More fourth-quarter struggles doom Bulls in ugly loss to Magic

More fourth-quarter struggles doom Bulls in ugly loss to Magic

ORLANDO—With little beads of sweat near the top of Fred Hoiberg's hairline, he stood trying to explain the unexplainable, except the Bulls' 98-91 loss to the Orlando Magic was as unsurprising to those who have watched this team go through the motions as it was confusing for Hoiberg to go through the emotional merry-go-round for yet another 48 minutes.

As long as there's a competitive game in the fourth quarter it means Hoiberg's Bulls have a good chance of blowing it, even if the opponent is the 24-41 Orlando Magic, especially if the Bulls are without the services of Dwyane Wade.

Boom and boom.

The only thing Hoiberg would definitively claim was that this recent string of losses don't have anything to do with a lack of effort—although it's hard to say the Bulls have played a particularly inspired brand of basketball over the last several days.

"We're playing hard; it's not an effort thing," Hoiberg said. "Going out there and competing, we've had very good stretches of basketball."

Hoiberg wasn't referring to any critical stretch of basketball on this night, as the Bulls mustered 14 points after they began the fourth quarter tied with the Magic. And the play where Magic high-flyer Aaron Gordon scored on an inbounds play with 0.7 seconds left on the shot clock as the Magic inbounded the ball with just one option seemed to show a lack of recognition that many playoff teams have established through 60 games.

Habits that have truly developed are usually honed at this stage, when the separation between teams with playoff aspirations and those looking for lottery inspiration becomes painfully clear.

"We pretty much knew the low clock play they were going to run," Hoiberg said. "They threw it to the best athlete on the floor and he jumped over the top of our guy and tipped it in."

And perhaps painstakingly, Hoiberg rattled off plays where the Bulls executed well in the fourth—the problem is he did it in a five-second soundbite and had the rare occurrences committed to memory.

"We got off to another slow start in the fourth quarter," Hoiberg said. "We really struggled to score. It gets in our heads a little bit. It gets mental. When you have the last week of fourth quarters like we had…missed a couple open shots, gave them some easy ones on the other end. Had some awful turnovers."

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In each of the last three fourth quarters, the offense has gotten worse each time—and it was pretty ineffective for the first loss in this three-in-a-row stretch when they put up 18 points against the Clippers last Saturday night.

It almost feels like a game of "Clue" with this team, finding different ways to make you doubt their appetite for making the playoffs. Monday, it was open shots that were the culprit, at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

Wednesday it was their star going scoreless in the fourth as Jimmy Butler went 0-for-5 after starting off 7-for-16 with 21 points entering the final period. Against the Pistons, he was swarmed on pick and rolls, and the Bulls couldn't take advantage.

This time, their offense completely stalled yet again with errors, violations and all-around confusion as they shot five of 23 after shooting 53 percent in the first 36 minutes.

Aside from Jerian Grant showing he can be a human defibrillator, the Bulls might not have even scored 10 points in the fourth against one of the worst teams in the league.

And this is with Houston, Boston and Charlotte ahead in the next four days.

"Sometimes it's as simple as having a really good fourth quarter where you find a way to close out the game," Hoiberg said. "Hopefully it'll happen soon. Fourth quarters have been a huge issue for us this last week and if we want to have any chance of playing beyond the regular season, we gotta get better."

It's assuredly a byproduct of not having Wade around, with teams loading up on Butler and shutting down his driving lanes, leading to forced jumpers that have a high degree of difficulty.

"No, it's not mental. A lot is on myself, I have the ball," Butler said. "Either score a basket or put somebody in position to score. Don't turn the ball over, nothing they can do about that."

Butler had five turnovers, one of which led to a CJ Watson steal, layup and foul that extended the Magic lead to 87-81 with 7:03 left. The downward spiral began well before that play almost seemed to signify the Bulls were going to add another inexplicable loss to the ledger, considering they held a 13-point lead in the opening minutes of the third quarter.

They allowed Magic point guard Elfrid Payton to run wild, as he compiled a triple-double in the third quarter and finished with 22 points, 14 rebounds, 14 assists, two blocks and two steals.

Evan Fournier was able to find creases in the defense in the paint and on the perimeter to score 20 while new addition Terrence Ross scored 14.

Even with all that, the Bulls' answer to this clue is "in the kitchen, with the self-inflicted wound to the heart."

NBA G League continues to offer fascinating storylines

NBA G League continues to offer fascinating storylines

You never know what you might see on a given night in the G League.

Wednesday’s game at the Sears Centre offered a match-up of 7-foot-2 Bol Bol in his Windy City Bulls home debut against one time hot prospect, 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

In case you’re not familiar with Thabeet, he was the second overall pick by the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2009 NBA Draft after capturing the attentions of scouts and executives with his play in the high profile program at Connecticut. Thabeet was viewed as a can’t miss prospect whose size and athleticism would translate into making him a defensive force at the NBA level.

Problem is, Thabeet did miss. Questions about his low motor and work ethic surfaced and he struggled to get consistent playing time in Memphis. Stops in Houston, Portland and Oklahoma City would follow, and Thabeet found himself out of the league in 2014. He played a total of 224 NBA games, averaging 2.2 points and 2.7 rebounds a game.

The native of Tanzania bounced around the G League and played in Japan for a time before returning to the U.S. looking for one more chance at the NBA. Thabeet invited teams to watch him work out last summer, but with little interest, he wound up back in the G League with Fort Wayne for the 2019-20 season.

At 32 years old, Thabeet is still an impressive looking athlete, and in Wednesday’s game against Windy City, he flashed at times with 4 blocked shots and a powerful baseline drive and dunk. But he also labored to change ends of the court, and put up a modest stat line of 6 points, 2 rebounds and 4 blocks in 18 minutes. Down the stretch, the Mad Ants decided they were better off with Travin Thibodeaux at center in a close game.

With NBA teams now looking for mobile centers with 3-point shooting range, it’s hard to imagine Thabeet getting another chance to make it to the league.

Meanwhile, Windy City unveiled it’s newest addition Bol Bol, a two-way player for the Denver Nuggets who needed a team to continue his development since the Nuggets don’t have their own G-League affiliate.

Bol only played nine games in his lone collegiate season at Oregon before suffering a foot injury that dropped his draft stock. He averaged 21 points and almost 10 rebounds a game at Oregon, showing an uncanny long range shooting touch for a 7-footer. Matter of fact, some talent evaluators viewed him as the best shooter available in the 2019 NBA Draft. But because of concerns about the foot injury and his slender build, Bol fell to the the second round, eventually selected 44th overall by Miami, then traded to Denver on draft night.

With the Nuggets featuring one of the NBA’s deepest rosters, there wouldn’t be any developmental minutes for Bol, so he was assigned to Windy City, a team that had a need for another big man.

Bol was impressive in his 20 minutes of playing time on Wednesday, finishing with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. Right now, Bol is on a minutes restriction to protect him from further injury, but you can see the potential is there for him to be a contributor at the NBA level in time.

Bol has a feathery soft shooting touch, and will be comfortable spotting up at the 3-point line in drive and kick offenses and as a weak side option on pick and roll plays. He also showed more aggressiveness than I expected in attacking the offensive glass, following up his own initial miss for rebound baskets on a few occasions against Fort Wayne.

Windy City general manager Josh Kreibich has put together a very competitive roster that features another Nuggets’ two-way player, P.J. Hairston, Bulls’ two-way players Max Strus and Adam Mokoka, and former Loyola University star Milton Doyle.

The Bulls’ G League affiliate is off to a 4-1 start under first year coach Damian Cotter with hopes of making a second straight playoff appearance. Still, player development is priority number one in the G League, which means every player on the roster will get the opportunity to showcase their skills during the course of the season.

Bol’s NBA rights belong to Denver, but the fans at Sears Centre on Wednesday were thoroughly entertained watching the son of former NBA center Manute Bol show off a unique game that will almost certainly land him a spot in an NBA team’s rotation before long.

Windy City’s first two homes games brought former No. 4 overall draft pick Dragan Bender and Thabeet to Sears Centre, and on Nov. 29, 7-foot-7 Tacko Fall will be in Hoffman Estates with the Maine Red Claws. If you want to take a break from your Black Friday shopping to watch the Bol-Tacko duel, it’s a 5 p.m. tip-off.

After all, you never know what you might see at a G League game.

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Bulls' defense is trending upward, leads NBA in forcing turnovers, steals

Bulls' defense is trending upward, leads NBA in forcing turnovers, steals

Just over midway through the third quarter Wednesday night, Kris Dunn cleanly picked Derrick Rose’s pocket for a steal.

“I love getting steals. That’s been my game since high school. That’s what I do. I take pride in that,” Dunn said following Thursday’s practice at Advocate Center. “I think my teammates know, the coaches know, the other teams know defense is what I do. And I try to inspire that in others.”

With 17 Pistons’ turnovers, the Bulls have now forced 15 or more turnovers in all 15 games this season.

The last time they did this — in 1980 — nobody on the current roster was born. Jim Boylen was in high school in Grand Rapids, Mich. No NBA team has opened a season in similar fashion since the 76ers did in 2004, per Elias Sports Bureau.

The Bulls lead the NBA in overall steals and rank second behind Friday’s opponent, the Heat, in steals per game. Dunn ranks third behind league leader Jimmy Butler, in town Friday, and Ben Simmons with 2.13 steals per game.

The Bulls also lead the NBA in forced turnovers per game at 18.8 and points off turnovers.

“I think our defense is built to force turnovers, the system that we run,” Dunn said. “We’re blitzing guys, trying to get the ball out of their hands. You have to make them make a read. Our defense is built so that after we blitz, we have a triangle (of defenders) behind. If they make a mistake in the read, it often leads to a turnover. We have a lot of good defenders on this team who can create turnovers.”

Shaq Harrison’s emergency starter status now that both Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison are on the shelf aids in this department. He led the NBA in steals-per-minute last season and posted three versus the Pistons. Hutchison is doubtful for Friday’s game against the Heat.

“I’ve been doing that my whole life,” Harrison said of getting steals. “Every coach I’ve played for has been a defensive-minded coach and wants me to get into people. It’s been embedded into my mind to get steals and deflections and pick guys up to play hard 100 percent of the time.

“I think defense and that mentality is 90 percent toughness and heart and then 10 percent skill. Anybody can do it at this level if you truly put your mind to it.”

Despite their penchant for steals and forcing turnovers, the Bulls rank 14th in defensive rating. That’s middle-of-the-pack stuff, although it’s trending upward over the last five games. And it’s reflective of their poor defensive rebounding, occasionally poor defensive transition and inability to limit dribble penetration.

In detailing his defensive philosophy, coach Jim Boylen cited those three areas as need for improvement. That’s borne out in the Bulls allowing too many shots at the rim. What’s wild is they lead the league in offensive attempts within 5 feet but also allow the second-most in the league.

“We do not teach to steal the ball. I’m not a big out-of-position-to-steal-the-ball guy,” Boylen said. “What we have coached hard — and I guess well at times — is hand position, body position and doing your work early. I think that has put us in position sometimes to knock some balls loose or pick a couple off. But I’m not big on getting out of position to try to get a steal. It’s not who I am. It’s not who we want to be.”

Dunn said he sees “no downside” to the Bulls’ defensive’ scheme as long as it’s played with energy and communication. The Bulls have had trouble making quick and proper rotations if they don’t force a turnover, although that area too has improved over the last eight games.

The Bulls rank ninth in defensive rating over their last eight games.

“I give our guys credit,” Boylen said. “They’ve really bought into what our defense looks like now. Early, we struggled to get to the corner, to adjust and shift. I think there’s a familiarity now. There’s a learning curve in every defensive situation. I also think there’s defensive chemistry. And I think we can still grow.

“My assistant coaches have done a great job of sticking to what we believe in. We’ve coached basically the same thing since Day One. I feel we have a foundation. We need to be more consistent and play better. But we’re coaching to a system.”

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