Bulls

Second round matchup with Hawks favors Bulls

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Second round matchup with Hawks favors Bulls

Friday, April 29, 2011
Posted: 9:30 a.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

With Thursday night's series-ending win over Orlando, Atlanta moved on to the second round, where they will take on the top-seeded Bulls. After falling to their division rival in a historic sweep a year ago, the Hawks avenged the embarrassing defeat and shocked observers by utilizing a one-on-one defense strategy against Magic All-Star center Dwight Howard to win the first-round matchup in just four games.

Former Bulls guards Jamal Crawford and Kirk Hinrich were key to Atlanta's success, as Crawford's prolific scoring off the bench certainly tilted the scales in the series, while Hinrich's defense on point-guard counterpart Jameer Nelson was crucial. Unfortunately for both Hinrich and Atlanta, the veteran guard suffered a right-hamstring injury just after making a clutch layup late in Thursday's win.

READ: NBA releases Bulls vs. Hawks schedule

While Hinrich, who will reportedly have an MRI Friday, wasn't expected to shut down Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, he's the only player on the Hawks roster with any semblance of hope of defending him. Against Orlando, Atlanta sent out a legion of big men--Jason Collins, Hilton Armstrong, Josh Powell and classic playoff irritant Zaza Pachulia--to guard Howard, but surely first-year Hawks head coach Larry Drew understands simply sending Rose to the line isn't the answer (as the Pacers quickly found out in the first round) and regardless, there isn't a similar army of backup point guards available to wear him down, as Crawford and seldom-used second-year reserve Jeff Teague are the team's only alternatives behind Hinrich.

Rose isn't the only mismatch the Bulls pose against Atlanta. Of the three regular-season matchups between the two teams, all in March, Chicago easily won the final two contests, after blowing a huge halftime lead at Philips Arena to narrowly lose in the first game.

The Bulls dominated the backboards--as they did against most opponents--for the most part and with the Hawks playing an isolation-heavy offense based around the one-on-one abilities of Crawford and All-Star swingman Joe Johnson, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau's help-ready scheme is perfectly suited to defending them. Atlanta's other All-Star, undersized center Al Horford, lit up the Bulls as the protagonist in Atlanta's comeback win, but wasn't a major factor in the other two affairs.

Not only are the Bulls a tough matchup, but in the chess match that is the postseason, the Hawks must now switch gears after focusing on Howard and Orlando's cadre of long-range specialists. Additionally, Atlanta doesn't enjoy a consistent home-court advantage at "The Highlight Factory"--a famously late-arriving crowd--puzzlingly either getting blown out or losing to inferior guests on occasion, while other times rising to the challenge against elite competition, such as the come-from-behind win over Chicago.

WATCH: One-on-one with Bulls VP John Paxson

From the Bulls' perspective, one thing the series will provide is a chance for much-maligned power forward Carlos Boozer to get back on track. Throughout the first-round series against Indiana, criticism of his performance only increased, despite Chicago putting away the Pacers in five games.

Boozer's right-toe injury, regardless of skepticism of its timing, should have adequate time to heal, especially with the team taking two days off from practice after advancing to the second round (the likes of Rose, Luol Deng and Keith Bogans are others who were in need of a break to rest nagging injuries), but more important is him regaining his confidence, as well as that of his teammates and coaches, who are saying all the right things publicly, but have to be alternately concerned and disappointed at his playoff production thus far. Matched up with an Atlanta frontline ill-equipped to defend him--opposing power forward Josh Smith is one of the league's most athletic players, but lacks Boozer's strength, while Horford will likely be matched up with a lesser offensive threat to keep him out of foul trouble; the same Hawks centers who sacrificed their bodies to guard Howard won't be able to use the same tactics to successfully defend a well functioning Boozer's blend of finesse and power--this series is ideal for the free-agent acquisition to recover his swagger, while not having to guard an offensive focal point.

If Boozer doesn't regain his past form, backup Taj Gibson will likely be up to the challenge. Gibson matches up well with the athletic Hawks and his confidence is soaring after playing productive minutes in Boozer's stead, despite Thibodeau limiting his minutes as the Pacers series first got underway.

Outside of Crawford--who likely becomes a starter if Hinrich is out--Chicago possesses a major advantage in depth and while Thibodeau has mostly observed the postseason custom of playing his starters more minutes, Atlanta is a team the Bulls can wear down with their manpower, perhaps giving "The Bench Mob" one more opportunity to show its value. Besides defensive question marks at point guard and in the post, the Hawks are also susceptible on the wing, presenting Deng with a chance to build on his solid first-round efforts, not to mention sharpshooter Kyle Korver, whose movement without the ball is different than the spot-up philosophy undertaken by Orlando.

Overall, this series, which begins Monday night at the United Center, is a better matchup--at least on paper--for the Bulls than were the scrappy, underrated Pacers. Given Atlanta's inconsistent nature and the possibility of Hinrich being out or at the least, limited, expect Chicago to close things out in five games on the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they will take on the winner of the highly-anticipated Celtics-Heat series.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Steve Kerr stays positive, keeps perspective with new Warriors' challenge

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USA TODAY

Steve Kerr stays positive, keeps perspective with new Warriors' challenge

Kevin Durant chose to leave for the Nets in free agency. Klay Thompson faced rehabilitation after tearing his left ACL during Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

Yes, Steve Kerr knew this Warriors season would be different.

But nobody knew that Steph Curry would break his left hand and be sidelined until likely after the All-Star break at the earliest. Nobody knew D’Angelo Russell, the Warriors’ prized offseason acquisition, would miss nine games with a sprained right thumb.

But just as he kept perspective and an even keel throughout the Warriors’ dynasty, which produced three championships and five straight trips to the NBA Finals, the ever-grounded Kerr is doing the same with a team that lugs a league-worst 4-19 mark into Friday’s meeting with the Bulls.

“I’m enjoying coaching the young guys and going through the details of what they need to learn and helping them develop,” Kerr said in an interview following Thursday’s practice at University of Illinois Chicago. “I basically survived my whole career. I was never really in a position where I felt like, ‘OK, I’ve made it.’ From year to year, it was just survival. So I can relate to a lot of these young guys and I can relate a lot of experiences to them. That’s a satisfying process when you see them do well.”

That said, Kerr is a competitor. There’s a broken clipboard and some bloody towels from last Wednesday’s home victory over the Bulls to prove it.

So the teaching element may be rewarding. The losing?

“It sucks. It sucks,” Kerr said, repeating himself for emphasis. “We’re 1-8 in close games. That’s part of having a young team, learning how to close games. That part of it is a struggle.

“You want your players to feel rewarded when they play well. We had a stretch of two weeks where we played well every night and we had one win to show for it. And that was Chicago. It’s frustrating to walk in the locker room and see guys with their heads down because you know how hard they’re working and how much they want it.”

Kerr experienced a dynasty as a player with the Bulls and as a coach with the Warriors. Invariably throughout last season, he’d remind anyone willing to listen to savor how special those times are.

Does he think people listened?

“No,” he said, laughing. “It’s human nature to think we’re going to win it again and we’re going to keep going forever. Life changes quickly.

“I talked not only to the media and our fans but to our team. Last year there were several times when I said, ‘This is going to be our best chance to win a championship.’ We’ve got an incredible opportunity that may never come up again. That’s something that’s important for everybody to realize---fans, management, players. It is lightning in a bottle. You can do everything perfectly and you still may not get to where you think you might be.”

The Warriors’ dynasty may be over. But with Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green still under contract, an attractive young piece in Russell and a huge trade exception from the Andre Iguodala deal, the Warriors are solidly positioned for the future.

And if this season produces a lottery pick, well, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Until then, Kerr keeps coaching and teaching. Thursday’s film session and practice stretched to the 2 1/2-hour mark.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys. Draymond has been fantastic, basically helping coach the team and talking guys through different situations. They’ve been thrown in the fire every day. It’s not easy. But they’re doing a good job,” Kerr said. “We have to figure it out as a staff: How much do you throw at them? Too much information sometimes can be a bad thing. And so we have to find the balance. We also can’t not give them the information that they need. It’s just maybe doing it sequentially and maybe finding the right order and plugging holes as you go.

“The NBA game is so different. These days, players come in at such a young age. There’s just an awful lot of fundamental stuff you have to break down on a daily basis as a young team. That’s the biggest difference for us as a staff between having a young team and having vets. It’s a different daily routine for sure.”

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With attendance waning, Bulls focused on 'making their own energy'

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USA TODAY

With attendance waning, Bulls focused on 'making their own energy'

Last night, the Bulls announced 15,017 fans in attendance for the team's 106-99 victory over the Grizzlies. That figure is more than 4,000 people below their season-average of — after last night — 19,099 fans per contest.

That scarcity was eminent and didn't go unnoticed, especially by players on the court.

"I was telling us in pregame, we're gonna have to bring our own energy today," Zach LaVine said after Thursday afternoon practice. "We got out on that 10-0 run, I was really excited about that, but it was uh, it was a scarce crowd, it was a little quiet in there. But we made our own energy but sometimes that's just what you have to do."

After 11 home games, the Bulls are fourth in the NBA in total attendance (210,090) and sixth in average attendance — both fine marks by the standards of most, but underwhelming for a major-market franchise with their illustrious history. The real kicker: The team is tied for 22nd in the league in percent capacity (91.3) with the Indiana Pacers. Just ahead of that No. 22 slot are the 5-17 Atlanta Hawks, just behind the Phoenix Suns.

Per ESPN's NBA Attendance Report, the Bulls have not finished a regular season outside the top three in total attendance or average attendance since the 2002-03 season. Before last year, they ranked first in both nine seasons in a row. They were also top two in percent capacity for eight straight years before finishing 17th last season. As mentioned, their ranking in that category has dipped even further this year. 

The 2019-20 Bulls currently own a 4-7 home record. Last night was only the Bulls' tenth home victory of the Jim Boylen era, which spans back to Dec. 3, 2018. No one is naiive to the impact those types of results can have. 

"We haven't been a winning basketball team the last couple years, so you know, it makes sense," LaVine said. "Once you start winning that the crowd gets back into it and gets more lively. I understand that, I understand professional sports. So we don't take it personally."

From shootaround to gametime in advance of the Grizzlies game, Boylen stressed the importance of the Bulls getting on a roll on their home floor. According to Boylen, momentum in that respect has to come by way of fast starts, and that came to fruition last night. The Bulls jumped out to a 13-2 lead early in the game and led by as many as 22 in the first half, holding the Grizzlies to 0-for-15 3-point shooting while hitting 8-for-18, themselves. Those numbers stabilizied as the game wore on, but in the locker room afterwards, LaVine was adamant that the team's energy wasn't the issue.

In fact, Boylen and his players seem to have taken ownership of sparking themselves. 

"I want our guys to play hard and compete, and we have to bring our own energy, and we have to play with physicality and effort and all those types of things," Boylen said. He added: "We have the best fans in the league."

They'll have another chance to begin re-establishing a homecourt advantage Friday night agaisnt the lowly Warriors. For the time being, the team's focus is on controlling the things they can control: Results. The rest will come later.

"Obviously you wanna win. We're not going out there to win for, you know, to get more attention, we're going out to win to try to make the playoffs," LaVine said. "So, you know, I think the crowd will come, and they'll get behind you."

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