Bulls

Fred Hoiberg: Bulls' win over Thunder 'really shows the guys care'

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Fred Hoiberg: Bulls' win over Thunder 'really shows the guys care'

The timing couldn't have been worse.

Two days after posting their worst defensive performance since before the Tom Thibodeau era, Fred Hoiberg and the Bulls welcomed an Oklahoma City Thunder team also looking to bounce back to the United Center. That would be the same Thunder team with two of the league's top scorers and the second most efficient offense in the NBA, a far more dangerous opponent than the Hornets squad that had miraculously dropped 130 points on them Tuesday night.

Tuesday's woes carried over early on. The Thunder opened the contest 8-for-10 and appeared well on their way to a 30-point quarter, something that happened in all four stanzas against the Hornets. The energy that Jimmy Butler promised would be on display after the lackluster performance in Charlotte was non-existent, as the offense settled for jumpers, missing nine of their 13 attempts.

But Oklahoma City's nine-point lead wouldn't last. And after the Bulls' 104-98 victory over Kevin Durant and the Thunder, it's as if that first six-minute stretch never happened. For whatever reason Hoiberg's group flipped a switch, limiting Oklahoma City to 40 percent shooting the rest of the night and showing that promised energy on their way to a third straight home win to begin the year.

[MORE: Thunder still 'figuring it out' under Donovan]

"It showed that those guys care. It’s a bunch of competitive guys in that locker room that all, I think, felt a little embarrassed probably with the way the last game went," Hoiberg said after the game.

Tuesday's contest was of course an outlier - the Bulls hadn't allowed that many points since March 2010 - but it also wasn't indicative of how Hoiberg's group had played up until that point. Though the preseason talk of Hoiberg implementing a run-and-gun offensive philosophy dominated headlines, this was largely the same Bulls group that ranked among the NBA's elite defensively. Tom Thibodeau or no Tom Thibodeau, the talent was still there for the Bulls to defend well.

It also came as no surprise that the two players leading the charge were the players largely responsible for creating the Bulls' defensive identity. Joakim Noah showed as much energy and bounce as he has all season, logging a game-high +16 in 12 minutes off the bench. The Bulls went from trailing 17-13 to leading 41-34 in his first stretch, and the Bulls closed the half holding the Thunder to three points in the final two minutes after Noah checked back in.

"He was awesome just getting after it," Hoiberg said of Noah, who finished with four points, seven rebounds, four assists and a block. "Jo’s out there making plays, he’s a great defender, he’s a rock down there, he’s so emotional. He just puts out the overall energy."

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Noah got the ball rolling in the first half, while Jimmy Butler took care of the rest.

Though Durant finished with 33 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter that allowed the Thunder to tie the game late, he needed 29 shots to get there. Butler hounded the 2014 MVP relentlessly, setting the tone in the opening quarter in which he picked up two fouls. That aggressiveness didn't cease when Butler returned early in the second quarter, with Hoiberg rolling the dice that the man who made the promise for energy would do it without fouling.

He did. Butler forced Durant to shoot over his out-stretched arm, with a hand in his face coming off every down screen. Durant hit his fair share, as the league's best scoring forward is prone to do, but missed two of his last three as the Bulls ended the game on a 10-4 run.

"(Durant) is something else and Jimmy did, I thought, as good a job as you could do to get a body on him, make him take tough shots," Hoiberg said. "He’s just one of those guys that’s a special, special talent."

Thursday could have gone just like Tuesday did. After all, if Jeremy Lamb and Al Jefferson gave the Bulls trouble, no one would have blamed them if Durant and Russell Westbrook did, too. But Westbrook was limited, by his standards, to 20 points and 10 assists, Durant shot under 50 percent for the first time since opening night against the Spurs, and Serge Ibaka had just six points after halftime. Though it's still a work in progress for Hoiberg's group, Thursday was a promise kept to show fight and energy on the defensive end against a team that rarely finds itself outplayed.

"The way our guys defended and battled and stuck with the game plan even though (Oklahoma City) hit some shots early on in the contest," Hoiberg said, "I thought was huge."

Wendell Carter Jr. gets early 'learning experience' against Embiid, Sixers:

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USA TODAY

Wendell Carter Jr. gets early 'learning experience' against Embiid, Sixers:

PHILADELPHIA – Picture yourself at 19 years old.

Maybe you were in college. Maybe you hit the job market early.

What you likely weren’t doing was guarding one the NBA’s best centers in your first professional game.

That was the task charged to Wendell Carter Jr. in the Bulls’ 127-108 loss to the 76ers in the season opener at the Wells Fargo Center Thursday.

Carter Jr. was the seventh overall pick in the NBA draft after just one season at Duke. He earned the start in his NBA debut after an impressive preseason, but nothing could’ve prepared him for going up against Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” Carter Jr. said when asked if Embiid was as impressive as he thought he’d be. “He’s a phenomenal player. He’s one of, or the best, big man in the league. Very skilled, very poised. He knows his spots on the court.

“I didn’t go out there with my best effort. It’s just a learning experience for me.”

Carter Jr. had eight points, three rebounds, three assists and a block in 20 minutes. He also picked up four fouls, which the rookie attributed to the physicality and craftiness of Embiid.

But he did flash the impressive and varied skill set that made him a high pick and such a coveted prospect. He was also able to garner the praise of the Bulls’ veterans.

“Even though Wendell got in foul trouble he was still playing (Embiid) solid,” Zach LaVine, who scored a team-high 30 points, said. “That’s a tough first game right there. But he didn’t lack for confidence. Made him take some tough shots, but he’s going to make them. He’s that type of player.”

To his credit, Carter Jr. was candid about his performance. He admitted that his emotions ran the gamut from nervous to excited to happy.

In a season that will have its ups and downs as the young Bulls develop and learn, there will likely be more games like this against other elite NBA competition. It’ll be how Carter Jr. responds that will define his career.

“It’s the first game so I don’t want to put too much on myself,” Carter Jr. said. “It would be different if it was like the 50th game or 60th game. It’s the first game. We’re just going to move on from it. We’ve got our home opener on Saturday (vs. the Pistons). That’s where my mind is right now.”

See, he’s learning already.

Could Ryan Arcidiacono be in line for more minutes?

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USA TODAY

Could Ryan Arcidiacono be in line for more minutes?

The Bulls backup point guard situation will be in dire straits all season, with no established veteran behind Kris Dunn. And although the front office has seemingly committed to Cameron Payne as the backup PG (for at least this season), Ryan Arcidiacono showed enough in the season opener to justify giving him meaningful plying time in the rotation. 

Here are the stat lines of Arcidiacono and Cameron Payne from the season opener in Philadelphia:

Arcidiacono: 8 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds, 2-for-3 from the 3-point line

Payne:           0 points, 5 assists, 1 rebound, 0-for-1 from the 3-point line

With so many capable ball handlers and score-first players on the Bulls, point and assist totals aren’t as important as the rebounds and 3-point attempts. To provide the necessary space needed for driving lanes, there has to be openings in the defense caused by defenders sticking close to player they believe are a threat to shoot.

And that is where the problem lies with Payne.

Ryan Arcidiacono—while by no means a dominant scorer—showed a willingness to attack off of the pick-and-roll, even showing off an impressive ball-fake:


Payne, despite coming into the league with the reputation of a scorer, has yet to be aggressive enough to make teams think twice about leaving him wide-open on the perimeter. And he is not one to attack the basket with purpose, averaging less than half a free throw per game for his career. Payne's general lack of aggressiveness when on the floor is often times made worse by his occasional poor post entry passes that seem predetermined:

Even if the above play was designed to get the ball to LaVine in the mid-post, Payne chooses a terrible time to make the pass. When he starts the motion to give the ball to LaVine, Ben Simmons is positioned in front of LaVine to force a tougher pass, as rookie Landry Shamet gambles over the backside to get the steal.

Had Payne chose to swing the ball around the perimeter, or give it to Bobby Ports and then get it back, he could have created an opening for the LaVine pass.

Obviously, the Bulls 19-point loss can’t be blamed on solely on Payne, the terrible defense was a group effort, as was the sometimes questionable shot selection. But with the defense already appearing to be perhaps one of the league's worst units, Fred Hoiberg would be wise to put Arcidiacono in more.

Hoiberg is in a crucial year where he needs to show that he can be the head coach of this team when they finally become competitive.

And for Hoiberg to show that type of growth as a coach, he needs to set the tone that minutes are earned not given, something he has already started with his moving of Jabari Parker to the bench. Payne only received 22 minutes, compared to 28 minutes for Arcidiacono, and it is tough to see that changing if things continue on like they did on Thursday night.