Bulls

Pacers, Bucks gain ground on the Bulls in free agency

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Pacers, Bucks gain ground on the Bulls in free agency

If the rumor mill is to believed, the Bulls avoided a mini-disaster by re-signing Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy to multi-year deals, ensuring their core will have a great chance of returning intact for Opening Night.

They avoided Butler taking an offer sheet from another team and didn’t give Dunleavy a chance to be wooed by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, in a move that would’ve dealt a huge blow to the Bulls while boosting the Cavaliers to an even greater advantage over their rivals.

For the past year, James was the big bad bully the Bulls were focused on, literally fearing no one else in the Eastern Conference. But now, the East, and Central Division has gotten better in the opening days of free agency, gaining ground on the Bulls.

Those pesky Milwaukee Bucks have become a problem for the Bulls, the team that pushed the Bulls to a Game 6 in their first-round matchup, added what they didn’t have in the postseason—a low-post scorer in former Pistons center Greg Monroe.

Monroe isn’t the best athlete and no one would ever confuse him with being that, but he’s a throwback in terms of being a back to the basket scorer who you can dump the ball down to consistently, and he’s surrounded by the perfect type of players in scorer Khris Middleton (former teammate), point guard Michael Carter-Williams, along with athleticism and length on the frontline who can help cover his weaknesses.

[RELATED: Bulls lock up Butler with $95 million extension]

He didn’t garner much attention in Detroit the last couple of years, having his development perhaps stifled by the presence of Josh Smith (who occupied the same position) and willingly allowing teammate Andre Drummond to grow by leaps and bounds.

What Pistons President and coach Stan Van Gundy couldn’t find workable with Monroe has turned out to be a gem for the Bucks.

Very quietly, the Bucks have assembled a team that will only grow and get better under new coach Jason Kidd, and that’s not even mentioning a player who was the second pick in last year’s draft, Chicago native Jabari Parker, who’ll return from a early-season knee injury that cost him the majority of the season.

It seemed very minute on the surface, but the Bulls giving away a couple games to the Bucks gave them confidence in knowing they could compete and sent them into the offseason on a high note.

[RELATED: Dunleavy back with Bulls on a three-year deal]

In addition to the Bucks, the Indiana Pacers just got better and appear to be transforming from a team headed by the underwhelming Roy Hibbert to one led by returning star Paul George and new addition Monta Ellis, who agreed to a four-year deal on the second day of free agency.

While the Pacers are in a bit of transition, with Hibbert on the trading block and rugged veteran David West searching for a different environment, they’ll still have a stout defense and a two-way perimeter player in the same mold as Butler.

The Pacers certainly have more questions than the Bulls and Bucks, but if they retain Rodney Stuckey it gives them another perimeter player who can create his own shot late in games—giving them at least three while the Bulls have just Butler and Derrick Rose.

The Bulls certainly haven’t gotten worse by staying intact, and Fred Hoiberg’s impact remains to be seen, but the Bulls’ offense should be better than the often-plodding product you saw the last few years.

Nobody’s saying the Pacers and Bucks have completely caught up to the Bulls, but the Bulls can hear those footsteps—as they still try to chase LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

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.”

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

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USA TODAY

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

Denzel Valentine’s troublesome left ankle is going to keep him on the sideline for at least the next two weeks. Fred Hoiberg said Saturday before the Bulls’ home opener against the Detroit Pistons that Valentine is suffering from a bone bruise in the ankle he sprained on the second day of training camp. Valentine will be evaluated in two weeks.

“It sucks because of all the work I put in this summer and being around the guys you want to be out there so bad,” he said. “Things happen for a reason, and now that we know what’s going on I at least have a time frame and be patient with it; it’s bad news but good news at the same time as it gives me time to get ready.”

Valentine had been practicing earlier in the week and appeared close to a return after spraining the ankle on Sept. 25. But the third year wing complained of discomfort in the ankle and missed practice on Friday. A scan of the left ankle revealed the bone bruise, and Hoiberg wouldn’t speculate on when exactly Valentine might return.

It’s the same ankle Valentine had surgery on in May 2017. Valentine also missed the last two weeks of last season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. The injury couldn’t come at a worse time for Valentine or the Bulls, who are in desparate need of help both in the backcourt and on the wing.

Though Valentine isn’t a true point guard, he averaged 3.2 assists per game off the bench last season. The Bulls could use that kind of production when Kris Dunn returns on Monday, as Cameron Payne and Ryan Arcidiacono haven’t exactly showed promise in the early going.

Instead, Valentine is on the mend and it’s unclear when he might return. Given he’s had surgery on the same ankle before, the Bulls will be cautious upon his return.

“I’m a fighter, I’m not going to quit; just deal with the hand dealt," Valentine said. "I can’t sit here and be negative, I just got to fight, stay mentally strong and this will be bittersweet when I come back and have a great year.”