Bulls

Rose puts the Bulls on his back

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Rose puts the Bulls on his back

No, Tuesday nights 76-74 Bulls (5-1) win was not a flashback to last season. Yes, many of the same elementsa slow start, poor shooting, never refusing to quit, a comeback sparked by stout defense, dramatic twists and turns up until the final buzzer existed and even a familiar foe in the Hawks (4-2)but until Luol Dengs game-winning layup fell through the net, the raucous United Center crowd couldnt be completely sure their beloved home team had its mojo back.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, the architect of the masterfully-executed out-of-bounds play that produced the winning basket argued, We caught a break that thats a second night for them, back-to-back, but anybody who watched the Bulls grind out a significant portion of their 62 regular-season victories in a similarly ugly fashion knows otherwise.

Although the visitors were coming off a night in which they came from behind to win in Miami, they still attempted to push the tempo in the games early going and had successful results, getting out to a 13-4 lead.

That was our first thought from the beginning to tire out the Hawks, but they came out, we couldnt hit a shot, we werent playing defense, said Derrick Rose. Thats how they got the big lead.

Versatile forwards Marvin Williams (14 points, eight rebounds) and Josh Smith (15 points, 14 rebounds) were both very active and go-to scorer Joe Johnson (10 points on 3-for-17 shooting), last seen by Chicago fans getting hounded into a dreadful playoff showing, was also effective.

The home team failed to take care of the basketball and fell into sloppy habits, though the up-and-down pace suited Rose (30 points, seven assists, 11-for-13 from the foul line) well, as he abandoned the distributor role he claimed at the games outset in favor of attacking the rim as a scorer. Still, after a quarter of play, the Hawks had a 23-15 advantage.

It was disappointing, the way we started the game. I thought we were playing a low-energy game, said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. I give them a lot of credit. I thought that they played great. They were more aggressive to start the game. When we play without pace, we struggle.

Even the insertion of the typically-energetic Bench Mobminus swingman Ronnie Brewer, who started in place of shooting guard Rip Hamilton, who missed his second consecutive game with a groin injury, while C.J. Watson was also absent due to a sprained left elbow and was replaced in the rotation by third-string point guard John Lucas IIIdidnt help matters for the Bulls, as Atlanta maintained its double-digit cushion. There was a lid on the rim for the listless hosts, who mishandled the ball even when left alone, missed an assortment of open shots and blew defensive assignments.

Thibodeau tried different combinations and offensive setsas promised, Brewer occasionally initiated the offense, with Rose playing off the ballbut with the starting frontcourt of Deng (21 points, eight rebounds), Carlos Boozer (11 points, nine rebounds) and Joakim Noah combining to make just four of 19 attempts from the field and the team shooting 24.3 percent overall, it was too much to overcome. At the halftime break, the home team trailed, 38-26, partially as a result of the Hawks zone defense and somewhat due to their own uninspired play.

Explained Thibodeau: For whatever reason, I just thought, in the first half as a team, we were just backwards. We were shooting when we should have been passing, we were passing when we should have been shooting and we couldnt get anything easy, and I think thats important for us, to get some easy baskets and get a flow to the game.

Added Deng, who said that the fiery head coach was unexpectedly really positive at halftime: We had good looks. We just didnt make them. But their zone did bother us. Its the most zone weve seen this year, so Im sure the next practice that we have or even the next tape session, well be talking about zone offense a lot.

The tide began to turn early in the third quarter, as the Bulls used much-improved defenseafter Noah picked up a pair of quick fouls to give him four for the game, backup center Omer Asik (nine rebounds, three blocked shots) impacted the game with his shot-blocking acumen and overall defensive presence, not to mention a surprisingly fluid reverse layup in transitionand more efficient offense, sparked by Roses playmaking, to get a rise out of the discontent United Center crowd. However, as Atlanta settled down and was more patient with its offense and shot selection, the suddenly scoring-deficient Bulls gradually fell into an even deeper hole, trailing by as many as 19 points.

Boozer, the target of many fans dismay, started the period slowly and picked up his play as the frame waned on, but his lack of intensity on the defensive end forced Thibodeau to pull him from the game for the more active Taj Gibson. But the much-maligned power forward cant possibly shoulder all the blame for the lackluster effortdesignated sharpshooter Kyle Korver (eight rebounds) missed a wide-open three-pointer and a technical foul free throw, Brewer struggled to hit a variety of shots and the normally-reliable duo of Rose and Deng also struggledwhich left the Bulls down, 56-42, heading into the final stanza.

It was just one of those nights, but the way that we play on the offensive end cant affect the way we play defensively, said a dour Rose afterwards. Our defense always has to be there.

As if they finally realized how lousy they were playing, the Bulls came out like they were shot out of a cannon in the fourth quarter, with the slumping Korver knocking down a triple to open the periods scoring. Rose followed with a pair of shots from long range, sandwiched around two free throws and an Atlanta three-pointer, but after Deng turned a Hawks turnover into a fast-break layup, Chicago cut the deficit to five points with under 10 minutes to play.

It was officially a ballgame again and the Bulls suddenly morphed into the lovable, scrappy squad of last season, as Rose switched into takeover modebreaking ankles and slashing to the basket when he wasnt draining long bombs or calmly sinking foul shotsand a frenetic, trapping defense (even Korver, back on the floor after Thibodeau briefly took him out at the end of the previous period, was hustling all over the court to make plays, something unexpected for a player considered a defensive liability by many) rushed Atlanta into hurried possessions.

Ive been focusing on my rebounding a lot, trying to get more of those. Were a good rebounding teamsometimes theres not many rebounds to getbut thats something Thibs talked to me about and something Ive been focusing around lately, and just trying to be an all-around player, said Korver. No one wants to be labeled a one-dimensional person.

Deng, who turned up his aggressiveness as a scorer, hit a corner three-pointer just prior to the quarters midway point that knotted up the score at 62 apiece, setting the stage for a tense stretch run.

As he did in last years playoffs, Thibodeau rode the athletic, defensive-minded combination of Gibson and Asikalong with fellow reserve Korver, they were paired with starters Rose and Dengfor the final period of the low-scoring, close-knit affair, counting on their heart to make up for whatever the unit lacked in scoring balance.

We were very flat. We were searching. That group got some momentum going, so we were staying with them. We felt like they got them out of the hole, so they deserved the chance to finish it, reasoned Thibodeau. There was a stretch where I was going to come back with the starters, but that group was making their run and it was a lot of ground to make up, and I felt at that point, you couldnt afford to have another lull. They looked like they were fine and we looked like we were picking up our energy, and Derrick and Luol are accustomed to playing big minutes.

I thought Taj and Omer came in and gave us a lot of energy, he continued. The bench was very good. Of course, Derrick was sensational down the stretch, just made big play after big play. You cant say enough about Luol. He does everything. He rebounds, he defends, cuts, active, tough, smart.

Following a Deng layup and an Atlanta turnover, a Rose layup with 57.9 seconds on the clock gave the Bulls a 72-71 lead, their first of the game, but a subsequent thunderous alley-oop finish quickly changed the atmosphere of the arena.

Rose missed a leaning floater on the next possession, then Hawks point guard Jeff Teague was fouled and missed a pair of attempts from the charity stripe with 16.3 seconds to go, setting up Rose making a tough, driving layup in traffic with 9.9 seconds left, giving the Bulls back the lead. The game appeared to be signed, sealed and delivered, but an inexplicable off-the-ball foul called on Deng sent Horford to the line and the All-Star split a pair of free throws, tying the game at 74 with 7.7 seconds remaining.

But Deng refused to be the goat, cutting backdoor to receive a perfectly-timed pass from Noahback in the game for his passing in place of Asik, the center knew the Hawks would focus on denying Rose the ballfor a layup with 3.7 seconds to go.

We run it every day after practiceevery single dayand it works. We see it works now. Lu got an easy basket. The guy that was sticking him turned his back and Joakim threw a great pass to Lu, and Lu had a layup, Rose broke down the play to reporters. I set the back pick for Kyle and then I go off a screen, Kyle goes off, then Joakim gets me, I act like Im going to the hole, set a back pick for Lu, Lu flies off. If Lu isnt open, dribble handoff.

Summarized Thibodeau: Theres multiple options on the playobviously were trying to get it to Derrickand they did a good job taking the first and second options away, and then Derrick made a great screen and Jo made a terrific pass, Lu made a great cut.

Atlantas final attempt, a Johnson jumper at the buzzer, was off, but the crowd was already breathing easy, knowing the ending to a familiar story.

Thad Young 'gets on' Wendell Carter Jr. for his struggles with foul trouble

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USA TODAY

Thad Young 'gets on' Wendell Carter Jr. for his struggles with foul trouble

In the midst of a season defined by slews of injuries and inconsistent play, Wendell Carter Jr. and Daniel Gafford have been undeniable bright spots for the Bulls.

"Sh*t, they've been doing great!" Thad Young said after Friday morning shootaround, on their progression. "Wendell has been amazing all season long, you know, he's a capable double-double guy each and every night.

"Daniel. He's been huge for us with the time he does get. He comes out and brings a huge spurt of energy with blocking shots and rebounds. But also, on the offensive end, he's better than people think. You know, he can score the basketball around the basket, he has a great feel for the game, he has great touch."

That's high praise coming from Young, one of the preeminent veteran locker room presences in the league. He did have one critique, though, specifically for Carter.

"The only thing we gotta work on is his f*cking hands," Young said, with a chuckle. "Fouling people. He's always fouling people, he's always, you know, I tell him all the time, keep your hands out of there. When guards see that, they want to attack your hands and get to the free throw line. So, if we can keep his hands away from guys and keep 'em going straight up and getting him to alter shots as opposed to just trying to block 'em all the time. And getting guys to maneuver around him, then it puts him in a better position for him to stay in games and help us win games."

Carter's struggles with foul trouble are well-documented. He currently leads the league in personal fouls with 106 (that's 4.1 per game, second only to Jaren Jackson Jr.) and has fouled out of five games already this season. Young isn't going to let him off the hook.

"Yes, all the time," Young said, when asked he if 'gets on' Carter when he starts racking up fouls. "I got on him [in the Raptors game] when he fouled out. I said, 'What I tell you about your hands, man?' I said soon as you stuck your hand in there, they was ready to call a foul."

Still, it's hard to be too critical of the Bulls' second-year big. Carter also has 13 double-doubles this season, is tied for third in the league in offensive rebounds per game and anchors a Bulls defense rated second in the NBA over the past two weeks and change. Young acknowledged that, as well.

"He's been great all season long. He's a physical force for us, one of our better defensive players," Young said. "He does a hell of a job going out there and executing each and every night."

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Lauri Markkanen stays even-keeled as his season starts to trend upward

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USA Today

Lauri Markkanen stays even-keeled as his season starts to trend upward

It might've been Lauri Markkanen's most explosive move of the season to this point. In the first half of the Bulls' road victory over the Kings on Dec. 2, the power forward faked a dribble-handoff, took a dribble and explosively dunked with authority.

Markkanen scored 20 points that night and has reached that level in four of six December games. In fact, over the last six games, Markkanen has doubled his 20-point game output from the first 20 games while shooting 52.6 percent overall and 43.5 percent from 3-point range.

"I'm staying confident and trying to finish every shot, not fall out of it," Markkanen said following Friday's morning shootaround at the Advocate Center. "I've tried to be active at both ends. Obviously, I've been getting a lot of good looks from my teammates. I'm trying to attack the rim and make my open shots. If I get to the rim early, it opens up the 3 ball later."

Markkanen is attempting 7.7 3-pointers per game this month, his highest monthly total to date. But his scoring has featured his full arsenal — dunks, drives, one-legged drag steps. Both he and coach Jim Boylen agreed he's been more on the move offensively rather than serving as a stationary shooter.

"I think that's him engaging in the game and playing harder and with more energy," Boylen said. "He's just bringing it.

"He's driven the ball more. He's also had more dunks. His rim finishes are up, percentages and attempts. That's important. It's nice when you get a couple easy ones or ones at the rim. Then, the other ones, the rim looks a little bigger."

Markkanen is as stoic and as even-keeled as they come, but he publicly admitted to frustration a couple times during his slow start. He also got tired of talking about it. He knew what he had to do.

"There are tough times for everybody," Markkanen said. "It was a little tough earlier in the year. But even then, I always said I'd keep working and try to stay positive. I thought things would fall into place."

And now that they have over a six-game stretch, he won't celebrate. He'll continue to put in the work, knowing how much he means to the fortunes of the franchise. Zach LaVine, in particular, voiced strong support for Markkanen throughout his early-season struggles.

"Just knowing that my teammates have my back, that's the most important thing," Markkanen said. "No matter how many shots I missed, I felt my teammates supported me and believed in me. That's really important. You can't lose confidence when that happens."

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