sometimes can be a bad thing. And so we have to find the balance. We also can’t not give them the information that they need. It’s just maybe doing it sequentially and maybe finding the right order and plugging holes as you go.

“The NBA game is so different. These days, players come in at such a young age. There’s just an awful lot of fundamental stuff you have to break down on a daily basis as a young team. That’s the biggest difference for us as a staff between having a young team and having vets. It’s a different daily routine for sure.”

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With attendance waning, Bulls focused on 'making their own energy'


With attendance waning, Bulls focused on 'making their own energy'

Last night, the Bulls announced 15,017 fans in attendance for the team's 106-99 victory over the Grizzlies. That figure is more than 4,000 people below their season-average of — after last night — 19,099 fans per contest.

That scarcity was eminent and didn't go unnoticed, especially by players on the court.

"I was telling us in pregame, we're gonna have to bring our own energy today," Zach LaVine said after Thursday afternoon practice. "We got out on that 10-0 run, I was really excited about that, but it was uh, it was a scarce crowd, it was a little quiet in there. But we made our own energy but sometimes that's just what you have to do."

After 11 home games, the Bulls are fourth in the NBA in total attendance (210,090) and sixth in average attendance — both fine marks by the standards of most, but underwhelming for a major-market franchise with their illustrious history. The real kicker: The team is tied for 22nd in the league in percent capacity (91.3) with the Indiana Pacers. Just ahead of that No. 22 slot are the 5-17 Atlanta Hawks, just behind the Phoenix Suns.

Per ESPN's NBA Attendance Report, the Bulls have not finished a regular season outside the top three in total attendance or average attendance since the 2002-03 season. Before last year, they ranked first in both nine seasons in a row. They were also top two in percent capacity for eight straight years before finishing 17th last season. As mentioned, their ranking in that category has dipped even further this year. 

The 2019-20 Bulls currently own a 4-7 home record. Last night was only the Bulls' tenth home victory of the Jim Boylen era, which spans back to Dec. 3, 2018. No one is naiive to the impact those types of results can have. 

"We haven't been a winning basketball team the last couple years, so you know, it makes sense," LaVine said. "Once you start winning that the crowd gets back into it and gets more lively. I understand that, I understand professional sports. So we don't take it personally."

From shootaround to gametime in advance of the Grizzlies game, Boylen stressed the importance of the Bulls getting on a roll on their home floor. According to Boylen, momentum in that respect has to come by way of fast starts, and that came to fruition last night. The Bulls jumped out to a 13-2 lead early in the game and led by as many as 22 in the first half, holding the Grizzlies to 0-for-15 3-point shooting while hitting 8-for-18, themselves. Those numbers stabilizied as the game wore on, but in the locker room afterwards, LaVine was adamant that the team's energy wasn't the issue.

In fact, Boylen and his players seem to have taken ownership of sparking themselves. 

"I want our guys to play hard and compete, and we have to bring our own energy, and we have to play with physicality and effort and all those types of things," Boylen said. He added: "We have the best fans in the league."

They'll have another chance to begin re-establishing a homecourt advantage Friday night agaisnt the lowly Warriors. For the time being, the team's focus is on controlling the things they can control: Results. The rest will come later.

"Obviously you wanna win. We're not going out there to win for, you know, to get more attention, we're going out to win to try to make the playoffs," LaVine said. "So, you know, I think the crowd will come, and they'll get behind you."

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