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Thibodeau embracing challenge of Bulls' playoff journey

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Thibodeau embracing challenge of Bulls' playoff journey

When a raucous United Center crowd rises to its feet Saturday evening, it won’t be the first reminder of the Bulls’ playoff journey finally beginning — a seven-month process full of bumps and bruises.

All they have to do is look at the other side at the Milwaukee Bucks to see the ultimate study in contrast, a team playing with house money, merely happy that the United Center security allowed them in the building without a ticket.

The Bucks lost Chicago product Jabari Parker early in the season and haven’t missed a beat, but will welcome him back next season ready to take another leap. The Bulls lost Derrick Rose for stretches of the season, most notably his six-week absence and desperate fans were ready to leap from the tallest building, not wanting to hear anything about “next season”.

Of all the questions surrounding this Bulls franchise and their future, Saturday represents a time where they can fully embrace the moment without conscience and soak themselves into the playoff atmosphere while fully understanding the task at hand.

“You have a great understanding of what you’re looking for in certain situations because you’ve been working on it so long,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “The hard work, the conditioning, the discipline, that’s how you win close, tough games. Hopefully you’ve done that.”

[MORE: NBA Playoffs chat: If Bulls advance, can they get past LeBron's Cavs?]

Thibodeau’s future, of course, is always debated and rumored but never clearly defined. Bucks coach Jason Kidd isn’t as seasoned as Thibodeau but has the sway and power many coaches dream of, his power play from the Brooklyn Nets last season likely frowned upon publicly but admired privately.

Kidd’s journey began last summer when he decided to exit Brooklyn amid turmoil. The Bulls’ journey began around the same time, when Pau Gasol chose them over the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat and when Derrick Rose began practicing with U.S.A. Basketball, in preparation for what could begin so many months down the line.

Thibodeau admits the ride has been anything but smooth, as the Bulls emerged with a 50-win season but had to hitchhike their way to the top rung of the Eastern Conference, not as dominant as the Cleveland Cavaliers or Atlanta Hawks but perhaps more prepared than the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards.

“You have to embrace whatever comes your way,” Thibodeau said. “This has been a very challenging year with all the injuries and guys in and out. But I’ve been through that before.”

The year was 1999, and Thibodeau references the season enough with media that it wouldn’t be a shock to hear him speed-rap the same mantra with his team about the run the New York Knicks went on in the lockout-shortened season.

Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby were new additions but were hurt in early parts of the season while Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson creaked along on Jeff Van Gundy’s team, where Thibodeau was a top assistant. Once Sprewell and Camby got healthy, and more importantly, consistent, the Knicks won six of eight headed to the playoffs as a 27-23 eighth seeded team.

“We needed every one of them to get the eighth spot,” Thibodeau said. “And then we ended up getting to the Finals. We got healthy as we went along. Whatever you’re faced with, just do the best you can with it. Put everything you have into it.”

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A lot of things worked in their favor that spring and they even rebounded from the loss of an aging Ewing in the conference finals against the Pacers. But they adjusted and continued their improbable run before the San Antonio Spurs beat them in five games for their first title.

The adjustments have come on the fly all season with the loss of Rose, Joakim Noah’s minutes restrictions and injuries to Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy and Taj Gibson. It’s forced Thibodeau to mix and match all the way to April, and Noah and Rose’s injuries are minor considering the MASH units Thibodeau has had to trot onto the floor some nights.

“If you're a glass half full or empty guy, that's how you look at it,” Dunleavy said. “We've had the opportunity to get some guys in the lineup, develop some guys because other people have been out. Hopefully we'll have a deeper roster and that's one of the advantages we have going into the playoffs.”

Dunleavy was hinting at the urgency but didn’t directly express it until he was cornered about it. A soon-to-be 35-year-old with only three playoff appearances under his belt, these chances don’t come around often.

Noah’s back, Rose is too, and should Gibson’s left shoulder stay attached to his body, it’s the healthiest they’ve been all year, their toughest test to come.

“Yeah, I mean, that's what I'm kind of getting at,” Dunleavy said. “Everybody's dialed in mentally, certainly physically there's been some issues throughout the course of the year. You can't control that stuff. Guys have battled back. But mentally, everyone seems dialed in right now, ready to go. Everybody's got their house in order, so to speak. We're anxious to see what we can do.”

The journey begins Saturday night.

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.”