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.

Scottie Pippen's injury history sheds light on what could be ahead for Michael Porter Jr.

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USA TODAY

Scottie Pippen's injury history sheds light on what could be ahead for Michael Porter Jr.

By now you probably know the story of Michael Porter Jr.'s back. Right as his college basketball career was starting—two minutes in to be exact—he had to sit out with back pain, which eventually developed into Porter undergoing a microdiscectomy of the L3-L4 spinal discs. The general consensus has been simple: if Porter's medicals are clean then he is a potential top-five pick, but if there is a lack of medical information or any indication that lingering issues persist, he will be available at picks six through the late lottery. Regardless of how his medical records look, what we do know is that Porter was the top-ranked player in his high school class before the eventual re-classification of Marvin Bagley. With this in mind, any team in need of serious star power—hello Bulls!—should have no problems spending a high pick on Porter, and Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen is a big reason why.

In July of 1988, Pippen has disc surgery following a rookie season that was plagued by constant back pain. During that rookie season Pippen played just over 20 minutes a night and played in a total of 79 games.

While the late 80's didn't have the help of NBA Twitter to breathe doubt into fans, there was still a running sentiment that Pippen may not be effective as he was during his initial NBA season. But in his sophomore NBA year, he almost doubled his scoring total while raising his free throw percentage from 57.6 percent to 66.8 percent. On top of this, Pippen also increased his workload by playing 33.1 minutes per game. Altogether he increased his field goal and free throw percentage each of his first four seasons in the league, all following his rookie year back surgery.

This however, should not come as a shock. In an interview with SB Nation, Dr. Charla Fischer, a spine surgeon at NYU Langone Health, stated: "Most patients tell me they feel at least 50 to 80 percent better immediately after the surgery." 

Players typically take two seasons to return to form following herniated disc surgery, and that is right in line with Pippen's first All-Star appearance in 1990, about one and a half seasons following his procedure. When you relate this back to Porter, a clearer picture of what to expect forms. Because Porter has already missed an entire season of basketball (at Missouri), it figures to take about a year for him to totally regain the explosivness that he showcased at the high school level. 

Pippen averaged 14.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.1 apg, along with a combined 1.9 stl/blks per game in the season following his back procedure. Now it would be unreasonable to expect Porter to come into the NBA performing at that level, but more so because of his lack of all-around polish more than anything else. And that is what makes Porter such a conundrum. He is a player whose game—as of now—is totally based on scoring, and his scoring is directly tied to how close he is to 100 percent. So again, developing the rest of his game in terms of passing and defense will take on everlasting importance, regardless of if he ends up with Chicago or another team. 

And while it is true that Pippen's injury history eventually caught up with him, leading to another back surgery in 1998, this was six NBA championships later. Pip went on to play six more seasons following his 1998 procedure. This included four seasons with Portland where the team routinely won around 50 games, and had a legendary battle with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference Finals.

So no matter what, Porter's first year should be looked at as one very, very long training camp. He will be in the best position to succeed if he is selected by a team willing to look at him as a long-term piece, rather than a 6-foot, 11-inch savior.

 

NBA Buzz: Draft night is almost here

NBA Buzz: Draft night is almost here

With a number of national writers and broadcasters forecasting an active trade market in the hours leading up to Thursday's NBA Draft, the whole idea of a mock draft might just be an exercise in futility at this point. Still, we have learned quite a bit about which players are coveted by teams drafting in the top five after sorting through the smokescreens of the individual workouts.

So, with that in mind, here's my final stab at how Thursday's lottery  picks could play out.

1. Suns: Deandre Ayton, C, Arizona.  An absolute no-brainer here. Ayton combines the size and power of an old school center with the athleticism and shooting touch of a new-age "stretch five".

2. Kings: Marvin Bagley III, PF, Duke.  Vlade Divac shouldn't risk his good fortune at moving up to the No. 2 slot by taking a risk on Michael Porter Jr.'s health. Remember the Kings already have a rehabbing teenager in one of their first round picks from last season, Duke F Harry Giles. Bagley should be a 20-10 guy in the NBA for the next decade.

3. Hawks: Jaren Jackson Jr., PF-C, Michigan St.  This will be the first spot to look for a possible trade. The Hawks reportedly like Trae Young and might consider offers to move down and draft him later in the top 10. If they stay at No. 3, Jackson offers the rim protection and 3-point shooting ability Atlanta desperately needs.

4. Grizzlies: Luka Doncic, G-SF, Slovenia.  The Grizzlies should run to the podium if Doncic is still on the board at No. 4. The 19-year old wunderkind gives Memphis a secondary shot creator to go along with Mike Conley.

5. Mavericks: Michael Porter Jr., F, Missouri.  Mark Cuban is looking for his next big star with Dirk Nowitzki entering what is most likely his final season. The Mavs reportedly are also high on Mo Bamba, but Porter's potential as a 20 ppg scorer will probably win the discussion in the war room.

6. Magic: Trae Young, PG, Oklahoma.  Good chance of another trade at this spot involving a team that really likes Bamba. Orlando could move down a few spots and still get one of the three top-rated PG's, Young, Collin Sexton and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. If the Magic stay at No. 6, Young's quick-strike scoring and box office potential are likely to win the day.

7. BULLS: Mo Bamba, C, Texas.  Yes, John Paxson said the Bulls’ biggest need is a defensive-minded wing, but Bamba's ability to dominate at that end of the court is too great to pass up. Bamba is incredibly raw offensively, but he's been working on his low post skills and shooting form since the college season ended. The Bulls were not a good defensive team last season, and adding a shot-blocking threat like Bamba should improve them immediately.

8. Cavs: Kevin Knox, F, Kentucky.  Knox is one of the big risers after the individual workout season, impressing teams with his combination of athleticism and shooting ability. Knox can play both forward spots and could develop into a big-time scorer, replacing you-know-who as the Cavs start to build for an uncertain future.

9. Knicks: Wendell Carter Jr., PF-C, Duke.  The Knicks will be thrilled to add a versatile big like Carter, especially considering Kristaps Porzingis could miss most or all of next season rehabbing an ACL tear. Eventually, Porzingis and Carter could form a nice inside-outside tandem as the Knicks try to build toward playoff contention.

10. 76ers: Mikal Bridges, F, Villanova.  Another perfect fit for a team on the rise. Bridges' defense-first mentality and improving offensive game should blend in well on a Sixers team that's looking to take the next step after losing to Boston in the conference semi-finals. And, his mom already works for the franchise in the human relations department!

11. Hornets: Miles Bridges, F, Michigan St.  Charlotte whiffed on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the 2nd overall pick a few years ago, and Nic Batum has battled injuries since coming over from Portland. Miles Bridges is another combo forward who should thrive in the pro game with his ability to run the court and finish with authority at the rim.

12. Clippers: Collin Sexton, PG, Alabama.  The Clippers will be thrilled if Sexton falls this far, giving them a dynamic young option at point guard to go along with veterans Patrick Beverley and Milos Teodosic. Sexton could go as high as No. 6 to Orlando or No. 8 to the Cavs. He'll be one of the interesting names to watch on draft night.

13. Clippers: Robert Williams, PF-C, Texas A&M.  The Clippers are still waiting to see if DeAndre Jordan exercises his player option for next season, but if he decides to test the free agent market, Williams would be a perfect replacement. The athletic 6-foot 10-inch big man is a classic rim runner who should be able to finish off alley-oop passes just like Jordan.

14. Nuggets: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, G, Kentucky.  Don't be surprised if Gilgeous-Alexander goes even higher than this after a strong finish to his freshman season. Scouts love his 6-foot 6-inch frame and ability to get to the basket. In Denver, he could come off the bench initially behind young guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris.

22. BULLS: Chandler Hutchison, SF, Boise St.  So, the Bulls may or may not have made a "promise" to select Hutchison with the No. 22 pick they acquired in the Niko Mirotic trade with New Orleans. Either way, if the Bulls get Bamba at No. 7, Hutchison would be a great addition as the "3-and-D" small forward Paxson talked about in his end of the season news conference. The 6-foot 7-inch swingman improved his 3-point shooting during his senior season at Boise St., and is considered to be an excellent wing defender. Personally, I'd love to see to Bulls draft NCAA tournament hero Donte DiVincenzo of Villanova if he's still on the board at No. 22. 

Around the Association:

While we wait for the draft drama to unfold, NBA Twitter has already been taken over by speculation over where the next super team will be formed. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have been plotting for over a year on how to restore the Lakers' franchise to its past glory, and it looks like they'll be swinging for the fences this summer.

If the Lakers are able to find a taker for Luol Deng's contract or renounce the rights to restricted free agent Julius Randle, they should be able to create two max contract slots once the free agent market opens for business on July 1st. The obvious targets are LeBron James and Paul George, but Magic doesn't plan on stopping there. He's hoping to find a way to convince the Spurs to trade unhappy All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard to the Lakers as well, giving L.A. a super-team that will rival what James put together in Miami.

The Lakers have the assets to get a Leonard trade done with draft picks and young players on rookie contracts (Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart), but would Gregg Popovich actually make a deal with one of his long-time rivals? 

You can bet Pop will do everything he can to convince Leonard to accept a five-year, $219 million super max contract extension this summer and spend his prime years in San Antonio. But if that face-to-face meeting goes sour, Pop will make the deal that's best for the Spurs, preferably to an Eastern conference team he'll only have to face twice a season.

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Initial reports out of Houston indicate that free agent point guard Chris Paul plans to re-sign with the Rockets and will do everything in his power to recruit good friend LeBron James. Problem is, Houston has no cap space, so they would have to get the Cavaliers to agree to a trade. And in order to make the money work, the Rockets would want to include high-salaried players like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, neither of which would hold much interest for Cleveland with the team in rebuild mode.

Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey is one of the league's most creative executives, but trying to find a way to fit James into his bloated payroll will be the biggest challenge he's ever faced. Morey also has to deal with the restricted free agency of breakout center Clint Capela, who could draw a big offer sheet from another team.

Chris Paul and LeBron might be good friends, but the logistics could make it next to impossible to join forces in Houston.