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Slow start, quiet finish doom Bulls in loss to Hornets

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Slow start, quiet finish doom Bulls in loss to Hornets

From the 9-minute mark of the first quarter to the 2-minute mark of the fourth quarter, the Bulls played well enough to win. Unfortunately that five-minute stretch Saturday against the Charlotte Hornets also counted in the final tally, with a lackadaisical start and quiet finish proving costly in the Bulls’ 102-96 loss Saturday at the United Center.

A Doug McDermott 3-pointer from the top of the key tied the game at 94 with 2:06 remaining, and the Bulls were given consecutive chances to take the lead at home after a pair of errant shots from Nicolas Batum, the game’s leading scorer with 24 points.

And while the Bulls got the looks they wanted – first Derrick Rose ran the pick-and-roll with Pau Gasol, playing in his 1,000th game, and got the center an open look from 15 feet that went long; then McDermott had a look from the right wing that went halfway down before popping out – execution was an issue down the stretch, as they made just five of their final six shots after McDermott’s game-tying triple.

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The Hornets, ranked fourth in the NBA in efficiency, wouldn’t give the Bulls any more chances. Cody Zeller hit a pair of free throws and Kemba Walker connected on a stepback jumper after Jimmy Butler’s 3-point try from the right corner rimmed out to essentially put the game out of reach. Where the Bulls struggled in the closing moments, the Hornets scored eight points on their final five possessions to seal the victory, their second in three tries against the Bulls.

“We missed some shots we thought we hit. But we’ve got to get stops,” McDermott said after the game. “We didn’t do a job. Batum kind of had it rolling in the second half and we couldn’t really cool him off. It’s tough but we’ve got to bounce back, we’ve got more coming at us. We’ll be able to bounce back.”

That the Bulls had a chance to win in the closing minutes was a surprise in itself, considering they put themselves in a 12-3 hole to begin the game. Energy was lacking, the defense appeared to be a step behind Charlotte, winners in six of their last eight, and the offense wasn’t clicking, missing six of their first seven like they did to end the game.

Nikola Mirotic, who returned after suffering a concussion in Wednesday’s win over Denver, scored seven points on 3-for-4 shooting in the opening period. But aside from him, the other four starters combined to shoot 5-for-15.

“We know what it takes to win and having high energy from the gates, truthfully that’s on the starters,” said Butler, who missed his first five shots. “Definitely on the guards, on myself and Derrick for letting it happen. The bench did their job. They came in high energy, got us back into this game. It’s on us. The starting five has to go out there and start with energy.”

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A gutty performance from the second unit included a 16-4 run that gave the Bulls a three-point lead, but the Hornets responded on the backs of Batum and Kemba Walker, who finished with 17 points, to take a two-point halftime lead. 

The Bulls appeared to be rolling in the third quarter, with Butler and Rose showing off that energy by each scoring nine points, while the Hornets were limited to 20 points and committed six turnovers, which turned into eight points for the Bulls. That looked more like the defense that entered Saturday leading the league in field goal percentage defense, though it faltered late when the offense couldn’t respond. 

The fourth quarter was a back-and-forth affair, with neither team leading by more than one possession from the 9:45 mark until less than a minute remaining, with Walker’s jumper putting the Hornets up four, 98-94, with 28.9 seconds left.

Taking out the first 3 minutes and final 2 minutes, the Bulls outscored the Hornets, 91-82. In the remaining 43 minutes they shot 35-for-77, a respectable 45 percent.

But those other five minutes counted in the final tally, and despite the Bulls getting the ball in the right hands – they had 29 assists on 37 made field goals – the slow start felt as though they were playing catch-up all night, even when they took the lead in the third quarter.

“We just weren’t playing with pace. Coming out the gates they came out playing harder than we did as a whole on both ends of the floor,” Butler said. “When we play like that we’re not a good enough team to just play lazy and expect ourselves to outscore people.”

Scoring in general has been a difficulty for the Bulls of late. Though ranked in the top-10 in pace, they’ve now gone six straight games without scoring 100 points. There were signs of more progress – Derrick Rose scored 19 points and made three 3-pointers, half his season total entering the game, and McDermott looked good with 13 minutes and got late-game minutes – and now the challenge for Hoiberg is to get his players to show that consistency for 48 minutes. It didn’t happen at the start or very end Saturday night, and the result was the Bulls’ second home loss this season.

“I thought we missed some really, really good looks. I thought even Doug and Jimmy at the end had great looks that hit every part of the rim and bounced out,” Hoiberg said of the late-game struggles. “Our movement’s getting better and just we have to sustain it, we have to do it for 48 minutes.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: A sprained MCL and Trubisky's performance. vs the Pats

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: A sprained MCL and Trubisky's performance. vs the Pats

David Haugh, Jordan Cornette, Shae Peppler join David Kaplan on the panel.

0:00- Mark Schanowski joins SportsTalk Live to discuss Kris Dunn’s sprained MCL, Fred Hoiberg’s tough luck and Zach LaVine postgame criticisms of the coaching. Plus they’ll discuss another 0-3 team- LeBron’s Lakers.

20:00 – The panel discusses Mitchell Trubisky’s performance vs. the Patriots. Jordan makes the case that the media is giving the former No. 2 pick a pass.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

Sports Talk Live Podcast

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Bulls bracing for a Kemba Walker onslaught

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Bulls bracing for a Kemba Walker onslaught

Through the opening week of the NBA season, Hornets' All-Star point guard Kemba Walker and former Bull Niko Mirotic share the league scoring lead, averaging 33 points per game.

Bulls' fans have seen these hot stretches from Niko before, and chances are he'll start moving down to the mid to high-teens before long. But Walker is a big-time scorer who's quietly emerged as one of the most consistently productive point guards in a league loaded with stars at that position. He's averaged over 20 points and 5 assists in each of the last three seasons, making the Eastern Conference All-Star team twice.

Last season, Walker lit up the Bulls for 47 points in an overtime loss at the United Center in November, making some of the most difficult shots you can imagine to keep his team in the game. He seems to be as this best when facing the Bulls and you can bet Fred Hoiberg and his staff will pull out all the stops to try to slow him down, especially with defensive ace Kris Dunn out 4-6 weeks after suffering a sprained left MCL in his season debut on Monday.

The Hornets made some personnel changes since last season. The one-year experiment with Dwight Howard at center is over. Howard put up solid numbers for Charlotte a year ago, but didn't make much difference in the win-loss column, so he's moved on to Washington in his NBA odyssey. Cody Zeller is now the starting center, backed up by Bismack Biyombo and former Benet Academy and University of Wisconsin star Frank Kaminsky.

Charlotte tried to improve the athleticism on their roster by selecting Malik Monk and Miles Bridges in the first rounds of the last two drafts. Monk is getting more playing time this season, averaging 13.5 points in the Hornets' first four games. Bridges is averaging just under 16 minutes a game as a backup to starting forwards Marvin Williams and Nic Batum. Just like he did at Michigan State, Bridges is providing those highlight reel putback dunks, but it remains to be seen whether he'll develop a consistent enough outside shot to be a quality starter in the NBA.

The well-traveled Jeremy Lamb is now starting in the backcourt with Walker, and the Hornets brought in long-time Spurs' point guard Tony Parker to add some much needed experience and veteran savvy off the bench. Given the current state of the Eastern Conference (post-LeBron), it's not out of the question for this group to contend for one of the final playoff spots.

Here's what the Bulls need to do for a shot at their first win of the season. This also applies to the rematch in Charlotte on Friday.

1. CORRAL KEMBA. For whatever reason, seeing that Bulls' logo turns Walker into an almost unstoppable scoring machine. Walker is adept at working off his big men, either in straight pick and rolls or cutting through the post on give-and-go plays. He's one of the league's most creative scorers, and doesn't require much room to get his shot off. The Bulls' bigs will have to provide help on Walker whenever he comes off screens to keep him from taking over the game.

2. PUT THE BALL IN ZACH'S HANDS. Whether he's playing shooting guard or point guard, Zach LaVine needs to be the primary facilitator with Dunn sidelined. LaVine scored 34 points against Dallas Monday night on just 15 shots, which led to him questioning some of the offensive sets that were run in the 2nd half. LaVine told reporters on Tuesday that he smoothed things over with his head coach, explaining his comments were the result of the frustration he was feeling after a third-straight loss to open the season. Still, LaVine is on a major hot streak, joining Bulls' all-time greats Michael Jordan and Bob Love as the only players to start the year with three straight games scoring at least 30 points. The Bulls will need to ride that hot hand for as far as LaVine can carry them.

3. DEFEND THE 3-POINT LINE. You knew I would eventually get to this, right? Dallas made 15 of 47 3-point attempts on Monday after the Pistons knocked down 18 of 40 in a two-point win last Saturday. The Hornets have all kinds of capable 3-point shooters in Walker, Lamb, Monk, Batum and Williams (they're shooting .397 as a team on 3's), so guarding the arc will be crucial for the Bulls to have a chance at their first win.

Don’t forget you can catch Wednesday's game on NBC Sports Chicago and the new MyTeams by NBC sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 pm when Kendall Gill, Will Perdue and Kelly Crull join me for Bulls Pregame Live from the United Center Atrium. Neil Funk and Stacey King have the play-by-play call at 7 pm, then stay tuned after the final buzzer for Bulls Postgame Live and the always entertaining Bulls Outsiders.