Bulls

Thunder bigs too much for Bulls with ailing Jimmy Butler

Thunder bigs too much for Bulls with ailing Jimmy Butler

Oklahoma City center Enes Kanter grabbed a rebound after a Bulls miss at the elbow and swiftly dribbled downcourt before throwing a bounce pass 20 feet between two defenders to Alex Abrines for a layup.

When Abrines came up short, Kanter swooped in for a tip-in layup and galloped back the other way as if he didn’t do something guards are supposed to do with the dribble, as if his swift finish was something reserved for athletic swingmen.

And he’s the backup center for the Thunder.

That was the gaping hole in talent with the frontcourt positions, with the Thunder throwing their girth, speed and athleticism around the United Center floor.

Oh yeah, and they have Russell Westbrook, the NBA’s version of Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil.

That, along with Jimmy Butler’s illness meant the Bulls were no match for the Oklahoma City Thunder, falling 109-94 Monday, dropping them back to .500 mark before they head to Washington D.C. and New York for two road games.

Butler was a game-time decision with flu-like symptoms before the game, only mustering up a groggy “I’m good” when spotted in the locker room an hour prior to tipoff.

Butler started but missed all six of his shots in 29 minutes, scoring one point with seven assists on the day he was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

“We appreciate him going out and giving it a shot,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg while adding neither Butler nor Dwyane Wade (scheduled rest) will play against the Wizards Tuesday in Washington D.C.. “It says a lot about him as a competitor. But he was obviously struggling and they sent him home after we took him out in the third quarter.”

Without him, the Bulls were seemingly rudderless against a team that was probably a bad matchup on a good day, shooting just 40 percent and being outscored 60-36 in the paint.

[SHOP BULLS: Get a Jimmy Butler jersey right here]

The Thunder jumped on the Bulls from the onset, as starting center Steven Adams and Kanter picked the Bulls apart on the interior, going 12 of 15 in the first half for 26 points and nine rebounds.

“That was the key to the game,” Hoiberg said. “We talked about their bigs being the best rim runners in the league, going down and getting deep position in transition.”

They were just too much for Robin Lopez, Taj Gibson and whomever the Bulls had in uniform, taking big leads before the half while getting Gibson and Nikola Mirotic in foul trouble.

They could’ve used Mirotic with Butler being little more than a decoy but he picked up silly fouls in the first half before being pulled and playing a handful of minutes in the second half before Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg called in the available reserves for garbage time in the last 10 minutes as the Bulls trailed by 22.

“Those guys, Adams and Kanter, they are good,” said Wade, who led the Bulls with 22. “Very underrated for what they do. They get nasty down there. They came in and kicked our butts tonight. We weren’t prepared for the fight the bigs were bringing.”

Wade gave the Bulls their only real spurt, leading an 18-4 charge in the second quarter, hitting a few long range jumpers and putting fellow Tom Crean disciple Victor Oladipo in the torture chamber for some insided scores.

Wade added six assists and four rebounds, and Michael Carter-Williams had 15 points in 25 minutes.

Adams led the demolition with 22 and five rebounds, while Westbrook tried for another triple-double but finished a rebound short with 21 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds in 33 minutes. Kanter had a double-double with 20 points and 11 boards in 27 minutes as the Thunder shot 57 percent and led by 25 in the second half.

It was a glimpse of life without Jimmy Butler and although extreme, it sure was ugly.

Zach LaVine vows to help Lauri Markkanen's offense get back on track

Zach LaVine vows to help Lauri Markkanen's offense get back on track

Lauri Markkanen has a wicked sense of humor. Trust us. He does.

It’s when the camera lights turn on and the tape recorders start rolling that he slips into a more guarded phase, content to trade in the currency of cliché. Combine that dynamic with his mentality, which is to put the team before himself and never to rock the boat, and you’re not going to get much from the stoic Finn on his current struggles.

That’s where Zach LaVine steps in. LaVine and Markkanen, forever bonded by the Jimmy Butler trade, shoot straight with each other. And according to LaVine, Markkanen remains in a good place mentally, if not statistically.

“He just doesn’t seem in rhythm right now man. It’s a new offense. And I think it has a part to do with it,” LaVine said. “We just gotta help him find it. We’ve all gone through some struggles. I feel like everybody has been off rhythm in the beginning part of the year. I think everybody is shooting a lower field goal percentage than their (career) average.

“His spirits are still high. I know he’s worried about it but he’s not pressing yet. And I think that’s good to see. He hasn’t done anything out of character. He hasn’t lashed out or blamed anybody. He just wants to win. And that’s the type of player he is.”

Markkanen showed the world the type of player he can be last February with dominant double-double after dominant double-double. The organization publicly placed LaVine and Markkanen on a pedestal this offseason, declaring all offseason moves were made to clear the runway for their next steps.

Through 12 games, Markkanen is averaging a career low 14.4 points on career low 37.6 percent shooting and career low 27.8 percent 3-point shooting. His 11.8 shots per game also mark a career low and are well down from last season’s 15.3 per game.

“You can’t blame it all on the offense,” LaVine said. “Sometimes you have to go out there as a player and do what you do as well. That’s at least what I think.”

But what specifically about the offense does LaVine think is limiting Markkanen?

“It’s just different. We’re not getting as many postups. Like we’ve been showing, we’re trying to shoot 3s and get to the basket more,” LaVine said. “For somebody who I think is 7 foot, we just gotta get him some easy ones. Maybe him sometimes standing on the wing waiting for it isn’t the best for him.

“I think in the beginning I was trying to find my way with (the offense). I think it’s a little bit easier for me because I have the ball in my hand and I feel I can create a little better off the dribble and find my own shot. I think we have to help him find his easy shots. I told him, ‘If we’re in transition and you find a small, post up, man. Do what you do. Get in that rhythm. Get to the free throw line.’ I’m still out there trying to help him.

“We just have to do a better job of helping him get to his rhythm and find him. It sucks because you don’t want to see your guy out there struggling, especially you know how good he is and what he can do. He had that great first game. We haven’t been able to get back to it. We gotta find him some easy baskets to help him get in a rhythm. Without him, it’s going to be tough to play.”

Indeed, when Markkanen put up 35 points and 17 rebounds in the opener at Charlotte, flashbacks to February happened. Instead, Markkanen has posted three single-digit scoring games since and has attempted 10 or fewer shots in seven of 12 games.

“I think in general, the league is more prepared for him. I think in general, he's A-1 or A-2 on the scouting report and they're bringing physicality at him every night,” coach Jim Boylen said. “I also think we've demanded that he play better defense and more consistent defense. So being a two-way player at this level is very difficult.

“If you look at some of the matchup he's had, there are some tough matchups in our division, from (Kevin) Love to Giannis (Antetokounmpo) to Blake Griffin and these are all learning things for him. Yeah, we want him to be the Lauri Markkanen he was in February. We believe he can do that. Is he frustrated with that and does he want it? Of course.

“I show him the things he needs to do better. He understands what he needs to do. He's not a dummy. And he cares about the team. When he will break through, how he will break through---I can't tell you that. All I can tell you is he's trying to control the things he can control.”

Boylen has downplayed questions about Markkanen’s shot attempts, saying he’s playing the right way and taking what the game and defense dictate. But is that always a good thing? If Markkanen is a primary scoring option, should Coby White be attempting more shots in less playing time?

“He’s a young developing player. I think he’s had some moments where he can do better. I think he understands that. I think consistency for our group – not only him – has been a problem, and our growth plate for all of us,” Boylen said. “The thing I look at is does he continue to work and communicate and take ownership? I feel no delusional tendencies from him. He’s not making excuses, and as long as I see a guy working and caring, I believe he will play better and get back to who we think he can be.”

Maybe this will all blow over. Perhaps another dominant stretch is imminent. Until then, the questions will remain.

“He hasn’t been frustrated or pressing. He’s like, ‘I gotta get it going,’” LaVine said. “We’ve all missed some easy ones. When you’re in rhythm, those easy ones are automatic. We gotta make that hoop look big to him again. I think he’ll get back on track. He’s in the gym shooting. It’s 12 games in. Luckily, it’s not a 12-game season. But obviously we want to help him get on track faster than anything else.”

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Bulls Talk Podcast: Concern over Lauri Markkanen

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Concern over Lauri Markkanen

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Jason Goff, Kendall Gill, and Dave Watson react to the Bulls loss in Milwaukee and where the team is after 12 games.

1:10 - On Coby White and becoming a major scoring threat off the bench

2:30 - Should Coby start?

4:00 - On Lauri Markkanen’s inconsistent play

10:10 - Do the Bulls need more 2-man game with Lauri and Zach?

14:00 - Do we need to change our expectations for this team and the players?

20:30 - Kendall on how the cavalry isn’t coming to help the Bulls

21:45 - Is Wendell Carter the ‘future’ of the Bulls and impact on team veterans?

25:30 - On the Bulls’ evolving rotations

30:15 - On Daniel Gafford’s lack of playing time

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below: 

Bulls Talk Podcast

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