Bulls

NBA Buzz: Bulls enter new year with revitalized hopes

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NBA Buzz: Bulls enter new year with revitalized hopes

Now that the calendar has flipped to 2016 and the Bears' season is in the books, it's time to go all in on the NBA regular season, which is rapidly approaching the halfway point.

Today begins a series of weekly columns focusing on the state of the Bulls and news from around the league. We hope you'll make it part of your sports media consumption throughout the rest of the season.

After Sunday's heroic performance from Jimmy Butler, the Bulls find themselves in second place in the Eastern Conference at 20-12, winning four games in a row and five of their last six.

Butler poured in 40 of his 42 points during the second half of the Bulls' 115-113 win in Toronto, breaking Michael Jordan's record for most points in a half (39) against Milwaukee back in 1989.

[RELATED - No structural damage on Derrick Rose's knee; Noah still not ready]

The fifth-year guard out of Marquette talked throughout training camp about becoming more of a vocal leader with this team, but what the Bulls need most is a reliable crunch time scorer. Since Derrick Rose suffered his first knee injury during the 2012 playoffs, the Bulls have searched for a player willing to accept the responsibility of taking the tough shots late in regulation and overtime periods while also finding a way to get to the free throw line.

It looks like Butler is now ready and willing to take on that role. He brought the Bulls from behind against Indiana last week, scoring his team's last seven points to force overtime, then scoring the game-winner off a busted play. Then on Sunday, he rallied the Bulls from a 15 point deficit against Toronto, hitting tough shot after tough shot against a defense designed to stop him.

Butler told reporters during training camp he still had another level to take his game after winning Most Improved Player honors last season, and it turns out he was right. Butler is establishing himself as a Top 15 player in the league, one who's worthy of a max contract and the cornerstone for the future as the roster continues to evolve in Fred Hoiberg's system.

Now, the challenge is for Butler and Rose to co-exist as impact offensive players. It's probably not a coincidence that Butler's takeover games came with Rose sidelined because of injury. There's no reason why the Butler-Rose tandem can't be one of the top backcourts in the NBA. It's up to Derrick and Jimmy to play off each other's strengths and give the Bulls two players who can break down defenses with the game on the line.

Rose received a clean medical report from the MRI done on his right knee and hamstring, and could return to action as early as Tuesday's game against Milwaukee. 

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

The other big challenge as we start the new year involves front court playing time. When Joakim Noah returns from a shoulder injury, Hoiberg will have five players looking for minutes at the center and power forward positions. Playing Nikola Mirotic at small forward alleviates some of the problem, but Hoiberg will have a tough time finding enough playing time for both Noah and rookie Bobby Portis. Portis has showed more than enough to stay in the rotation, which means once Noah is completely healthy you can count on hearing all kinds of trade rumors leading up to the Feb. 18 deadline.

After an evaluation by team doctors on Monday, the Bulls learned Noah definitely won't need surgery to repair the slight tear in his left shoulder he suffered back on Dec. 21, but his return to game action won't come as soon as Hoiberg hoped last week. Noah will continue to be evaluated on a daily basis. 

Around the Association

Speaking of trades, the vultures are circling in Phoenix, where the Suns lost star guard Eric Bledsoe for the season because of a knee injury and high-scoring forward Markieff Morris has landed in coach Jeff Hornacek's doghouse. Hornacek could be fired at any point, but it's tough to blame the coach for all of the Suns' problems. The front office decided to break up the Morris twins last summer and Markieff has been unhappy ever since. Then, the Suns decided to give Tyson Chandler a big free agent contract with the hopes of luring LaMarcus Aldridge to the Valley of the Sun, but that didn't work either. Now, the Suns are getting blown out most nights and it appears to be just a matter of time before the front office tries to trade off some of its mistakes.

Keep an eye on Brooklyn for some possible deals as well. The Nets lost starting point guard Jarrett Jack to a season-ending knee injury over the weekend, leaving them with untested Shane Larkin and Donald Sloan at a critical position. Brooklyn traded away its first round draft picks for 2016 and 2018 in the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce all-in trade with Boston, so you have to wonder what's next for owner Mikhail Prokhorov. Can he lure a big name free agent to Brooklyn, where attendance has dropped off dramatically this season? Would the Nets take on the remaining year and a half of Derrick Rose's contract in a trade for Joe Johnson's expiring deal? The Bulls then could create a max salary slot for this summer to pursue Memphis free agent to be Mike Conley.

[RELATED - NBA Power Rankings: Clippers rolling along without Blake Griffin]

Well-respected NBA reporter Sam Amico lists the Bulls as one of several teams who have expressed interest in trying to acquire veteran swingman Kevin Martin from the Timberwolves. The 32-year-old Martin has seen his playing time drop with Minnesota committed to a youth movement featuring wings Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Shabazz Mohammad, but he's averaged almost 18 points a game for his career, shooting nearly 39 percent from 3-point range.

In case you missed it over the weekend, Tim Duncan failed to score a point in a regular season game for the first time in his career. Duncan had the longest streak in NBA history at 1,359 games, three better than Hall of Famer Karl Malone. Duncan's donut leaves Michael Jordan as the only player with 1,000 career games to crack the scoring column in every game.

Warriors' chase for 72

Each week, I'll update my personal odds of the Golden State Warriors matching the 1995-96 Bulls single season record of 72 wins.

Today, I've got it at 45 percent, mostly due to Steph Curry's nagging leg injury. In case you missed it, Curry returned to the Warriors' lineup Saturday after missing two games because of a calf strain, then had to leave at halftime after aggravating the injury. Golden State promptly blew a 24-point lead at home against lowly Denver before re-grouping to win in overtime. If Curry's leg injury becomes a recurring problem, the Warriors' chances of getting to 72 are sunk. Their remaining schedule also is loaded with tough games, including four against San Antonio, three against Oklahoma City, two against the Clippers and road contests against Eastern Conference contenders Cleveland, Chicago, Miami and Atlanta.

Stat of the week

Here's a closer look at Butler's second half outburst against Toronto on Sunday:

40 pts

14-19 FGs

2-3  3-pt FGs

10-11 FTs

4 asts, 2 rebs, 1 blk, 1 stl

Quote of the week

And finally, did you hear what Lakers' guard Jordan Clarkson had to say after unleashing a vicious dunk against the Suns on Sunday?

Here's Clarkson's quote from the post-game locker room, courtesy of Baxter Holmes, "All I remember was Kobe telling me that I've been going to the hole like a light-skinned dude. So, I've got to start doing it like a dark-skinned (dude). So when I seen the lane opened up, that's all I remember."

Who said Kobe wouldn't have an impact on the Lakers' young players in his final season?

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 Dallas 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 1st 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.”