Bulls

John Wall remains the constant for shorthanded Wizards

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John Wall remains the constant for shorthanded Wizards

No team in the NBA has missed more games to injury than the Washington Wizards.

But John Wall has yet to contribute to that number, and Monday night in Chicago he proved that whomever the Wizards have at their disposal, as long as No. 2 is around they've got a shot to compete.

Wall spearheaded a lethal offensive attack, leading the way for the undermanned Wizards in a 114-100 win at the United Center. He finished with 17 points and 10 assists, shaking off a rough shooting night by engineering an assault against a susceptible Bulls defense that resulted in 31 assists and just nine turnovers.

"That’s who he is and he’s obviously the motor for us," head coach Randy Wittman said. "And when he moves the ball like that and sees the floor like that, that makes everybody better. It makes everybody’s job a little bit easier."

Shooting guard Bradley Beal missed his 16th consecutive game with another stress reaction in his right leg, and starting center Marcin Gortat was ruled out minutes before tipoff. Reserves Kris Humphries and Alan Anderson sat out with injuries, leaving head coach Randy Wittman with 11 healthy players at his disposal.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

But that's all he'd need. After the Bulls erased an eight-point first quarter lead the Wizards' bench responded with an 18-2 run that extended their lead to as many as 15 before halftime; the bench, led by Ramon Sessions and Gary Neal, scored 27 points alone in the second quarter, with those two contributing 18.

Drew Gooden, moved up in the rotation with Nene starting for Gortat, grabbed five offensive rebounds in the second half that resulted in 13 points as the Bulls attempted to narrow the deficit. Otto Porter, Nene and Garrett Temple all contributed 14 points, and Jared Dudley buried a pair of 3-pointer while at times playing power forward against the Bulls' much bigger frontcourt.

The Wizards bench outscored the Bulls' 47-32, and as a team they grabbed 13 offensive rebounds in what should have been an easy size mismatch for a Bulls team ranked No. 1 in rebounds per game.

It was a team win, which Wittman alluded to after the game. All 10 Wizards who played 13 minutes or more finished with a positive rating, while eight of them scored between eight and 17 points.

[MORE: Bulls defense picked apart in loss to Wizards]

But the win was possible because of Wall, the Wizards' fearless 25-year-old leader who's kept the team afloat as different bodies enter and exit the lineup more frequently than any other team.

Wall could have squared up counterpart and fellow former No. 1 overall pick Derrick Rose and attempted to win it on his own. Instead he found four different players for assists in the first quarter alone, also taking eight shots but playing within the offense against a Bulls defense that two days earlier had allowed 120 points to the Hawks.

Though his shot wasn't falling in the first three quarters, the Wizards maintained their lead thanks to the trio of Nene, Gooden and DeJuan Blair out-working the Bulls' superior interior. That gave Wall just enough time to find his rhythm late. Following Doug McDermott's four-point play that cut the deficit to four, Wall hit a jumper, fed Nene for a layup and finished a fast break layup in a four-possession span to push the lead back out to 11, 98-87. He then found Nene for another bucket inside and closed the door with a 3-pointer from the top of the arc inside five minutes to play, prompting Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg to empty his bench.

"As a person he’s our beat, kind of like for the Bulls it’s Joakim Noah, for (us) it’s John," Dudley said. "When he’s got that energy and he’s flying around, it’s so contagious for our team. He has a lot of pressure on him right now because right now without (Beal), he has to do it. And it’s incredible what he’s doing for our team, putting us on his back."

Wall's been asked to do more each season after signing an $80 million extension in 2013. But as the face of the franchise, he's now been tasked with keeping the Wizards afloat in a surprisingly competitive Eastern Conference. He's fought through various injuries that he admitted could have kept him out of the lineup, playing in all 36 of the Wizards' games, understanding his importance to an already depleted group.

[ALSO: Noah's return could affect Portis, McDermott positively]

Losers in five of seven, on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, and on the road against a Bulls team that had won four straight at home, the Wizards faced a tall task. They needed Wall to lead the charge, and Wall needed his teammates to respond. They did, shooting 48.5 percent from the field and making nine 3-pointers against the Bulls, who lead the NBA in field goal percentage defense.

"I believe in these guys. If they’re open I’m going to give it to them, and if they make it they make it. If not, I’ll live with that result of making the right play. That’s the most important thing."

With the win the Wizards move to 17-19, two games out of the final playoff spot in the East. Beal could return this week while Gortat said after the game he didn't believe there was anything structurally wrong with his swollen knee. Wittman's group has won 44 and 46 games the last two seasons - both playoff appearances - and believe they'll be in prime position to make a similar run once they're back to full strength.

Until then, they'll have to make due with their 25-year-old All-Star leading whichever four players take the court with him on a given night.

"I think we're fine. We want to be higher (in the standings) than where we are right now," Wall said. "But you have a lot of injuries and a lot of teams are healthy. The main thing with us is just try to keep it close. Keep it around .500, above .500 if we can, and we'll get everybody back and hopefully get on a long streak and get it going."

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

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USA TODAY

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

Outspoken Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban conceded his team was playing for draft lottery position last season, but insisted it would be a one year only strategy.

Dallas finished tied for the league’s third worst record, but fell to fifth after the lottery.

So, Cuban and the Mavs’ front office decided to make a bold move on draft night, trading their 2019 first round pick to Atlanta to move up two spots for a chance to select international sensation Luka Doncic.

Early in the season, Doncic has more than lived up to the hype, showing the creativity and flair that made him such a fan favorite on the European professional circuit. Through the Mavs’ first two games, Doncic is averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while giving Rick Carlisle’s team a much-needed boost in transition.

Doncic and second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr. will give opposing teams nightmares in the open court all season long. They led the offensive onslaught in the Mavs’ 140-136 win over Minnesota Saturday night, combining for 45 points. Doncic finished with 26 points, while Smith scored 10 of his 19 in the 4th quarter, including a tie-breaking three-point play with six seconds left.

Veteran swing-man Wesley Matthews added 19 against the Timberwolves, and his 3 point shooting helps the Mavs maintain floor balance in half-court sets.

The Mavs also strengthened their front court in the off-season, signing veteran center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Dallas was overmatched in the middle last season, with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell giving up size in the post, but Jordan will provide rim protection and an alley-oop threat when Doncic, Smith Jr. or veteran point guard J.J. Barea drive to the basket. Jordan had a big game in the home opening win over Minnesota, scoring 22 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.

Nowitzki, starting small forward Harrison Barnes and backup guard Devin Harris all missed Saturday’s game because of injuries, but Barnes and Harris are considered game-time decisions against the Bulls.

Here’s what the Bulls will need to do to get their first victory of the season Monday night.

1. GET BACK ON DEFENSE! Doncic and Smith Jr. are deadly in the open court, capable of making spectacular plays to bring the home crowd to life. The Bulls’ players have to sprint back on defense after missed shots to cut off transition opportunities, or it’s going to be a long night. The Mavs are averaging 128 points through the first two games.

2. CLOSE OUT ON 3-POINT SHOOTERS This will be a familiar theme in my keys until the Bulls start doing a better job of matching up in transition and closing out on three point threats. Detroit’s win at the United Center on Saturday came down to the Pistons’ 18-40 shooting from three-point range, and Dallas has even more players capable of doing damage from beyond the arc.

3. LET DUNN DO IT Getting Kris Dunn back from paternity leave should make a big difference on both ends of the court. Dunn has the athleticism and physicality to match up with either Doncic or Smith Jr., and his defensive skills will be critical in keeping the Mavs from turning this game into a track meet.

On the offensive end, Dunn need to be patient and get the ball into the hands of the Bulls’ top scorers, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. Even though Fred Hoiberg wants his team to play at a fast pace, they’ll need to pick their spots on when to run against the explosive Mavs.

As always, turn to NBC Sports Chicago for the very best pre and post-game coverage. Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join me for Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m/, and we’ll have expanded post-game analysis when the action goes final in Dallas. You can also stream the shows live on the brand new My Teams by NBC Sports app.

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

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USA TODAY

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.”