Bulls

Silent Night: Bulls quiet Thunder with impressive wire-to-wire victory

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Silent Night: Bulls quiet Thunder with impressive wire-to-wire victory

Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Chicago Bulls were angry and on edge after three straight losses. They channeled those emotions into one of their best wins of the season.

Jimmy Butler scored 23 points, and Pau Gasol had 21 points and 13 rebounds in the Bulls' 105-96 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.

In a game that featured several skirmishes, the Bulls outrebounded the NBA's No. 2 rebounding team 53-48.

"We've just got to go out there and attack," Chicago forward Taj Gibson, who got a double technical with Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka, said. "It's no time to be friends with anybody right now. We've got enough friends in here. We're with each other 24-7. We can't go out there and look to be nice to everybody."

[MORE BULLS: A look back at the Bulls on Christmas Day]

Derrick Rose added 19 points, and Gibson had 13 points and 10 rebounds.

Chicago held the Thunder to 38.5-percent shooting, Oklahoma City's third-worst showing of the season.

Kevin Durant had 29 points, nine rebounds and seven assists for Oklahoma City, and Russell Westbrook added 26 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. The Thunder had won three straight and nine of 10.

"I think we did a really good job of making sure we closed out to 3-point shooters," Rose said. "We trusted the game plan. We know K.D. is a great 3-point shooter, (Anthony) Morrow, and Westbrook when his feet are set, and you just can't let them get hot. Everybody else on the team, we forced them to make shots and make plays."

Durant said he didn't like the way the Thunder played at times when they got behind.

"If you try to get it all back in one play, try to get a steal, try to come down and shoot a pull-up 3 - just doing stupid stuff that we did all night, it will be tough to win," Durant said.

[MORE BULLS: Joakim Noah joins NBA in anti-gun violence PSA]

Chicago led 51-37 with 4:58 left in the first half, but the Thunder cut it to 54-52 at halftime. Durant scored 19 points in the half, and Westbrook had 12 points and five assists.

Gasol and Butler each scored 11 points in the first half for the Bulls.

Chicago scored the first eight points of the second half to go up 62-52 and force the Thunder to call a timeout. The Bulls led 86-68 at the end of the third quarter.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

The Bulls led by 18 at the end of the third quarter. Oklahoma City changed things up and played Morrow and Enes Kanter with Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka for most of the fourth quarter. A pair of 3-pointers by Morrow cut Chicago's lead to 97-89 with just under 5 minutes to play, but the Bulls hung on.

"We withstood their run, which I think everyone knew they were going to go on in the fourth quarter, and they (the Bulls) made big plays down the stretch," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said.

STAT LINES

The lineup that Oklahoma City started the fourth quarter with - Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Kanter and Morrow - outscored the Bulls 28-19. Morrow and Kanter don't start, in part, because of defensive shortcomings, but that group held the Bulls to 6-for-20 shooting.

KANTER'S SOCKS

Kanter wore Christmas socks with green stripes and red snowflakes. He is a Muslim, but he said he respects different cultures. "Well, I live in the U.S. now, and I'm just really cool with all of the holidays - Christmas, Thanksgiving," he said. "It's pretty cool."

QUOTABLE

Gibson, on defending Westbrook: "Russ is a hard opponent to go against, especially with the way he attacks," he said. "We just all wanted bodies in front of him. Put bodies in front of him and make sure somebody contested him at the rim, and compete."

TIP-INS

Bulls: Ran out to an 11-0 lead. ...  Joakim Noah sat out with a left shoulder sprain. ... Beat the Thunder 104-98 at United Center on Nov. 5. ... Butler hit a 35-foot 3-pointer at the end of the first quarter. ... Rose fouled out.

Thunder: Missed their first five shots. ... Steven Adams picked up two fouls in the first 2 minutes. Kanter entered the game and had six points and seven rebounds in the first quarter. He finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds. ... Had just one assist in the first quarter. ... ... Morrow made three 3-pointers in the fourth quarter.

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

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USA TODAY

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

Outspoken Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban conceded his team was playing for draft lottery position last season, but insisted it would be a one year only strategy.

Dallas finished tied for the league’s third worst record, but fell to fifth after the lottery.

So, Cuban and the Mavs’ front office decided to make a bold move on draft night, trading their 2019 first round pick to Atlanta to move up two spots for a chance to select international sensation Luka Doncic.

Early in the season, Doncic has more than lived up to the hype, showing the creativity and flair that made him such a fan favorite on the European professional circuit. Through the Mavs’ first two games, Doncic is averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while giving Rick Carlisle’s team a much-needed boost in transition.

Doncic and second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr. will give opposing teams nightmares in the open court all season long. They led the offensive onslaught in the Mavs’ 140-136 win over Minnesota Saturday night, combining for 45 points. Doncic finished with 26 points, while Smith scored 10 of his 19 in the 4th quarter, including a tie-breaking three-point play with six seconds left.

Veteran swing-man Wesley Matthews added 19 against the Timberwolves, and his 3 point shooting helps the Mavs maintain floor balance in half-court sets.

The Mavs also strengthened their front court in the off-season, signing veteran center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Dallas was overmatched in the middle last season, with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell giving up size in the post, but Jordan will provide rim protection and an alley-oop threat when Doncic, Smith Jr. or veteran point guard J.J. Barea drive to the basket. Jordan had a big game in the home opening win over Minnesota, scoring 22 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.

Nowitzki, starting small forward Harrison Barnes and backup guard Devin Harris all missed Saturday’s game because of injuries, but Barnes and Harris are considered game-time decisions against the Bulls.

Here’s what the Bulls will need to do to get their first victory of the season Monday night.

1. GET BACK ON DEFENSE! Doncic and Smith Jr. are deadly in the open court, capable of making spectacular plays to bring the home crowd to life. The Bulls’ players have to sprint back on defense after missed shots to cut off transition opportunities, or it’s going to be a long night. The Mavs are averaging 128 points through the first two games.

2. CLOSE OUT ON 3-POINT SHOOTERS This will be a familiar theme in my keys until the Bulls start doing a better job of matching up in transition and closing out on three point threats. Detroit’s win at the United Center on Saturday came down to the Pistons’ 18-40 shooting from three-point range, and Dallas has even more players capable of doing damage from beyond the arc.

3. LET DUNN DO IT Getting Kris Dunn back from paternity leave should make a big difference on both ends of the court. Dunn has the athleticism and physicality to match up with either Doncic or Smith Jr., and his defensive skills will be critical in keeping the Mavs from turning this game into a track meet.

On the offensive end, Dunn need to be patient and get the ball into the hands of the Bulls’ top scorers, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. Even though Fred Hoiberg wants his team to play at a fast pace, they’ll need to pick their spots on when to run against the explosive Mavs.

As always, turn to NBC Sports Chicago for the very best pre and post-game coverage. Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join me for Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m/, and we’ll have expanded post-game analysis when the action goes final in Dallas. You can also stream the shows live on the brand new My Teams by NBC Sports app.

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.”