Bulls

Whether or not Rose plays, Bulls confident with Watson at the helm

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Whether or not Rose plays, Bulls confident with Watson at the helm

BOSTON Derrick Roses status for Sunday afternoons showdown against the rival Celtics is still undetermined, but if he doesnt play, his teammates wont fret. No, C.J. Watson cant equal the reigning league MVPs impact, but as the Bulls 5-1 record without Rose and that one loss, on Martin Luther King Day in Memphis, was Watsons first game back in the lineup after a sprained left-elbow injury attests, the backup point guard is a more than capable replacement.

Watsons mindset when starting for Rose is the same thing when I know hes playing. Go out there and try to be aggressive, try to change the tempo of the game and just push the ball, he said. I can only be myself. I cant be another D-Rose. I have to play my game and do what I do best.

In his first year with the Bulls last season, Watson faced a steep adjustment, in terms of reduced minutes and a completely different style of play after thriving in Golden States run-and-gun system. By the end of the campaign, however, he had earned head coach Tom Thibodeaus trust (in the one game Rose missed last season, with a stiff neck, Watson scored 39 points as a starter in a narrow November loss at Denver, where the Bulls were beaten by a Carmelo Anthony buzzer-beater) and had developed into an astute floor general for the teams potent second unit, The Bench Mob.

Last year he had a really good year. Studying the games from last year, every time we played him extended minutes, he played extremely well. He was terrific in the playoffs. He had a very difficult job last year. He was deserving of more minutes than he got, but he handled short minutes great and hes got great character, and hes a terrific leader, said Thibodeau. Hes done a great job with the second unit, but hes shown he can play with the first unit and when he starts or he plays with Derrick, its just a different weapon we can go to and it gives us multiple pick-and-rolls. It also adds to our shooting, which I thought was a big concern. So, it gives us another three-point shooter on the floor. So, we want to take advantage of that.

Concurred Luol Deng: Were very lucky to have C.J. Hed be starting for a lot of teams. Were not worried when he fills in for Derrick. Were such a deep team that whenever someone goes down, guys are just stepping up and doing a great job.

The soft-spoken, but quietly confident Watson himself acknowledged that hes taken his game up a notch this season and has accepted his role, knowing that its often tough to shine when playing behind the leagues MVP.

This season has been better. Im just trying to go in and play better, play well while Im in and do what I can, and just hope for the best, he said. Watson brings everything, a lot of different stuff to the table. Playing out there sometimes with D-Rose, just trying to up the tempo when Im in the game, make open threes, get to the basket if Im open.

Thibodeau has gone more frequently to a dual point-guard set with Rose and Watson as of late, allowing the Bulls to match up better with smaller teams, as well as push the pace.

Its a good option to have because its a different look. So, we can do it defensively to match up with two point guards and we can do it offensively to add some things that we like, to add more three-point shooting to the floor, more multiple pick-and-rolls, things of that nature. I like it and theyve shown that theyve can play very effectively together, said the coach. In transition, its either or as far as who handles the ball, but Derrick is usually the primary guy, but sometimes its good for C.J. to handle and let Derrick catch off a live ball because its different. It puts, I think, more pressure on the guy guarding Derrick.

Explained Watson: Its fun to play with Derrick, to get out there and run, and get a lot of easy spot-ups with him. Theres a lot of attention on him and its good that we look to get out on the fast break and run when we get the rebound.

Its less pressure to do more stuff and create for yourself, and your teammates. With another point guard with Derrick out there its a lot easier, he continued. Most of the time, he handles it and if the ball comes to me or if I get the rebound, I push it and try to get it to him or whoevers running the break with me.

We just decide on defensive assignments while on the court. It really doesnt matter. Mostly, I guard the point guard and he guards the two-guard. It just depends on foul trouble.

In Roses view, the smaller lineup frees him up to be even more of a scorer, though his opinion of who handles the ball more differs from that of Thibodeau and Watson.

C.J., when hes in, my job is usually spot up or driving to the hole because he handles the ball the majority of the time or hes coming off pick-and-roll and I can spot up, and shoot the ball. But I love playing with someone that can handle the ball, he said. Its weird. It feels weird sometimes, knowing that I dont have to come back to get the ball after we get the rebound. I can just run down the court and get in our play sets a little bit early.

While Thibodeaus been pleased with how Watson has run the show, his teammates are happy with how the shoot-first point guard has been distributing the ball and his defense has also rung up accolades, the Las Vegas native is himself disappointed in one part of his game. Prior to last Wednesdays blowout win over the Hornets, Watson was shooting 49.1 percent from three-point range, but since then coincidentally, just as a push to get him in the leagues All-Star weekend three-point contest began although hes played well in other aspects of the game, hes been ice-cold from deep.

My agent pushed it first and ever since then, I havent hit a three, so Im just going to stop. No more Tweeting it for me, no mentioning, so Im just going to shoot the ball, he joked. After that, it was downhill.

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.”