Daniel Gafford

In Bulls' loss to Toronto Raptors, Denzel Valentine and Daniel Gafford rejuvenated the United Center

In Bulls' loss to Toronto Raptors, Denzel Valentine and Daniel Gafford rejuvenated the United Center

Monday night, 14,775 fans attended the Bulls' latest in a line of hard-fought defeats: a 93-92 loss to the Toronto Raptors. That's the smallest reported crowd at the United Center for a Bulls game since Dec. 16, 2004.

For stretches, though, it felt like a full house. 

"The UC was great tonight, the fans were awesome," Denzel Valentine said.

The starters carried the team, to start: Of the Bulls' 50 first-half points, 46 were scored by Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter. But it wasn't the usual suspects that pushed the Chicago faithful's decibel count to levels unheard of in the earlygoing of this season.

Thank Valentine and Daniel Gafford, in large part, for that. With the Bulls trailing 61-58 at the 4:45 mark of the third, Jim Boylen turned to a bench-dominated unit of Coby White, Valentine, Thad Young, Gafford and LaVine to spark his group. It was a potential tipping point in the game: The Raptors were in the midst of an 11-3 run and the Bulls' offense was fizzling. White, Valentine, Young and Gafford had four points between them upon entry.

With that move, the fates tilted towards the home side. For a time.

"It was great minutes from them," Satoransky said of Valentine and Gafford after the game. "I think [Denzel] is feeling more himself right now. And DG will always bring that energy. He's one of the most athletic guys I've ever seen, his energy... will always refresh our game."

It certainly did in this one. Gafford blocked three shots and notched 10 points over the game's final quarter-and-a-half. Valentine scored all 13 of his points for the night after that juncture in the third, shooting 5-for-9 from the floor and 3-for-7 from 3-point range. The Bulls finished the night 12-for-46 from 3-point land.

"Just energy," Valentine said, of what that bench unit brought. "We started playing defense. It started on the defensive end, started in transition, getting rebounds. Played with a little bit more life. Playing with each other too. We were moving the ball together."

"We go in, we produce with the minutes that we get," Gafford said. And on what the fans gave back: "There was definitely energy. I was blocking shots, Denzel was knocking down shots, we were getting stops on defense. We were doing everything we needed to do to win the game, and the crowd helped us do that."

Of course, they didn't do it alone. In spite of not scoring, White played a solid defensive game and finished the night with eight rebounds and five assists. Young and Kris Dunn each hit crucial 3-pointers in the third. But watching Valentine and Gafford ignite the home crowd made it even more surreal that neither of them cracked the regular rotation until mid-to-late November.

"We got a bond," Gafford said. "He finds me when I'm open, and I find him when he's open... We just go out and play basketball."

That strategy helped the Bulls build an 85-77 lead with eight minutes left in the game, but the team's good fortunes faded fast from there. After an alley-oop from Valentine to Gafford gave them their 84th and 85th points of the night, the Bulls didn't score for the next five-and-a-half minutes of game action. The Raptors surged down the stretch. The Bulls scrapped, but ultimately faltered when it mattered most.

Both Gafford and Valentine found themselves in the Bulls' closing lineup — Valentine by way of the hot-hand, Gafford in Carter's stead after he fouled out with just under four minutes remaining. A Valentine transition layup, Markkanen 3-pointer and Gafford layup represented the Bulls' only points of the final eight minutes.

"We gotta learn how to put it away. If we can't at the end of the third quarter, we gotta put it away at the beginning of the fourth," Gafford said. "We just gotta learn how to put it away, seal the deal." 

But, as a team, they didn't. And thus, the bottom line doesn't change. The Bulls won a(nother) moral victory or two tonight, but when the final points were tallied, they were on the short end. That's the only stat that matters, especially to those 14,775 that stood behind their team, in person, tonight.

"It’s disappointing when we don’t win games. It’s disappointing when we don’t win home games," Boylen, who has presided over only 10 home victories in his tenure, said. "Nobody is running from that."

"No excuses, nobody cares, we just gotta come out and play hard and learn from our mistakes," Valentine said. "It's tough, because we lose the last three and we were up in the fourth [quarter], I think, in all of those games. So it's tough. But hopefully at some point we'll figure it out."

Gafford and Valentine provided a jolt, but because of the result, they're only would-be heroes — their combined performance amounts to nothing more than an all-too-familiar silver lining. In some ways, that stings even more.

"That's why this game is so frustrating," Satoransky said. "Because I know we were there. Fans were engaged and I think we played very well, and we missed a lot of shots. You know, that always hurts."

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Coby White's biggest rookie duty? Closing games alongside Zach LaVine

Coby White's biggest rookie duty? Closing games alongside Zach LaVine

PORTLAND, Ore. --- As a Timberwolves rookie in 2014-15, Zach LaVine had it rough.

His rookie duties were assigned by a plethora of hard-core veterans like Mo Williams, Kevin Martin and none other than Kevin Garnett.

Practice would end. And Garnett would start booting basketballs into the stands of whatever arena the Timberwolves would be in for LaVine and fellow rookie Andrew Wiggins to fetch.

Coby White and Daniel Gafford have it easy.

“I haven’t been getting it as bad as some other rookies I know,” Gafford said following Sunday’s practice at Portland State University. “I thought there was a slight chance I was going to have to pay for dinner the other night. But we all chipped in. I was grateful for that.”

Added White: “They’ve been kind of light on me, so I appreciate that. We really don’t have that many vets, to be honest. Thad (Young) is a true vet and then there’s OP (Otto Porter Jr.), Zach and Sato (Tomas Satoransky). So I got lucky.”

Fetching towels and drinks, picking up shoes to give to the equipment manager and making food runs for the group before the Bulls’ charter plane leaves O’Hare have been the rookies’ biggest and most consistent tasks.

Maybe White’s theory holds some water. After all, the Bulls are the league’s third-youngest team. Or perhaps LaVine just recognizes the need to keep White, in particular, fresh.

When White is on the court, particularly alongside LaVine, it presents an offensive challenge for opposing defenses to consider. LaVine can see less double-teaming and blitzing.

“Zach is always in my ear because he has seen what I’m capable of and how good I can be. He tells me it’s my time, tells me to do what I do and to be Coby White and take over,” White said. “For our go-to guy to believe that much in me and encourage me means a lot. It gives me a lot of confidence.”

Coach Jim Boylen has been consistent with his approach regarding White’s closing role. If he has it rolling, which he did in road victories at the Grizzlies and Hornets or the home victory over the Knicks, White plays the majority or all of the fourth quarter alongside LaVine.

“I think he’s a big moment guy, I think he has that in him,” Boylen said. “I have confidence that he’s not scared about that moment. The big shot doesn’t bother him. He’s a competitive guy, so it’s easy to leave him out there.’’

LaVine leads the Bulls by averaging 6.3 points in the fourth quarter. White ranks second at 3.8 points. They average the same amount of playing time in the fourth, a team-high 7.3 minutes per game. Only Wendell Carter Jr. at 7.8 fourth-quarter minutes plays more.

“I think the league has seen him enough that you have to have a decent defender on him, so when you have him and Zach out there together I think that can put some pressure on the defense,” Boylen said. “Usually the primary guy takes Zach, and then maybe the secondary guy takes Coby.”

Trying to score against fourth-quarter defenses beats fetching basketballs from stands.

“In the fourth quarter, everything goes up a different level. So it’s a big deal being out there,” White said. “I’m just glad (Boylen) has faith in me when I have it rolling. Rookies don’t always get that opportunity. I’m blessed and thankful for it.”

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Daniel Gafford won't rest on laurels stemming from breakout performance

Daniel Gafford won't rest on laurels stemming from breakout performance

Daniel Gafford’s phone blew up Monday night with congratulatory well wishes following his 21-point performance in his first game of meaningful NBA minutes.

But the Bulls’ rookie acted more like somebody focused on his next opportunity than addicted to social media or electronic devices.

“I put it on ‘Do Not Disturb’ because I was trying to get sleep at the same time,” Gafford said following Tuesday’s practice at Advocate Center. “I was real sore from the game because I’ve been traveling a lot. I wanted to make sure I got the rest I needed for practice today.”

Gafford’s travel has been of the G League variety — bus rides, not five-star accommodations. More performances like his outing against the Bucks, though, and Gafford’s G League assignments may be over.

“What would help me is just try to remain consistent. I did that game, but I’ve got to be ready for the next,” Gafford said. “Enjoy it until midnight and then get ready for the next game the next day.”

The longer Gafford talked, the more his basketball IQ and willingness to learn and be coached came out.

On setting good screens: “Fighting through that fatigue, it was just a mental thing. Just making sure I got contact on the screens because the coaches were telling me they were trying to slip up under my screen because I wasn’t really setting them. So I had to make sure I hit guys when I was coming up to set screens to get bottom hip so I could make sure I was getting guys open because that can help them. But at the same time it can help me as well.

On feedback from coaches: “Mostly it was just on the pick-and-roll with opposing teams. Just making sure I be up at the level to where guards don’t get downhill as much. Just make sure I’m up to where I can help our guards get back from where they’re setting screens. And be better on defensive rebounding.”

On feedback from teammates: “They were just talking about my dunks, really, pretty much. They were patting me on the back, telling me, ‘Good job' and telling me whenever I get my chance again, come out and do the same thing.’”

Ah, yes, those dunks. What did the United Center rims do to Gafford anyway? The six rim-rattling slams he threw down on the night were enough for him to field a question as to his favorite.

“Oh, the one-hand lob that I caught,” Gafford said. “I didn’t think I was going to catch that. I thought it was going to get some of the rim and come out. But it went down for me and I appreciate it for that.”

Gafford said his wrist “feels good” after all that rim wrecking because he’s “used to it.”

And somewhere, fellow Arkansas product Bobby Portis is smiling. Not only was there a #freeDanielGafford movement on Twitter, a la #freeBobbyPortis from Portis’ rookie season with the Bulls, but Gafford also dropped a third-person reference. Portis used to do that, too.

“Go out there and play Daniel Gafford basketball,” Gafford said, when asked for his mindset.

Coach Jim Boylen said Gafford plays “with a pure heart.” With 20-20 machine Andre Drummond in town with the Pistons Wednesday, expect Gafford to get more rotational minutes.

And as for that “Do Not Disturb” sign on his phone, it worked.

“I slept good,” Gafford said.

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