Observations from Bulls-Cavaliers: Bulls still learning how to close out games

Observations from Bulls-Cavaliers: Bulls still learning how to close out games

On Saturday night the Bulls pulled out a close 99-98 win over the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers. Obviously, a win over a team that has lost 11 out of their first 12 games is by no means inspiring. But the fact that they pulled out a win in a close game is still a good thing and the fact that Jabari Parker made a big defensive play at the end is an even bigger thing for Chicago. Below are four observations from the Bulls one-point victory over the Cavaliers.

1. The Bulls rebounding will be a serious concern until Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis return

When you think of the Bulls missing Portis and Markkanen, the first thing that comes to mind is the scoring missing from the lineup(s), as the duo combined for just under 29 points per game last season. But the missing rebounding presence of the pair is what has truly led to the Bulls struggling against teams with a lower talent level.

Chicago at one point had a 16-point lead in the game but Cleveland  hung around mostly on the backs of Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr., who combined for 10 of the Cavs 15 offensive rebounds. And many of those offensive boards led directly to Thompson’s season-high 22 points, which led Cleveland on the night.

Hoiberg pretty much split the center minutes evenly between Lopez and Carter, a great call since Lopez actually seemed to fare better against the grind-it-out style of the Cavs big men. Overall, the Bulls have had a big issue with ball-watching instead of being locked in on your man, which in turn has resulted in so many missed boxouts.

The return of Portis and Markkanen will do wonders for a team that is currently 25th in rebounds per game after rankings 6th in last season.

2. Jabari Parker can be active on defense

Parker didn’t turn in a virtuoso performance but at the end of the game he showed that he can be active enough on defense to make up for mistakes earlier in the possession. Hoiberg praised Parker’s effort on the final play, a rare defensive bright spot for the oft-criticized forward:

“The block at the end was the biggest play of the game”

If you want to nitpick—and as a Bulls fan, you have the right to—Parker missed a box out on J.R. Smith, followed the flight of the ball and still didn’t secure the rebound. But again, others players missed box outs—see Ryan Arcidiacono, Chandler Hutchison—and it was quite a heads up play from Parker to get the block on the very quick Collin Sexton.

The fact that Hoiberg subbed in Parker for Carter is interesting and he defended it by mentioning the Cavs small lineups. But if that was the case, it seems like Shaq Harrison would be the logical option to come in rather than Parker. Let’s see if this vote of confidence from Hoiberg will spur on more solid defensive performances from Parker.

3. Zach LaVine’s all-around game is improving

When speaking on LaVine’s performance after the game, Hoiberg stated, “I thought it was Zach’s best game in terms of making the simple play.”

On a night where his 3-point shot wasn’t falling (1-4 from 3-point line), he made up for it in other areas. LaVine can score 22 points in his sleep but the 8 rebounds and 5 assists were notable. His highlight-reel dunks will always capture the public eye first but even LaVine admits that those moments aren't as important to him as the overall improvement of his game.

His 8 boards led the Bulls for the night and were very needed, including a particularly astonishing offensive rebound.

As mentioned above, the Cavaliers dominance on the glass (53-38 advantage in total rebounds) was evident but gang-rebounding (getting guards involved in crashing the glass) is the only way you can combat a team that is being more physical.

We are starting to see LaVine think the game at a higher level on top of his excellent production. There were several plays where he turned down 3-point shots to attack the basket, highly encouraging considering how often he still settles for tough jumpers. His pump fake-then-drive usually results in buckets because of his creativty when finishing around the basket and his improving shot-selection has Dunn so impressed that he broke out what can only be described as a "swaying dance."

The five assists were encouraging because LaVine only had one—albeit egregious—turnover in the game.

He is averaging a career-high 3.8 turnovers per game, which is 6th in the league. That number is somewhat understandable, as he is tasked with more responsibility on offense than in any other point in his career. But if he starts to cut down on his turnover rate, not only will his personal numbers improve, but the team will start to pick up more wins against competitive teams.

4. Ryan Arcidiacono is the ideal backup PG for this Bulls team

Ryan Arcidiacono is quickly becoming a fan-favorite. If his hustle and determination to make an NBA roster didn’t impress you, his play of late certainly has.

He put up a stat line of 15 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and only one turnover. And most impressive, Arcidiacono led the Bulls with +11 plus/minus rating.

His incredible shooting from 3-point land this season (52.8 percent) and low-usage rate make him an ideal fit next to LaVine, and LaVine-like players (in terms of shoot-first approach) such as Antonio Blakeney and Bobby Portis. Until Dunn’s return, Hoiberg would be wise to keep this starting five rolling.

Parker is scoring consistently win or lose but he has unequivocally played better off the bench this season, and I believe Arcidiacono’s role as a pass-first guard helps him the most. And while Arcidiacono’s lack of athleticism holds him back when guarding uber-athletic players like Sexton, his effort-level brings the best out of his teammates, who have needed a little bit of leading by example this year.

The Bulls number one issue--outside of health--coming into the 2018-19 regular season was the fact that they went the entire summer without signing a quality backup point guard and that issue that became magnified when Dunn went down in late October with a moderate left MCL sprain. After 13 games I think it is safe to say the Bulls have found their backup point guard, for at least the 2018-19 season.

If similar elite athleticism-lacking guards like Ish Smith and Tyus Jones can be effective in 20+ minutes per night, why shouldn’t Arcidiacono be able to?

Did Zach LaVine try to sell the Bulls to Anthony Davis?


Did Zach LaVine try to sell the Bulls to Anthony Davis?

In a tweet liked by Zach LaVine, you can see the fifth-year guard chat to Anthony Davis after the game and walk away as the Pelicans' Jrue Holiday approaches, only to finish his talk with "The Brow" afterwards.

Obviously, this is not the first time a line has been connected between Davis and the Bulls. Being a Chicago-native who literally has Chicago tattooed on his arm, there has always been the thought that if Chicago was ever able to possess cap space and a talented core at the time, Davis would at least consider the Bulls.

Now, with Wendell Carter Jr.—at 19 years old is seeming like a revelation—who is on pace to be the first teenager to ever average 2 blocks per game in the NBA, Lauri Markkanen, (the now-injured) Kris Dunn and LaVine all having shown enough to make up a solid core, the idea of Davis coming home isn't improbable.

The Bulls can decline the option on Jabari Parker and renounce the rights to Bobby Portis and Cristiano Felicio and end up with between $35 to $53 million in cap space. Dunn, Markkanen and Carter can all be resigned to reasonable contracts down the line and LaVine is under contract for the next four seasons.

If the Bulls acquire Davis, it would be in 2021, which is when Davis can decline his player option and enter the free agent market. By then the Bulls would likely have the long-term starter at the small forward position figured out by then, if they haven't already decided that Chandler Hutchison will be that player. But just to be a bit more conceivable, imagine a lineup of Dunn-LaVine-Markkanen-Davis-Carter.

That lineup would be bucking the league's current trend of downsizing, instead banking on the off-the-dribble ability of Markkanen and the tremendous shot-blocking duo of Carter and Davis to stymie the league's best lineups.

Right now Davis' Pelicans are 5-6 heading into Sunday night's game against the Phoenix Suns. The losses of Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins didn't affect the prolific offense of New Orleans, but the defense has dropped off dramatically. The Pelicans have an uphill battle to make the playoffs in the improved Western Conference, and if Davis gets antsy about having a real shot to make the NBA Finals, a move to the East becomes all the more attractive.

A Bulls fan can dream right?

Cavaliers all-in for tank after losing LeBron James for the 2nd time


Cavaliers all-in for tank after losing LeBron James for the 2nd time

Just like Michael Jordan, LeBron James probably could make a case for being voted the league’s Most Valuable Player in every year of his prime.

After all, look at what his presence meant to the Cleveland Cavaliers. He took a nondescript roster to the NBA Finals in 2007 and routinely had Cleveland among the top seeds in the Eastern Conference after that. But after James left in 2010 free agency, the Cavs quickly sunk to the bottom of the league standings, earning the No. 1 overall draft pick in three of the four post-LeBron years.

When James came back, Cleveland became an instant championship contender, going to the Finals in four-straight seasons and culminating in the 2016 Cavs winning the city’s first professional sports championship since the 1964 Browns.

Now LeBron has left his beloved northeast Ohio for a second time and Cleveland has truly embraced the tank. After losing their first six games of the season, they fired the coach who led them to their lone championship, Tyronn Lue, and replaced him with assistant coach Larry Drew.

That was followed by All-Star forward Kevin Love opting for surgery to repair a toe injury, and now two other starters, George Hill and Cedi Osman are sidelined by injuries. The result? The Cavs are 1-10 and one of the early favorites to finish with the league’s worst record, which could mean a chance to draft the guy Steve Kerr called the next LeBron, Duke freshman Zion Williamson.

Seems like it’s business as usual in Cleveland under owner Dan Gilbert.

Looking at the roster, you would think the Cavs should be a lot better. Veterans Tristan Thompson, JR Smith, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye and Hill are still around, while young players Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Osman were believed to have the potential to become solid pros. Plus, the Cavs used the No. 8 overall pick acquired in the Kyrie Irving trade with Boston to select exciting, young point guard Collin Sexton, a player the Bulls seriously considered one pick earlier.

But apparently when you take away the best player in the league from Cleveland, all of the other players’ individual weaknesses become magnified. Korver and Smith aren’t getting those wide open looks anymore, and Thompson’s hustle plays don’t mean as much when the team is down by 20 points.

Sexton is intriguing with his speed and athleticism, but reportedly he’s rubbed some of the veteran players the wrong way with his ball-dominant style. Sexton is averaging 10.9 points on 42% shooting from the field, but only 2.1 assists in 24.7 minutes per game.

Cleveland re-signed restricted free agent Hood, hoping he would be ready to take a big jump starting in James’ vacated small forward spot, but Hood is only averaging 12.3 points on 43% shooting. Clarkson has been productive, averaging 15.2 points on 47% shooting, but overall the roster lacks consistency at both ends of the court.

Since Cleveland is not a destination for free agents without James around, the Cavs will be hoping for more lottery luck to find their next franchise player. Expect the front office to explore trades for Love & just about any other player on the roster in the coming months.

So, what will it take to beat this dysfunctional group Saturday night?

1. GET OFF TO A FAST START.  With everything that’s gone wrong in Cleveland over the first month of the season, the Cavs’ players don’t need much adversity to decide it’s not going to be their night. Running out to a 10 or 15 point lead in the opening quarter should allow the Bulls to dictate tempo for the rest of the game.

2. DOMINATE THE BOARDS. Thompson is still an effective energy player, and Nance Jr. will attack the offensive glass when he comes in, but if the Bulls can control their defensive board and get the ball out in transition they should be able to score at will against this dispirited Cleveland team.

3. SECONDARY SCORING.  Zach LaVine continues to deliver sensational play at the offensive end. He entered Friday’s action ranked 4th in the NBA in scoring at 27.4 points per game. LaVine should be able to get his points against Clarkson and JR Smith, but Fred Hoiberg would love to see Jabari Parker, Justin Holiday or even Antonio Blakeney emerge as a consistent secondary scoring option.

We hope you’ll join Kendall Gill, Kelly Crull and me Saturday night for Bulls Pregame Live from the United Center Atrium at 6:30 on NBC Sports Chicago and the MyTeams by NBC sports app. Then, after the game goes final, flip back to NBC Sports Chicago for the Hoiberg media session, player interviews and a whole lot more on Bulls Postgame Live.