Bulls

Dwyane Wade, Bulls take first blood with LeBron James, Cavs

Dwyane Wade, Bulls take first blood with LeBron James, Cavs

Dwyane Wade gathered the ball after losing the dribble and bearing down on him was the man who refused to switch off him, LeBron James.

James prepared to block Wade’s layup but a little craftiness beat James’ athleticism on the way to the basket, rolling in for Wade’s 21st and 22nd points with 2:30 left in the fourth.

Wade was the one who made sure to let everyone know this game wasn’t just any old game, and for 37 minutes (season-high) he played like it. Moments later he forced James into a turnover, then another as he sandwiched an offensive rebound and layup between the two possessions.

The layup gave the Bulls an eight-point lead with 2:30 left as the Bulls took first blood in their season series with the NBA champions with a 111-105 win at the United Center Friday — a game that was more anticipated for pregame activities than what was to be expected on the floor.

The Bulls expected to take the Cavaliers’ best shot after two poor performances, and one wouldn’t have been surprised to see a blowout from the champs looking to refocus.

What occurred was an aroused Bulls team, taking advantage of the national stage, a reeling opponent and a frisky leader in Wade, who finished with 24 points, five rebounds and four assists in 37 minutes.

Jimmy Butler shook off a unusual shooting night (eight for 20), partially due to the energy exerted from guarding James most of the night, scoring 26 points with eight boards and six assists.

“Wade, Jimmy and Taj were all beasts,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said.

It was pretty early and grimy late, which is the way playoff basketball is to be played. Speaking of grimy, Taj Gibson was a leader early and throughout, scoring 23 points with 11 rebounds and five assists, making his first nine field goals.

“That was something we talked about,” said Hoiberg of Gibson’s early offensive explosion. “I thought Taj’s aggressiveness and our guys’ willingness and ability to find them early in the possession before the defense got set and the floor space.”

The Cavs led by seven on two occasions in the first half, with pinpoint offensive execution led by James, and it didn’t appear like the Bulls had the manpower to keep up for 48 minutes, especially as their bench was again inconsistent.

“I thought we did a good job of staying in the game and withstanding their run,” Hoiberg said. “As fast as they were coming out of the gate, a couple things stood out to me, one was the rebounding.”

They dominated the Cavs inside, exposing their lack of interior defense as the Cavs have sacrificed rim protection in place of more perimeter shooting, scoring 78 points in the paint and outrebounding them 49-33.

Gibson started off going 5-for-5 in the first quarter, taking it straight to Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. Even his imperfections were forgiven early, as a missed dunk was wiped out by a foul called on Love when it appeared Love barely blew on him.

By the time halftime came around, the Bulls were down one and despite the Cavs shooting 56 percent, they couldn’t shake their opponents. It set the stage for the Bulls to jump on a team playing three games in four nights as well as having played the night before, and the Bulls took an eight-point lead in the first six minutes of the third.

They had the Cavs playing uphill the rest of the night.

“That’s a testament to how we work,” Gibson said. “We like to get out and run. Rondo is the catalyst, pushing us, getting the ball out and we’re capable of running. We can finish around the basket with myself and Robin but we have other guys (too).”

At times, Wade guarded James and vice-versa, leading to some competitive theatre and playful banter. It was no less competitive, though, as James’ pinpoint passing and drives to the basket were often a beauty to behold, scoring 27 points with 13 assists and five rebounds in 45 minutes after his walk of shame through the bowels of the United Center wearing Chicago Cubs regalia after losing a World Series bet to Wade.

Rajon Rondo, a man who is no stranger to bouts with James’ teams, put together his most impactful game as a Bull with 15 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds in 36 minutes.

Kyrie Irving scored 20 for the Cavaliers but took 21 shots and Love scored 15 with nine boards but was a liability defensively.

James was frustrated with his teammates, often rolling his eyes for forgetting to get back on defense. But the Bulls failed to shut the door when the Cavs were reeling, and a James layup made it 92-89.

The Bulls didn’t fold, though, with Rondo and Wade making the necessary plays along with Butler doing his best to corral James defensively, leading to a bounceback victory and a message that perhaps they can compete on call.

Nets rebuilding starts to gain momentum ahead of showdown with Bulls

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Nets rebuilding starts to gain momentum ahead of showdown with Bulls

After years of being handcuffed by the ill-fated Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce trade that cost the Nets’ franchise several prime lottery picks, Brooklyn is starting to come out of the abyss under energetic young coach Kenny Atkinson.

The Nets’ front office was able to absorb the contracts of veteran players like DeMarre Carroll, Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur for draft considerations, while also picking up former #2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell by taking on the massive contract of Timofey Mozgov from the Lakers. In addition, they also traded veterans Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic for 1st rounders that became starters Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen.

Under Atkinson’s direction, the Nets have bought into a culture of hard work and unselfish play. They improved from 20 to 28 wins a year ago, and are currently within striking distance of the final playoff spot in the East.

LeVert is currently sidelined after dislocating his right ankle in a scary fall in early November, but he should return at some point this season. At the time of his injury, LeVert was leading the Nets in scoring at 18.4 points per game while shooting nearly 48% from the field, looking like a candidate for a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. In his absence, the Nets have gone with a share the wealth approach, with Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Allen and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson all scoring in double figures.

Dinwiddie is the name that should be familiar to Bulls’ fans. He was with the team during training camp in 2016, but let go when the Bulls acquired Michael Carter-Williams in a deal with Milwaukee. Since that time, Dinwiddie has fully recovered from an ACL injury he suffered in college and emerged as a top candidate for the NBA’s 6th man award, averaging 17.2 points and 5 assists per game while shooting almost 48% from the field. Hindsight is always 20-20, but Dinwiddie would certainly look good in the Bulls’ backcourt right now.

Still, the most exciting thing for Nets’ fans right now is the team’s salary cap situation. Thanks to all the moves made by General Manager Sean Marks, Brooklyn could have the ability to offer 2 max contracts in 2019 free agency. Whether Marks will be able to get a meeting with any of the big names like Durant, Leonard, Irving, Butler and Thompson is still to be determined, but at least there’s finally some hope for a turnaround in Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, the Bulls have sunk to 7-24  and have been the league’s least efficient offensive team since Jim Boylen took over as head coach. Boylen wants his shorthanded team to play at a more deliberate tempo in direct contrast to the current pace-and-space trend that’s taken over the league. With leading scorer Zach LaVine out because of injury and Jabari Parker inactive while the front office tries to work out a trade, the Bulls are painfully short on offensive options and need to rely on an improved defense to stay competitive in games.

Like Brooklyn, the Bulls figure to have cap space this summer to pursue free agents, but they’ll need to show improvement and stability over the final 51 games to make their sales pitch effective.

As for Wednesday’s game, here’s what the Bulls need to do to have a chance for a home court win.

1.   FAST BREAK POINTS.  We know Boylen wants to put the brakes on the Bulls’ transition game, but the Nets come to town after hosting the Lakers Tuesday night which means there could be a few players on the court with tired legs. When the Bulls force a turnover, they need to look for an easy scoring opportunity before the defense sets up. Oklahoma City had a 27-9 advantage in fast break points on Monday.

2.   MARKKANEN IN THE POST.  The 7 foot forward was extremely effective in the 2nd half of the come-from-behind win in San Antonio by isolating against smaller defenders for drives and step-back jumpers. Markkanen will have a height advantage against Brooklyn’s smaller frontcourt, and he should be able to shoot over the top of Hollis-Jefferson, another former Arizona Wildcat.

3.   SHUT DOWN SPENCER.  Dinwiddie has been in celebration mode this week after signing a brand new 3 year, 34 million dollar contract extension. Still, Dinwiddie gets pretty serious in talking about the 2 NBA teams that gave up on him (Pistons and Bulls) knowing that all he needed was time to fully recover from a serious knee injury. The 25 year old guard has been providing instant offense off the bench for Brooklyn, and you can bet he’ll have the green light when he enters the game at the United Center.

We hope you’ll join Kendall Gill, Kelly Crull and me for Bulls Pregame Live at 6:30 Wednesday on NBC Sports Chicago and the My Teams by NBC Sports app. After the game goes final, flip back to NBC Sports Chicago for Jim Boylen’s media session and player reaction from the locker room on Bulls Postgame Live, followed by Bulls Outsiders.

Justin Holiday broke a Bulls franchise record, and now he is adding on to his lead

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Justin Holiday broke a Bulls franchise record, and now he is adding on to his lead

Justin Holiday has been the model of consistency since playing for the Bulls. He has shot at least 35 percent from 3-point range in every Bulls season he has been a part of. But this year—partly through necessity and partly due to the stylistic shifts in the sport—Holiday has taken his floor-spacing to the extreme end of the spectrum, taking 55 percent of shots from 3-point range this season.  And the combination of his increased volume and trademark accuracy has resulted in one very impressive streak.

As of December 18, Justin Holiday has made at least one 3-pointer in 42 straight games.

The streak started on March 21, 2018 and is still ongoing, with Holiday's last game with a made 3-pointer coming in the Bulls loss to Oklahoma City on Monday.

Holiday is averaging 12 PPG this season and is shooting 38 percent from the 3-point line. His over 7 attempts per game from 3-point range keeps defenses honest, and Jim Boylen has started to use Holiday more in actions to free up Lauri Markkanen and/or Wendell Carter for open shots.

The streak will have a chance to continue when the Bulls take on the Brooklyn Nets tonight—with Bulls Pregame Live on NBC Sports Chicago at 6:30 p.m. CST—but it will be tough as the Nets are the best in the league at limiting their opponent's 3-point attempts, holding their foes to just under 27 attempts per game from 3-point range.

Holiday's excellent year shooting the ball is all the more impressive when you realize it comes on a team that is in the bottom 10 in 3-point attempts, 3-point makes and 3-point percentage. 

At 42 straight games with a 3-pointer, Holiday is already 11 games ahead of Kirk Hinrich, who previously held the Bulls' record for consecutive games with a 3-point shot made (at 31 straight games).

With the Bulls playing Holiday 35 minutes a night (10th in the league) and currently dealing with an injury to their leading scorer, Holiday could see this streak last a very long time.