Paul George

Four observations: Zach LaVine comes up clutch as the Bulls beat the Clippers

Four observations: Zach LaVine comes up clutch as the Bulls beat the Clippers

This Zach LaVine guy might be pretty good, huhThe Bulls beat a depleted Clippers team 109-106 Saturday night at the United Center. Here are some observations:

Bigs bounce back

After enduring a mostly rough night at the office on Friday against Charlotte, the Bulls’ bigs bounced back tonight — at least on the offensive end.

The 'Thad Young Minutes Watch' marches on; he checked in unusually early (at the 7:28 mark of the first) for Wendell Carter, and played extremely well in the first half. His 10 first quarter points (5-for-7 shooting), cutting and general activity undoubtedly sparked the Bulls after a sluggish start. He finished the game with 17 points and 12 shots in 20 minutes.

Wendell Carter Jr. was doing Wendell Carter Jr. things, as well. He had two crucial offensive rebounds in the first half — one he prettily dished straight to Young for a cutting dunk, the other he powered home for a putback. He got into foul trouble late, picking up his fifth foul just two minutes into the fourth quarter, and finished with 14 points and seven rebounds. He had a key alley-oop and putback late in the game and finished with 36 minutes.

Lauri Markkanen finished the night with only 13 points and eight field goal attempts but snatched 17 rebounds in 40 minutes of game action. His up-and-down season — both in terms of opportunity and production — continues.

Overall, the Bulls outrebounded the Clippers 50-40 for the game, a surprising result.

The Clippers dominated most of the first half — even without Paul George

For a time, it looked as if Paul George was going to have an easygoing night. He tallied eight first quarter points — and looked smooth in doing so — then didn’t check back in until the 4:08 mark of the second. The Clippers built a 14-point lead without him.

Credit Montrezl Harrell, in large part for that. He ate the Bulls for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in his first half minutes, notching 17 points on 14 field goal attempts (five from the charity stripe) before the break. Jim Boylen talked about needing more ‘physicality’ from his bigs. Harrell hunted one-on-one matchups against them all night (off-the-dribble, in the post, you name it), with Carter being the only Bull to offer much resistance. He finished with a whopping 30 points on 24 shots.

The Bulls starters closed the half on a 17-5 run to pull to within 57-55 at the break — incidentally, that run took place over the course of the 4 minutes, 8 seconds that George logged in the second quarter.

The starters sparked a massive run

That aforementioned spurt carried over, for a time; the Bulls started the second half with a 20-4 run and led 75-61 halfway through the third. The defense tightened up, the offense was free, loose and fluid, and the starters catalyzed it all. LaVine had 10 in the quarter.

Between George checking in in the second quarter and that point in the third, the Bulls outscored the Clippers 37-11, shooting 10-for-16 from the field, compared to 4-for-16 for LA.

But, as with all things — good and bad — that stretch passed, and it passed quickly. After a questionably-timed Boylen timeout with 5:48 left in the period (and the Bulls leading 75-63), the Clippers closed the gap to 84-79 entering the fourth. The Clippers switching to zone defense midway through the period seemed to trip the Bulls up, as well.

A hard-fought fourth quarter finally swings the Bulls’ way

It was Paul George vs. Zach LaVine down the stretch. The winners? The Bulls and everyone watching, both at the United Center and at home.

George entered the fourth quarter only having played 21 minutes and was fresh for the stretch run, scoring 10 in the final period. But he did, crucially, miss a free throw with just over a minute remaining that would have put the Clippers up 107-103. On the next possession, Markkanen tracked down a loose ball of a rebound and kicked to Denzel Valentine for a top-of-the-key 3-pointer to knot the game 106-106. George’s last threefield goal attempts of the game were a wild fling at the rim, a bricked iso jumper and a relatively clean 3-pointer that would have tied the game, all in the final minute.

LaVine had nine points in the fourth (31 for the game), every one monumental. He canned an and-one 3-pointer (missed the free throw) with just over five minutes left in the game that put the Bulls up 96-95. Then, a deep off-the-dribble 3-pointer to pull the Bulls within 105-103. And, of course, the game-winner:

 

It was an exhilarating finish, and a win the Bulls had to have. The blemishes on it are obvious — yes, the Clippers were without Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams and Patrick Beverly, and the defensive lapses and stretches of inconsistency that have plagued the Bulls all season were there, at times. But ultimately, entering their upcoming four-game road trip 10-18 feels a whole lot better than 9-19. (And the Bulls beat a team over .500!) 

On to Oklahoma City on Monday.

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What to watch for: Bulls face off with Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers

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What to watch for: Bulls face off with Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers

The Bulls look to bounce back against one of the league's best in the Clippers, tonight. The game tips at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here’s what to watch for:

Clippers’ last five (4-1)

  • Dec. 13 — W at Timberwolves: 124-117

  • Dec. 11 — W at Raptors: 112-92

  • Dec. 9 — W at Pacers: 110-99

  • Dec. 8 — W at Wizards: 135-119

  • Dec. 6 — L at Bucks: 119-91

Storyline(s) for each team

The Clippers come into this game with perhaps the deepest roster in the NBA — they have everything from top-tier star talent (Kawhi Leonard, Paul George), to specialized secondary options (Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley), to sparkplug role players (Landry Shamet, Montrezl Harrell, Moe Harkless, etc.) They’re 20-7 and own the second-best record in the Western Conference.

Like the Bulls, the Clippers are on the second night of a back-to-back (and the last night of a six-game road trip), so that full assortment of players won’t be in action. Leonard and Shamet have both already been ruled out. Williams and Beverley are questionable, but neither played the team’s game last night in Minnesota.

Whatever squad they field will likely still have an edge over the Bulls, who shot a paltry 27-for-90 from the field in an 83-73 loss to the Hornets on Friday. Jim Boylen was satisfied with the team’s defensive effort after that contest, but against the sixth-rated defense in the NBA, a markedly better offensive showing will be required to stay competitive against Los Angeles. Even without their full cast of characters, stealing this one would represent the Bulls’ best win of the season (for what it’s worth, not a compliment).

Player to watch: Paul George

George is set to suit up, and he’s a must-watch whenever he comes to town. Last night, him and Leonard combined to drop 88 points on the Timberwolves. It looked like a lot of fun:

 

Bulls fans are familiar with George’s exploits from his time with the Pacers, and he’s only leveled up further since leaving Indiana. Coming off a career year in Oklahoma City in which he finished third in MVP voting, he’s currently averaging 24.6 points on 39.9% 3-point shooting (10.2 attempts), and remains one of the preeminent wing defenders in the league. 

The Bulls haven’t had their lack of wing depth truly exposed by a team in a while. Unless Kris Dunn has an all-time defensive performance in him, the Clippers are about as safe a bet as any to exploit that mismatch.

Matchup to watch: Frontcourt rotations

Jim Boylen’s rotations have been scattershot all season, but in the wake of Thad Young requesting more minutes earlier this week, we reached peak randomness last night.  Franchise cornerstone Lauri Markkanen played 25 minutes, 34 seconds and at one point sat for nearly 15 consecutive game minutes. Young played 26 minutes, 33 seconds, Wendell Carter 23 minutes, 35 seconds and Daniel Gafford 20 minutes, 18 seconds. 

Boylen has often insisted that his goal is to win games while simultaneously developing all the players on his team, and all things considered, the Bulls have a pretty talented frontcourt rotation. But it’s unclear if their minutes being divvied up on a night-to-night basis (and seemingly on-the-fly) is consistent with either of those stated missions.

Against a dynamic Clippers frontcourt, this is worth monitoring. Expect more juggling to ensue.

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What would a potential Paul George signing look like for Bulls?

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What would a potential Paul George signing look like for Bulls?

Outside of LeBron James, Paul George is unquestionably the biggest name on this year's NBA free agent market.

The 28-year old George is coming off his first season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, in which he put up 21.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.  But perhaps most notable—especially for Bulls fans—is that George shot 40.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark of his career. 

George operated well playing with a dominant ball-handler in former MVP Russell Westbrook, and was able to showcase his defensive chops as well. The Thunder were in desperate need of a lockdown defender following the season-ending injury to Andre Roberson in late January, and George did his best to lift up a team that struggled down the stretch.

George has not been linked to Chicago for any specific reason at this stage of the NBA offseason, but things move fast in today's league. 

NBA free agency officially gets underway July 1, and soon more attention will be directed towards a Bulls team that may be more active in free agency than many originally expected

The Bulls had what many would call a "boring and predictable" draft night, selecting two players who fill needs at the small forward and center positions, rather than swinging for the fences with a high-upside pick.

But these "safe" selections could indicate the Bulls front office thinking they can make a surprising splash in free agency. Recent reports that the front office in Chicago isn't in complete agreement over Zach LaVine's future on the team support this idea. 

And if LaVine does leave Chicago via signing an offer sheet with another team, the Bulls projected salary cap would balloon significantly, allowing them to aggressively move towards the idea of signing two max-contract players. But for now, whether or not LaVine is back with the team next season, it is safe to say that George would fill a huge hole at the three for the Bulls.

For Chicago, the pitch to George is simple. He would get the same thing he gets in a theoretical signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. A young core that (for now) includes Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, LaVine and recent No. 7 pick Wendell Carter. The Bulls have multiple players who are decent ball-handlers as well as (yet another) logjam in the frontcourt. George would slide in seamlessly as the starting small forward.

His own ball-handling skills and 3-point shooting ability would significantly open up driving lanes for Dunn, who needs to improve his finishing at the rim dramatically to reach an true starter-level. Along with his ability to space the floor, George's driving would be able to act as a great initiator for a Bulls attack that often struggled to create dribble-drive penetration.

Last season George shot 66.9 percent on all field goal attempts between zero-to-three feet from the basket, a number that would've put him third amongst Bulls starters, behind only Markkanen and Lopez. And per Basketball-Reference.com, he shot 43.7 percent on 3-pointers from the corner, an elite mark in an essential part of today's game. 

If George signed with Chicago, the starting lineup would presumably be Dunn-LaVine-George-Markkanen-Lopez. This would allow additional time for the development of recent draftee Chandler Hutchison, who currently projects as the starting small forward due to the defensive shortcomings of Denzel Valentine. 

Our own Vincent Goodwill has expressed the difficulties of selling Bulls fans on a five years (or longer) rebuild, and the addition of George would significantly open up a title window in a rapidly changing Eastern conference. 

The biggest advantage that the Bulls currently have is the fact that George's current team (Thunder) has a cloudy financial outlook due to Carmelo Anthony opting-in to take the $28 million he will make next season.

The Thunder have been a luxury tax team in three of the last four seasons, meaning that retaining George could result in a massive tax bill. Knowing this, the Bulls could offer George a "LeBron-like" 1+1 deal. The 1+1 means the player would receive a one-year contract with a player option in the second year. This is the ultimate player-friendly contract, as it allows players to explore earning as much as possible on a future deal. 

On the flip side of things, the Bulls could offer George a deal with more years for his own long-term security. They could even get creative in offering him a two-year deal in the $60 million-plus range, and then offer him a much bigger long-term deal once he reaches the 10-year veteran designation. NBA players with 10-plus years of experience can earn up to 35 percent of the total salary cap figure.

Some fans may balk at the idea of offering max-contract money to a player with a well-known injury history, but George is still two years away from turning 30 years old, and his skillset is one that figures to age gracefully. Even more so if he was on a roster with young talent that would be hitting their stride as he loses some of his athleticism. 

A signing of this nature would be the biggest free-agent acquisition the Bulls have had since Carlos Boozer, and it would come at a time where the franchise is finally starting to have it's identity coalesce.

It is no doubt a risky move that could definitely have considerable downside. But Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey often likes to discuss "risk profiles", and the Bulls will need to up their risk profile if they truly don't want to "ever be in this position again."