Bulls

Scouting Report: Thomas, Horford, Bradley lead a balanced Celtics attack into the playoffs

Scouting Report: Thomas, Horford, Bradley lead a balanced Celtics attack into the playoffs

The Celtics took care of a Milwaukee Bucks team without their four leading scorers on Wednesday night, securing the No. 1 seed in the East for the first time since 2008, when they won 66 games en route to the franchise’s 17th NBA title.

Just four years after entering rebuilding mode following the trades of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn, the Celtics have regained supremacy in the East under Brad Stevens.

Conversation about the Celtics begins and ends with Isaiah Thomas, the 5-foot-9 point guard who took the jump to super-stardom in 2016-17. He finished the regular season second in scoring (29.1) behind Russell Westbrook, and was fifth in usage (33.8%), ahead of players such as Kawhi Leonard, John Wall and LeBron James. Simply put, the Celtics rely on their All-Star guard plenty. Thomas set a Celtics record by scoring 20 or more points in 43 straight games, and his 9.8 points per fourth quarter were second in the NBA. Thomas knows how to close games, which could be crucial in the postseason.

After missing out on the Kevin Durant sweepstakes the Celtics found the next best option in free agent Al Horford. The four-time All-Star saw a slight dip in his shooting numbers but dished out a career-best 5.0 assists and solidified the center position on a team that desperately needed it. The only other players to reach Horford’s thresholds in points (14.0), rebounds (6.8) and assists (5.0) were Russell Westbrok, James Harden, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those could be four members of the All-NBA first team. Good company indeed.

Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley have always been plus defenders, with the latter earning All-NBA Defensive first team honors a year ago. But both players made a jump on the other end of the floor this year that helped Boston jump to the top of the East. Bradley averaged a career-high 16.4 points while Crowder shot a career-best 46.2 percent from the field and became a dependable 3-point shooter, connecting on 40 percent of his triples.

Bradley played in just 54 games while dealing with an Achilles injury during the season’s second half, and Horford missed time in November with a concussion. Both players are back and logging 30+ minutes, putting the Celtics at full-strength heading into the second season.

Other contributors include defensive standout Marcus Smart, though his shooting (35.9%) remains an issue. Rookie Jaylen Brown saw an increase in minutes with Bradley sidelined and proved to be a capable player on the second unit. Amir Johnson does the dirty work inside, while Kelly Olynyk’s stretch-four capabilities give Stevens a different look. Terry Rozier, Gerald Green, Jonas Jerebko and Tyler Zeller all could see spot minutes during the series, but won’t have a direct impact on its outcome.

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Boston sat third in the East following a late January three-game losing streak. At 26-18 they were safely into the playoffs and still in shouting distance of the Cavaliers and second-seeded Raptors.

Then, on Jan. 25, the Celtics knocked off the Rockets – one of their most impressive wins of the year – to begin a stretch of seven straight wins, and 11 of their next 12 total. It pulled them within 2.5 games of the Cavs. They maintained that second seed despite Washington’s resurgence – Kyle Lowry’s wrist injury in Toronto helped, too – and eventually caught struggling Cleveland by winning 12 of their last 16 games.

Having the East’s best road record (23-18) helped, and only Cleveland (31-10) was better than Boston’s 30-11 home mark. Thirteen other NBA teams finished with a winning record; Boston beat 11 of them at least once, with only San Antonio and Oklahoma City sweeping two-game series against the C’s.

Boston finished the year seventh in net rating, which trailed only Toronto in the East. They were one of five teams to finish in the top-12 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (Golden State, Toronto, San Antonio, Utah).

Offensively they use the 3-pointer as much as any team in the league not named the Houston Rockets. Their 33.4 attempts per game ranked third in the NBA behind Houston and Cleveland (33.9 attempts), and they made a respectable 35.9 percent.

Where the Celtics are best is distributing and taking care of the ball. They ranked second in the NBA in assist ratio (percentage of possessions ending in an assist) and assist percentage (percentage of field goals that were assisted). Though Thomas, their leading passer, handed out only 5.9 assists per game, Boston’s 25.2 assists per game were fourth in the NBA. Thomas, Bradley, Smart and Rozier can all handle the ball, while Horford is one of the game’s best passing centers.

They also take care of the ball. Boston’s turnover percentage (percentage of possessions that end in a turnover) ranked 8th in the NBA, and third among playoff teams.

If there’s one area where the Celtics struggle, it’s on the glass. Despite adding Horford, and having one of the better rebounding guards in Bradley, the Celtics finished 27th in rebound percentage (48.5%). Only the Mavericks, Pelicans and Nets were worse (Note: Rebound margin is not a thing). Horford and Bradley missing a combined 41 games may have contributed to that, but between Horford, Johnson, Olynyk and Zeller, there aren’t many plus rebounders on the team.

Outside of the Warriors and Spurs, there isn't a more balanced team in the league than the Celtics. They can play big with Horford and Amir Johnson, or play Crowder at power forward in a small-ball lineup. The combinations of Thomas, Bradley, Smart and Rozier give Stevens, one of the game's most respected head coaches, plenty of options. They'll be a tough out in the postseason if they can overcome their rebounding woes and, of course, remain healthy.

The Pecking Order: A very crazy week for the Bulls

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NBC SPORTS CHICAGO

The Pecking Order: A very crazy week for the Bulls

This has felt like a very crazy week for the Bulls. Lots going on. We’ve seen more losses in winnable games and another win over the lowly Pistons. Swirling around the game action we’ve had more injuries surface, more intriguing Jim Boylen quotes, more minutes for the “grit and toughness” squad, and more underwhelming performances from the supposed stars of the roster. To top it off, Bulls fans were hit hard in the feels on Wednesday night when the team honored recently retired Bulls legend Luol Deng at the United Center with many of his old teammates in attendance.  *Reaches for the nearest box of tissues*

I feel in need of a good long nap before we get to the weekend back-to-back. Before that nap, though, here are the biggest thoughts occupying my tired mind in Week 5 of the Bulls’ regular season. It’s the Pecking Order.

  1. I’m getting really sick of the 4th quarter collapses.

In losses to Brooklyn (sans Kyrie Irving) and Milwaukee (twice), the Bulls coughed up three more winnable games with painful collapses in the 4th quarter.  In the first of their two recent matchups, the Bucks gave the Bulls every opportunity to steal one.  Milwaukee missed a boatload of free throws (34-47).  They shot 18.2% (WHAT. EW.) from downtown and turned the ball over 22 times.  To his credit, Ryan Arcidiacono performed admirably when Jim Boylen tasked him with guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo down the stretch.  (WHAT. EW.)  Archi forced a Giannis midrange miss at the 1:35 mark and the Bulls only trailing by three.  But Lauri Markkanen, among others, failed to corral the defensive rebound and Eric Bledsoe made them pay with a second-chance bucket.  A missed Zach LaVine three on the other end and another Bledsoe bucket meant curtains for a golden chance at an impressive win against a respected opponent.

Two days later, the Bulls allowed the Nets to score 43 points in the final twelve minutes after bouncing back from an ugly start and taking leads into the 3rd and 4th quarters. The fact that 20 of Brooklyn’s 43 points in the final frame came courtesy of the recently Bulls-spurned Spencer Dinwiddie added extra pain to the evening. 

That dude can ball. 

Thank goodness we waived him to free up that roster spot for Michael Carter-Williams...Wait, what do you mean MCW isn’t leading the Bulls’ second unit with face-palming plays and bricked shots anymore? When did that happen?  (Aaaah, the “Three Alphas” season. Fun memories.)

In their second attempt to knock off Milwaukee, the Bulls again were in it late. But awful nights from Markkanen and LaVine led Boylen to leave his second unit on the floor late into the 4th. That’s something we’ve now seen several times through the first 15 games. After a Coby White three gave the Bulls a 99-98 lead with 6:23 remaining, the Bucks finished the game on a 17-2 run. Zach and Lauri checked in at the 5:04 mark, but all the supposed star duo could collectively provide was two free throws from Lauri. Zach had a bad turnover on a crucial possession, Lauri had a shot in the paint blocked by Brook Lopez, and both missed all their field goal attempts.

Yes, young teams like the Bulls usually struggle to finish close games. Yes, Lauri and Zach are underperforming. But this string of collapses in winnable games is a concerning trend. If you look at their net rating by quarter, it’s not a pretty picture. Per stats.nba.com, the Bulls are tied for 9th in the NBA with a 1st quarter net rating of +5.8. Their 2nd quarter rating of -1.2 ranks 19th, 3rd quarter rating of -4.6 also ranks 19th, and 4th quarter rating of -10.3 ranks 27th.

Jim can preach about needing to start games better, especially at home.  He can praise his guys for winning first and second quarters all he wants.  But it’s impossible to ignore the numbers. The Bulls perform worse as the games go on. Some of that is young players failing to close. It’s also an indictment on a coach who can’t adapt and make the proper in-game adjustments. But yeah, Archi sure played the Greek Freak tough! *facepalm*

 

  1.   Just when you thought we were finally going to have a healthy season…

Just kidding.  Who needs a healthy roster?  The already-limited Bulls, that’s who. But here we are, in late November, and we’re already dealing with injuries to several players. Sure, some are more important than others. Based on his poor shooting and defensive exposure before being removed from Boylen’s rotation – and the emergence of Daniel Gafford – I’m sure Bulls fans are more than fine with Luke Kornet taking all the time he needs to get those sinuses cleared out or whatever sinuses need to be good sinuses. (Making myself LOL at “good sinuses.”  What are “bad sinuses”?  Sinuses that live on the other side of the tracks and peer pressure you into skipping school?  Moving on…)

The foot injury to Otto Porter Jr. is a gigantic concern. Yes, he’s been middling at best so far this season. But in the Bulls’ first win over Detroit, you saw exactly what he can provide when healthy and playing well. We saw it immediately when he arrived via the trade with Washington last season. Now his backup, Chandler Hutchison, is dealing with “sore shins” that caused him to miss Wednesday’s game. That’s on top of the hamstring injury that held Hutch out of training camp and the first several games of the season.

Just as concerning as the injuries themselves are the vague updates we’re getting from Boylen and the Bulls’ medical staff.  Boylen recently said, “Otto's is a slow, meticulous process.  As symptoms subside, he gets better. Some days those symptoms are less, and some days they are the same as the day before. So that's where that's at.  He's working at it. He's trying. Again, this is a tough one. It's not a definitive thing. I'm sorry I don't have more answers for everyone. We're just trying to do the best we can with it."

Does anybody know how to interpret any of that?  Now we’ve also learned that Otto’s second MRI revealed a bone bruise in his foot that was “not apparent” in the first MRI.  He’ll be re-evaluated in two weeks.  Who’s got any confidence that reevaluation will bring good news?  Not this guy.

As for Hutchison, Boylen’s comments on Otto’s backup and his shins are equally confusing. But here’s a sample from Wednesday: “He’s out tonight, and that’s about as much as I can tell you. It doesn’t seem to be a quick fix; I don’t want to give you a timetable there.” Awesome. 

Did I mention that Lauri is still likely playing through an oblique injury – one the Bulls didn’t disclose until two weeks after it happened – and Coby White tweaked an ankle during warmups before the Pistons game? 

  1. Daniel Gafford is very fun to watch. 

He also appears to be more than qualified to play meaningful minutes. And not just in the G-League. (As my pal John pointed out on a recent Outsiders episode, the “G” in G-League stands for Gafford. I guess the “N” in NBA stands for daNNy duNks.)  With his breakout performance against the Bucks on Monday, Bulls fans must be wondering: 1) If Gafford was so positively affecting the game, why didn’t Boylen use him down the stretch of a winnable game?  2) If Gafford is this effective, why did it take 14 games – many of which featured an underwhelming Kornet – for Boylen to give him a chance?  And 3) What does all of this say about the talent evaluation abilities of Boylen, his staff, and everyone else in Advocate Center offices?  *Uncomfortably grabs collar*…

  1. Speaking of players who can’t get an opportunity, what on earth is going on with Denzel Valentine?

If there were ever a chance for Denzel to get out of Boylen’s doghouse and onto the court, Wednesday night was it. No Otto, no Hutchison, and a Pistons team that has one of the weakest wing depth rosters in the league. But still, no Denzel. Shaq Harrison (a guard) got the start at SF.  Ryan “I Take Charges” Arcidiacono continued his regular usage off the bench with 21 minutes. Denzel couldn’t even get onto the floor in garbage time. (That’s partly because Boylen apparently doesn’t believe in garbage time when his team is winning. See #6.)  If Boylen can’t find any minutes for Denzel in a game when the Bulls are down two wings and are up to twenty points late, when will he ever find time for him? Not to mention Denzel’s most useful ability, three-point shooting, has been one of the Bulls’ greatest weaknesses so far this season.

Why is Denzel on this roster?  If Boylen refuses to play him at all, then trade him if you can or waive him.  All you’re doing right now is wasting a roster spot.  With injuries piling up, maybe you could find somebody useful to take that spot?  But what do I know?

  1. Jim Boylen says lots of stuff.  On Wednesday night, he quoted his friend Tom Izzo.  It was weird.

After the win over Detroit, Boylen praised the efforts of Shaq Harrison in his first meaningful minutes of the season by citing a phrase coined by his friend and former colleague Tom Izzo. “P.P.T.P.W.” stands for “Players Play, Tough Players Win.”  Cool.

Shaq might embody that saying in Boylen’s mind, but he didn’t play for Izzo at Michigan State.  He played at Tulsa.

…Didn’t Denzel Valentine spend four years at Michigan State playing for Izzo?  Hmm…

  1. About the final minutes of Wednesday’s victory.

With the Bulls up 100-80 with 4:51 remaining, the following players were on the floor: Zach LaVine, Wendell Carter Jr, Lauri Markkanen, Tomas Satoranský, and Shaq Harrison. The four normal starters weren’t subbed out until the 1:32 mark when Shaq remained for mop-up duty. Why did Boylen feel the need to play his primary starters for those three extra minutes when the game was already in hand? Did he feel that a Pistons comeback was still possible? I know the Bulls have given up leads in the 4th quarter several times this season, but it would’ve taken a meltdown of epic proportions to blow that lead. I’m just glad nobody got injured.

Also, I’m not sure what’s weirder: Boylen playing his starters down the stretch of a blowout or playing his second unit down the stretch of a close game. Neither is a good thing, in my humble opinion.

  1. I really enjoyed Derrick Rose’s interview with Will Perdue.

I am not the Rose Hater that Kendall Gill makes me out to be. I just don’t think it’s healthy for Bulls fans to live in the past when the rocky and worrisome present demands our full attention. That being said, you should definitely check out the interview if you haven’t already.  It’s fantastic.

  1. I felt all the feels on Luol’s big night.

Good for the Bulls for signing Luol Deng to a one-day contract to allow him to retire here, where his NBA career began and blossomed. Good for them, also, for honoring Luol during a break in the action on Wednesday night. The video tribute was great. Even better was seeing Luol hang out in the owner’s suite with former teammates Joakim Noah, Ben Gordon, Tyrus Thomas (dunks!  LaMarcus Aldridge!), Jannero Pargo, John Lucas III (Revenge on LeBron Game!), Nazr Mohammed (LeBron Shove!) and Aaron Gray (Aaron Gray!) …like I said. All the feels. Cheers to Luol on a great career.

  1. Tomas Satoranský finally showed us something.

It wasn’t an other-worldly performance, but it’s a start. In two recent games, Sato scored the Bulls’ first five points and never scored again. His assist numbers have been mediocre, and he hasn’t looked to shoot much despite a blistering 46.3% from beyond the arc. 15 points on 6-for-11 shooting, including 3-for-5 from deep, plus 7 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 steals is a solid night at the office. Satoranský and Boylen both spoke recently about his need to be more aggressive to help the Bulls’ struggling offense. Hopefully, his game on Wednesday was a good start.

  1. I’m excited to watch Jimmy’s new team on Friday night.

The Bulls will host another reunion on Friday when Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat visit the United Center for the final game of this homestand and the first game of a weekend back-to-back. The Heat’s fast start (10-3, currently 3rd in the East) has surprised many. They’re getting solid production from a pair of rookies, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro. But it’s Jimmy leading the way, averaging 18.7 points, 7 assists and an NBA-best 2.7 steals per game. I haven’t watched the Heat much so far this season, but I like what I’ve seen. They move the ball well and play solid defense. I’m excited to watch them on Friday night. And by excited, I mean terrified.

Thanks for reading.  Here’s hoping for a few more wins and some good news on the injury front. I also wouldn’t mind more 20-point games from Lauri. Please. For the love of God, please.

Till next time.  See red, be good.  - Peck 

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What to watch for when Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat take on the Bulls

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USA TODAY

What to watch for when Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat take on the Bulls

Friday night, Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat (10-3) visit the United Center to take on the Bulls (5-10). The game tips off at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:

Not your mother’s Miami Heat

The Heat’s torrid 10-3 start to the season has caught much of the NBA cognoscenti by surprise — not necessarily because of their general performance, but because of a number of new  names helping lead the charge. 

Chief among that group are rookie guard Kendrick Nunn and second-year forward Duncan Robinson. Each of them have carved out spots in the team’s current starting lineup, and their play has been critical with both Jimmy Butler and Justise Winslow missing stretches early on (Winslow, along with Derrick Jones Jr., didn’t travel with the team for tonight’s game or their game in Philadelphia on Saturday). 

Nunn hit a blip at the beginning of November after a scorching hot October, but is averaging 19 points, 5.3 assists and 1.5 steals on 53.4% shooting (43.5% 3-point shooting) in his last five games. He’s a certified pest, defensively, too. Robinson, for his part, is coming off the game of his life, in which he stroked nine three pointers (seven in the second quarter) in a blowout win over Cleveland:

 

Of course, the heralded guys are performing, as well. Since returning to the team, Butler is doing Butler things — leading the team in usage, scoring and assists, while also ranking top two in the league in steals (2.7, 1st) and deflections (3.9, 2nd) per game. Goran Dragic, who’s been supplanted by Nunn, has adapted nicely to a bench role and Bam Adebayo is fast becoming one of the more dynamic two-way bigs in the league.

Offensively, the Heat are a team predicated on quick and consistent ball movement — they’re ninth in the league in passes made per game and second in assist rate. That kind of philosophy can result in turnovers, and the Heat are dead last in the NBA in that category, both in turnover rate and turnovers per game. If the Bulls’ rotations are sound, that’s an area they can capitalize in

Still, Miami is a well-coached and well-rounded squad that plays every game like it’s their last. A Bulls upset won’t come easy.

A tough defensive matchup

Miami enters the game the third-rated defense in the league, buoyed by a robust rotation of pesky on-ball defenders and the switchable, high-leaping Adebayo in the middle. They’re a tremendous defensive rebounding group, force the second most turnovers per game (trailing only the Bulls) in the NBA and don’t allow many looks around the rim — a place where the Bulls shoot frequently and inefficiently.

Where the Heat have gotten somewhat fortunate is defending the three-point line. Miami is alone at the top of the league in opponent three-point percentage (30.1%), but opponents are shooting only 33.5% on ‘wide-open’ attempts against them (as defined by NBA.com as shots without a defender within six feet of the shooter). The Bulls allow the same percentage on ‘wide-open’ three-pointers, well below the league average of 37.8%.

If the Bulls can catch fire from behind the arc, as they did against Detroit (14-for-27 from deep), it could be an area they can close the gap. And in that vein, after struggling mightily on the glass at the outset of the season, the Bulls rank fifth in the NBA in rebounding rate (52.5%) in their last five games — two of which were against formidable frontcourts in Milwaukee and Detroit. The Heat excel in that area, so it’s worth monitoring if the Bulls can keep that momentum rolling.

Bulls get (another) shot at a good team

The Bulls enter this contest 0-6 against teams with winning records this season. They were 7-40 in that department in 2018-19 and 9-41 the year before. That’s a combined 16-87 record against better-than-.500 teams in the last three years. Yikes.

Tonight, they get a chance to begin flipping that script. Blowing out dismal Detroit is encouraging, but conversations about a real corner being turned should be suspended until the Bulls start at least competing against the league’s best.

Jimmy Butler returns for the third time, with a third team

Since being traded from the Bulls in June 2017, Jimmy Butler has returned to the United Center as a visitor twice, once with the Timberwolves and once with the 76ers. Both of those games resulted in one-point Bulls wins.

In Miami, it seems he’s found a home. But Chicago still holds a special place in his heart.

“It’s always special to play here. This is where I started,” Butler said of returning to Chicago. “I was fortunate to be able to play in front of these wonderful fans in this great city and obviously all the history that went on here with the players that I was able to play with… I’ll always have love for this city. That will never change.”

Chicago fans will appreciate that sentiment, but certainly wouldn’t mind if tonight’s matchup goes similarly to Butler’s last two return trips. 

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