Bulls

Short-handed Bulls ready for surprising Hawks

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Short-handed Bulls ready for surprising Hawks

One of the most impressive teams thus far in the NBA season has been the Bulls opponent Tuesday, the Hawks. Atlanta, who are 4-1 after Monday nights remarkable comeback win at Miami, didnt drastically remake their roster following a second-round playoff ouster at the hands of Chicago last spring, but some subtle changes, particularly the addition of former All-Star Tracy McGrady, have sparked a nice start to the young campaign.

Theyre a tough team. Theyre playing as well as anyone in the league. Theyre deep. Joe Johnson, their bigs power forward Josh Smith and All-Star center Al Horford are versatile, quick. Marvin Williams gets overlooked all the time; hes a tough matchup. Former Bull Jannero Pargos playing well for them, Willie Green, forward Vladimir Radmanovic is a range shooter. Backup center Zaza Pachulias a real tough, hard-nosed big. Theyre really good, said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, who coached McGrady -- who scored 16 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter, against the Heat -- in Houston. McGrady is a great player, has been a great player in the league for a long time. He was derailed some by injury the last couple years, but hes a complete player. Everyone always talks about his scoring; I think the best part of his game is his decision-making. Great pick-and-roll player, great passer, hes got the size, hes got great vision, extremely smart and like I said, the only thing that slowed him down was his injuries. This guy put up huge numbers in the league and theres nothing he cant do. He can play defense, he can pass, he can shoot, he can post, he can pick-and-roll.

Added Bulls swingman Ronnie Brewer: I wouldnt say that he lost it. He was battling injuries; thats the only thing that I can put a finger on. Hes been a playmaker his whole entire career, a prolific scorer. He may not be able to drop 30 points per game like he used to, but he can definitely still put the ball in the basket, so we have to give him a lot of attention.

Brewer acknowledged that he was aware of the Hawks win over the Heat the previous night, but insisted that it didnt sway the teams opinion of Atlanta.

In my opinion, anybody can win a game or lose a game. I dont see anybody going 66-0 this year, so when a team loses, you dont say, Oh, thats the team to beat, because they beat a team thats got a lot of talent, like the Miami Heat, said Brewer, who scored 17 points, along with snatching seven rebounds and doling out five assists in the Bulls New Years Day rout over visiting Memphis. You have to take every opponent seriously. I think Thibs prepares us for that, night in and night out, and we just have to ready for that, so theyre definitely on our radar.

Brewer may start in place of the injured Rip Hamilton again Tuesday, as Thibodeau said the shooting guard, who suffered a groin injury against the Clippers in L.A. last week and sat out of the Grizzlies win, will be a game-time decision.

Rip did some shooting today, said Thibodeau. If he feels better, then well make the decision.

An injured Bulls guard who definitely won't play Tuesday, C.J. Watson, had an MRI on his sprained left elbow, suffered while diving for a loose ball Sunday, after Monday afternoons practice. Thibodeau was cautiously optimistic about the backup point guard's progress.

C.J., hes day-to-day, basically. His injury, theres no surgery involved. Basically, once we can get the swelling out and the pain subsides, then hell be ready to go, said the coach, who said Watson wasnt wearing the sling he was seen sporting after Sundays game on a full-time basis anymore. Hes a pretty tough guy, so I expect him to be back fairly shortly.

I think the fact that its also his left elbow, I think that helps, so we were fortunate in that regard, continued Thibodeau, who said it hasnt been decided yet whether Watson will travel to Detroit with the team after Tuesdays game, in case the flight could aggravate his elbow. His legs are fine, so he can ride the bike. He can do all that stuff.

Replacing Watson as Derrick Roses primary understudy will be third-stringer John Lucas III, who Thibodeau is familiar with from coaching with the Rockets, as well as coaching under Lucas father, a former NBA player and coach.

I have a lot of confidence in John. Hes already demonstrated that he can do it. He did it for the Rockets when I was there, played well in stretches. He stays ready and prepares himself well, smart player, so I expect him to do well, said Thibodeau. John, whenever hes been called upon, hes done well. C.J. was playing at an extremely high level. C.J.s size, of course, allows him to play multiple positions. C.J. gives you a lot of versatility.

However, Thibodeau noted that the Bulls could opt to use Brewer at the position on occasion while Watson is sidelined.

Actually, we did that quite a bit at the end of last year, where we used Ronnie handling the ball and brought Derrick off screens and Ronnies done it some in practice, too, so its another option that we have, he said.

Concurred Brewer: In our offense, if somebody gets the rebound, if its the big guys throwing it to Lu or myself, were able to push the ball, initiate the offense and kind of go from there, so if need be, if D-Rose needs a break, I can definitely initiate the offense and off that.

Brewer, whos got off to a strong start to the season in his role as a reserve with the cohesive Bench Mob, explained that his health has been the key to his improved play, which has featured him finishing opportunities in transition and getting to the basket as both a cutter and off the dribble, as well as knocking down open mid-range jumpers and even shots from beyond the three-point arc.

To me, its a huge confidence shift. Last year, I came in here with a lot of high hopes, with an opportunity to try to win the starting job and tweaked his hamstring right before working out here, and had to try to work my way into shape, learning the plays and its a different speed, playing with D-Rose and the level of defense that Thibs preaches. It kind of takes a little getting used to, but this years a little different. I came in a lot better shape, healthy, working on my shot and just been playing with a lot of confidence so far, he said. D-Rose gets a lot of attention, Booz gets a lot of attention and especially Lu, when he cuts, and whenever they make the pass, youve got to knock down shots for them to keep dishing the ball, so thats all Ive been trying to do.

Its still early; its not like Ive accomplished so much. Ive still got to get better every day. Thats why I continue to work with Coach Griff Bulls assistant coach Adrian Griffin, Brewer continued. Thats what youve got to continue to do in this league, so if I have a shot, Ive got to continue to shoot it with confidence and if I do that, my teammates will continue to find me.

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.”