Bulls

Their own worst enemy: Bulls stunned by Nets

Their own worst enemy: Bulls stunned by Nets

BROOKLYN—The Chicago Bulls' biggest enemy isn't the schedule, the Milwaukee Bucks or Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat.

It's what they see when they look in the mirror.

With a chance to put themselves in a spot to clinch a playoff spot against a Brooklyn Nets team with nothing to play for, they came up short as they've done so many times this season when opportunity was at their fingertips.

When Jimmy Butler's corner jumper came up long with five seconds left, it not only prevented them from getting back to the precious .500 mark, it also put them in a perilous spot of losing control of a playoff spot, falling 107-106 to the talent-deficient but game Nets squad in Dwyane Wade's return from an elbow injury.

Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie was cut in Bulls' training camp came back to bite his former team, scoring the final seven points of the game to put the Bulls away in the Nets' final home game of the season.

"Is it deflating? No, because we're still in it man," said Jimmy Butler, who led the Bulls with 33 points, including going five for five from the 3-point line. "All we gotta do is win, and we're right there. But we've got to figure out a way to pull these games out in the end, get stops in the end, score some baskets in the end. We should be OK.''

Dinwiddie scored 19 points in 27 minutes off the bench, taking advantage of an opportunity he wasn't given in Chicago. Hitting a triple to tie the game was a result of yet another defensive breakdown where the Bulls didn't rotate and didn't seem to communicate, a seasonlong issue.

"You can't have that breakdown," Hoiberg said. "We had one switch and didn't run him off the line."

Wade fouled Dinwiddie the next time down on what appeared to be more miscommunication on a pick and roll, resulting in two free throws with 13 seconds left.

"One thing we were doing with Brook (Lopez) in the post, he would dribble and we would double and rotate," said Wade, who scored 14 points with seven rebounds but had five turnovers in 25 minutes. "We didn't rotate quick enough, Spence hit a 3. The other pick and roll, he kind of got an open lane to the basket, I don't think I fouled him."

Nevertheless, it put the Bulls in another weird spot—a spot they seem to be mighty comfortable at through 80 games.

Whether it's a loss to the Knicks or the 76ers at home, they can point to a bevy of games, recent and long ago, as to why they're battling to hold onto a playoff spot that isn't yet guaranteed.

What's more telling, they squandered a nine-point lead midway through the fourth quarter and the Nets pounced.

"They're a good team," Butler said. "They've been playing as well as anybody to tell you the truth. They've got guys that play incredibly hard."

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson kept attacking the Bulls, scoring the bulk of his 19 points and 12 rebounds in that final stretch that saw the Bulls curl under pressure they created.

Caris LeVert, a rookie who shoots 32 percent from 3-point land on the year, got hot late, hitting four of seven from long range and scored 19.

The Bulls played the percentages and got burned as the Nets shot just 32 percent from three but made big ones.

"We had a couple key turnovers in that stretch that got them out in transition," Hoiberg said. "Turnovers were obviously an issue for us all game long. We had a 2-on-1 break and couldn't take advantage of it."

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The third quarter saw the best of the Bulls as they scored 37 points on 68 percent shooting, fueled by the one player whose internal alarm clock knew it was a mid-afternoon game in Butler.

If not for a puzzling midseason stretch where Butler looked mentally and physically fatigued, he could do some serious campaigning to be on the bottom half of the MVP ballot.

He'll have to settle for dragging this inconsistent bunch to the postseason, if the Bulls can take care of business at home for the last two regular season games. 

The effect of missing Rajon Rondo can't be overstated, considering they looked lost with disjointed without a true point guard on the floor. Jerian Grant got into the lane a couple times for scores before heating up in the third quarter, while Michael Carter-Williams just had a miserable night off the bench.

Still, neither was the playmaker that Rondo is, and one player who depends on Rondo felt the aftershocks in Nikola Mirotic.

Mirotic missed all of his six shots and didn't score until hitting a free throw in the first minute of the third, being replaced by Bobby Portis and watching the Bulls immediately go on a run when he sat.

Still, Mirotic was on the floor late and the Bulls again came up short in a game they had no business sweating in.

Now, they must sweat out the final five days of the regular season, and only have themselves to blame for the perspiration.

"Mentality is we have two must-win games where we have to have great focus and energy," Hoiberg said. "The mentality is we have to win both."

And with their recent history as a guide, they can't be counted on to beat sub-.500 teams, at home or abroad.

Fun with tall people: Lauri Markkanen takes photo with Yao Ming and looks short

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USA TODAY

Fun with tall people: Lauri Markkanen takes photo with Yao Ming and looks short

Lauri Markkanen doesn't often feel short.

The Bulls forward is 7-feet tall, which even in the land of NBA giants makes him one of the tallest players on the court at all times. So when Markkanen stands next to Yao Ming, it changes perspective quite a bit.

Markkanen posted a photo with him and the 7-foot-6 Chinese Hall of Famer. Markkanen looks like a child.

Makes you wonder if Markkanen pulled some "What's the weather like up there?" jokes just because he otherwise never can.

 

Could Derrick Walton Jr. become the solution at backup PG?

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USA TODAY

Could Derrick Walton Jr. become the solution at backup PG?

Former Miami Heat two-way player Derrick Walton Jr. is reported to be nearing a deal with the Bulls. In an interview with The Athletic, it was stated: "Walton, 23, says he knows where he’ll play next season. An agreement is in place, but his agent, Mark Bartelstein, is requiring him to sit on the news until next week. All Walton can put out publicly is this: 'Long story short, I’m good. I’m going to a great situation. All I can say.' "

And while it is not yet known if the potential contract will be a two-way deal or not, Walton would provide an intriguing lottery ticket for the Bulls. 

The team mostly ignored looking for a backup point guard on the market. There is obviously a belief in the organization that Cameron Payne will have some internal growth, making him the best option. And the trade of Jerian Grant for essentially nothing, shows even more that Payne is there guy. Retaining Ryan Arcidiacono is a nice move considering the hustle that he showed last season at both the G League and NBA level, but it still leaves the Bulls thin in terms of established backup PGs behind Kris Dunn. And that is where Walton comes into play. 

Walton was a four-year player at the University of Michigan, where he played in some big-time games and showed immense leadership potential. But in terms of strictly on the court skills, there is one thing that he does extremely well: space the floor. 

In his four years at Michigan, Walton took a total of 581 3-point attempts, and knocked them down at a 40.1 percent rate. His elite shooting is enough to make him a legitimate rotation player for Fred Hoiberg. And while Payne still may develop into a better player, his outside shooting is his calling card despite never being elite at that skill at the NBA level. And in fact, when you compare he and Walton’s stats from college, the G League and the NBA, it becomes apparent who is the better shooter right now.

3-point percentage at NCAA level: Payne- 35.9 percent, Walton- 40.1 percent
3-point percentage at G League level: Payne- 33.8 percent, Walton- 37.7 percent
3-point percentage at NBA level: Payne- 34 percent, Walton- 41.2 percent

Now obviously, there is a “small sample size alert” for the NBA level, as Walton has only taken 17 3-pointers at the NBA level in his limited time with the Miami Heat. But these numbers show that even dating back to their freshman years of college, Walton has been the more efficient shooter from 3-point range.

Cameron Payne has the edge when it comes to playmaking, and this is based off of the fact that Payne has maintained an assist rate above 30 percent through all of his G League stints, while also having a low turnover rate (9.9 percent). Walton didn’t come close to Payne in terms of G League assist rate, and his 17.9 percent turnover rate at the G League level shows that his decision-making has yet to catch up to his shooting. 

Ultimately, Walton is going to be most effective as an off-ball guard who can make quick decisions, and knockdown the 3-point shot at a high level. Though if Summer League was any indication, his passing out of the pick-and-roll is getting better. And while Payne certainly is a good shooter, his game is much more predicated on having the ball in his hands, and playing in the pick-and-roll. With so many players on the Bulls who can create their own shot, Walton could end up being the cleanest fit with this constantly evolving Bulls roster.