DeMarcus Cousins

Finding motivation key for Warriors in three-peat bid

bulls_warriors.jpg
USA TODAY

Finding motivation key for Warriors in three-peat bid

At first glance, everything looks rosy for the two-time defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors in their bid to become one of the league’s all-time great dynasties. All the key players are back from their title teams, and Steph Curry is off to one of the best starts of his pro career.

Curry set another NBA record on Sunday by making seven three pointers in the Warriors’ win at Brooklyn. That made it seven straight games with at least five made three pointers, breaking the old record set by George McCloud during the 1995-96 season.

Meanwhile, Kevin Durant seems to be enjoying all the media attention over his upcoming free agency. Durant poured in 41 points at Madison Square Garden last Friday after patiently answering questions from New York area reporters at the morning shootaround about his possible interest in joining the Knicks.

Draymond Green continues to be a defensive stopper and stat stuffer, dishing out a season-high 13 assists in the win at Brooklyn. But after that, there are a few concerns for Steve Kerr and his coaching staff.

All-Star guard Klay Thompson is off to a slow start while also dealing with questions about his upcoming free agency. Thompson is just 5-36 from the three-point line this season and hasn’t had a 20 point game yet during the Warriors’ 6-1 start. Thompson will come out of his early slump very soon, hopefully not on Monday against the Bulls.

No one’s really sure when free agent addition DeMarcus Cousins will make his debut after Achilles’ tendon surgery last season, and Cousins had to apologize to Kerr after getting thrown out of the game in New York last Friday for arguing with a referee while wearing street clothes.

It will be fascinating to see what kind of fit the temperamental Cousins will turn out to be with such a professional group like the Warriors. Is there a chance “Boogie” could disrupt the air-tight chemistry Kerr has built in the Bay Area?

A bigger short term concern for Kerr will be getting better production from his bench. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston have missed games because of injuries, and both are past their primes. Free agent big man Jonas Jerebko looks like a nice addition, but Golden State could use another athletic wing player in the mold of the departed Patrick McCaw and Ian Clark. Actually, more consistent scoring from any bench player would be welcome.

Jordan Bell, Damian Jones and Kevon Looney will provide rebounding and hustle plays, but only Bell figures to remain in the rotation when Cousins is ready to play again.

Granted, every one of the other 29 teams would love to deal with the minor concerns that Kerr and the Warriors are facing right now. But ask any player who has been a part of three straight NBA championship teams, and he’ll tell you the biggest challenge is finding the motivation to keep striving for excellence during the regular season portion of trying for title No. 3.

Kerr is uniquely qualified to lead this group and you can bet he’ll draw on his experience from playing on that second Bulls’ three-peat team to have the Warriors running at peak efficiency when the playoffs begin next April. Even fighting boredom during the regular season, Golden State shouldn’t have much trouble finishing with the top seed in the West and the NBA’s best overall record.

The Bulls will have one advantage tomorrow night. Golden State could be a little tired playing its third road game in four nights, but the Warriors have such a huge talent advantage that it probably won’t make much difference. With that in mind, here are three ways to try to keep the game close.

1. DEFEND THE THREE-POINT LINE: The Bulls did a much better job in this area during Saturday’s win in Atlanta, and it will be a point of emphasis from the coaching staff throughout the season. Problem is, Golden State has three of the best shooters in NBA history and Curry is in the middle of one of the hottest streaks of his career.

2. ATTACK THE BASKET: Durant has improved tremendously as an interior defender since joining the Warriors, but none of the three players Golden State will use at center have great positional size. Zach LaVine needs to challenge the Warriors’ defense by getting into the paint to draw fouls and set up his teammates for open looks. Who knows, maybe Cam Payne will make seven three-pointers again!

3. POINTS FOR PARKER: Jabari Parker continues to look more comfortable in his role as the facilitator for the Bulls’ reserve group, and he’s also part of the closing fourth quarter unit playing with LaVine. Parker will be guarded at times by Iguodala, and it will be interesting to see if Jabari can get the better of this matchup between two former Illinois high school stars.

Tune in to NBC Sports Chicago Monday night at 6:30 for Bulls Pregame Live from the United Center Atrium. Kendall Gill, Will Perdue and Kelly Crull join me to take you through all the main storylines, and after the game goes final, flip back to NBC Sports Chicago for reaction from both teams on Bulls Postgame Live, followed by Bulls Outsiders. Our pre and post game coverage is also available on the new My Teams by NBC Sports app.

Boogie and Brow missed chances, help on the way: Observations from Bulls' OT loss to Pelicans

Boogie and Brow missed chances, help on the way: Observations from Bulls' OT loss to Pelicans

The Bulls could've and should've pulled out a win at home against the New Orleans Pelicans but instead fell to 2-6 with a 96-90 overtime loss Saturday night. Here's the biggest observations from that game.

We have stars, you don’t: Sometimes it’s as simple as having DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis doing things that cannot be matched by the opponent. It was more than just the stats—although Davis’ 27-point and 16-rebound performance was as impressive as it was understated—but Davis made the right plays at the most opportune times to seal the win.

He blocked a Justin Holiday jumper and then threw it off him while falling out of bounds to retain possession in overtime, the play of the game considering the stakes.

He also defended Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen and prevented Markkanen from having clean looks, although Markkanen had two big fourth-quarter 3-pointers to keep the Bulls close when the Pelicans were threatening to pull away.

Markkanen was two of 11 from three and five of 16 overall, in large part due to Davis’ length and attention to detail.

“Our motto is, if we don’t score, they don’t score,” Davis said. “We came up with some big possessions, guys made some big shots and big plays. We wanted to make sure we defended.”

Cousins’ night wasn’t as smooth but he was dominant in terms of his presence, scoring 25 with 11 rebounds, although he hit just six of his 20 shots. He routinely bullied the Bulls and got to the foul line 13 times, as both he and Davis played over 40 minutes.

“I struggled early on,” Cousins said. “That being said, you gotta go out there and find the ways to have an impact on the game. That’s what I tried to do, and we pulled out an ugly, gritty win.”

The effort was there, the execution was not: Nothing epitomized the Bulls’ night better than the close misses Robin Lopez had at the rim, two contested bunnies he should’ve finished but didn’t after a pass from Jerian Grant.

He was battling with Davis and Cousins all night, and usually takes advantage of easy chances near the basket.  With nine seconds left and the game tied, it could’ve won the game for the Bulls.

But he had tough luck and the extra five minutes proved enough for the Pelicans to take control.

“It’s frustrating. It feels bad tonight. They know we had a great effort. I’ll be better. I’ll be better next game,” Lopez said. “He made a good play. I missed two shots. (Grant) made such a fantastic play.”

Here’s the play.

Although the Bulls took 42 3-point shots and shot just 26 percent from long range, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was happy with the effort, commending the team in his opening statement to the media following the loss.

“I’m proud of our guys for going out there and competing again when the ball wasn’t going in the hoop, giving ourselves a chance,” he said. “A great chance to win it there again missing a couple at the rim, but they continued to go out there and battle.”

“We’re going to have nights like this on the offensive end, but if we can battle like that defensively, we’re going to have a chance most nights.”

It’s a far cry from their last performance at home against Oklahoma City, where Hoiberg bemoaned the lack of effort in a blowout loss. Cousins complimented the Bulls and their play, having seen them twice in the preseason and once in the regular season.

“I feel like they’re a better team than their record shows,” he said. “They’re probably top-three hardest playing teams in the league at this point. To have a record like that and still come out and play with the tenaciousness and edge that they do, it’s a credit to them.”

Turning a corner/stepping back: Denzel Valentine had a second straight strong performance after Friday night’s showing against Orlando, scoring a season-high 16 points and hitting four of seven from 3-point range.

He was the only efficient scorer the Bulls had and Hoiberg said they ran their offense through Valentine in the fourth quarter, although the Pelicans outscored the Bulls 26-19.

“I like making big time plays, especially when my team is depending on me,” Valentine said. “So whenever my number is called, I just step up to the plate and deliver. I thought we should’ve won.”

Had the Bulls taken better care of the ball, they would’ve given themselves a better chance at a second straight win. But that old bugaboo reappeared, as Kris Dunn committed four turnovers in nearly 17 minutes.

His aggressiveness is in sharp contrast to Grant, as he presses the envelope at every opportunity. But finding the balance will be a season long challenge, as he’s had at least four turnovers in each of his four games this season.

Taking hold of that starting spot doesn’t seem as assured as it did when he was making big plays and showing emotion in Miami, spurring a quality effort on the road.

Hoiberg made note of Dunn’s giveaways, referencing players trying to make passes in tight spaces where a safer play could better apply.

“We need to do better with that, of taking care of that,” Hoiberg said.

Grant put together one of his better statistical performances as a Bull, with 14 points, nine assists and eight rebounds in 36 minutes. He made a critical steal on Cousins in the final minute, leading to Lopez’ missed layup.

He could’ve been the hero Saturday night.

Bobby’s back: It’s been eight games, which means Bobby Portis will return to the Bulls active lineup Tuesday in Toronto after his suspension from punching Nikola Mirotic.

Portis has to leave the arena two hours before every game so he hasn’t been around to watch the games in person, but he’s been practicing through his suspension. And no, he won't start, meaning Markkanen's place at power forward is secure.

“He’s been practicing and that’ll all be discussed here in the next couple days, what we’ll do in the Toronto game,” Hoiberg said. “The biggest thing is try to go out with the guys we have available. We’ll get that figured out in the next few days. He’s working extremely hard. When everything happened we had to put together makeshift lineups, so those guys were getting most of the reps in practices.”

Mirotic is doing more physical activity, going from riding a stationary bike to doing pool work over the past week but he’s still several weeks away from even beginning to think of stepping on the floor.

And then again, there’s that trade request from Mirotic that hasn’t been rescinded.

So even when it’s over, it’s not really over.

Three Things to Watch: Bulls-Pelicans

11-4_pelicans_matchup_nba_chi_blank.jpg

Three Things to Watch: Bulls-Pelicans

Back to back

Fred Hoiberg's young group has dealt with plenty early in the season. Not having Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis crippled the frontcourt depth. Cameron Payne is still out and Kris Dunn is just returning from a dislocated finger. The Bulls have already faced the Cavaliers, Spurs and Thunder....and the Raptors and Heat are nothing to scoff at, either.

One thing Hoiberg's group hasn't faced yet? A back to back. Saturday night will mark the first time this young, inexperienced group has played two straight nights. Yes, fresh legs compared to older teams make this easier, but it's also mentally taxing to compete for 48 minutes two nights in a row. The good news is the Pelicans will also be on the second half of a back-to-back. They, like just about every team the Bulls will face this year, are more experienced.

Boogie and The Brow

It hasn't resulted in many wins for the Pelicans, but there isn't a better 1-2 punch talent-wise in the NBA than Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Entering Friday night's action, Davis and Cousins were ranked 2nd and 6th, respectively, in PER. The raw numbers are just absurd, so we'll let them do the talking:

Davis: 27.1 points, 12.1 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 2.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 53.2% FG

Cousins: 30.1 points, 13.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 2.3 blocks, 2.1 steals, 48.8% FG

Yeah. Not bad, fellas.

Lauri's biggest test yet...and it ain't close

So the Bulls are on a back-to-back. And they'll face the best 1-2 frontcourt in the entire NBA. Guess what that means? Lauri Markkanen gets the steepest test to date, and maybe the toughest one he'll face all year long. Markkanen has shown he's up to the task thus far, but with Davis hounding him all night he'll likely need to defer to his teammates to get the job done.