Thaddeus Young

Even in victory, Bulls know they can be more consistent

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USA TODAY

Even in victory, Bulls know they can be more consistent

The Bulls authored their 106-99 victory over the Grizzlies Wednesday night in quintessential 2019-20 Bulls fashion.

They started scalding hot — scoring 13 of the game’s first 15 points. Then, a lull: They led only 24-20 with 1.5 seconds left in the first quarter before a Ryan Arcidiacono three pushed that advantage to seven.

The bench rode that wave to a 16-4 burst to open the second, and the lead soon ballooned to 50-28 — a 22-point advantage. Ahead 50-35 at the half, the Bulls were 19-for-41 (46.3%) from the field and 8-for-18 (44.4%) from 3-point range. The Grizzlies: 14-for-49 (28.6%) shooting and a mind-bending (for 2019, at least) 0-for-15 on 3-pointers.

For a team in the Bulls that’s six games below .500 and still underperforming relative to expectations, these types of spurts aren’t foreign. Nor are extended stretches of sound, swarming defense that drive opponents to stagnation.

Unfortunately, neither is what came next.

It didn’t happen lineally. There was no pinpointable avalanche of jumpshots or careless turnovers that swung the game. The Grizzlies just chipped away, cutting their deficit to as few as six points in the third quarter, then to one point on the heels of a deliberate, nearly-eight minute long 23-9 fourth-quarter run. When Jae Crowder capped that tear with a 3-pointer to pull the Grizzlies within 88-87 with 4 minutes, 29 seconds remaining in the game, the United Center let out a collective sigh — fans and players alike. It was familiar. 

To that point in the second half, the Bulls were shooting 10-for-31 (32.3%) from the field and 2-for-12 (16.7%) from three. The Grizzlies were 18-for-35 (51.4%), 5-for-10 (50%) from distance. In spite of the Bulls never trailing, it felt as though the contest had flipped completely on its head.

“I thought we started the game with the appropriate mindset, got off to a good start,” Jim Boylen said after the game. “What we're hoping to get is more consistency… We at times struggle with that. We play good basketball eight, twelve, fifteen minutes, and then we play five minutes of poor basketball and the game flips. Now, we gotta get back, re-engage, and play good basketball again. We're learning how to do that.”

Of course, the momentum eventually swung back in the Bulls’ favor permanently. Thank Zach LaVine for that. After the timeout that Boylen called following the Crowder three, LaVine was at least partially responsible — via made basket or assist — for the next 13 Bulls points. In the final four-and-a-half minutes of the game, the Bulls canned three triples and missed only one shot.

“We made big plays down the stretch, kept our composure,” LaVine said. “[Early on] we came out and played the right way, and then teams are gonna make their little runs here and there. I think we didn’t do a good job of keeping them down by 20… But we ended the game on a high note and that’s the best thing we can do.”

Forgive a moment of contrivance, but for the Bulls, this game felt microcosmic. The flashes were there of a crisp, movement-based offense and high-intensity, impact defense, but their inability to string 48 consistent minutes together will, to some, sour what was a solid overall performance. LaVine, an offensive revelation of late, rushing to the rescue was befitting, as well. 

It was the same story in Sacramento, where the Bulls led by as many as 19, but needed late-game heroics from LaVine and Lauri Markkanen to cling to a victory over a below-.500 team (missing its two best players). It happened — twice — in Charlotte, the first time resulting in a blown 10-point fourth quarter lead, the second an impossibly infernic comeback win that was as exhilarating as it was unsustainable.

“I don't feel a big-time shift, because I still know that we're in the right place,” LaVine said when asked if he feels the team’s energy or confidence wanes during dry spells, both offensively and defensively. “I just wish we could cut it off sooner. And we could make in-game adjustments better, and I'm not just saying coaching stuff, like, us too.” 

But what’s a team to do, then, when the lid on the basket closes? There are differing schools of thought, though no one in the locker room was resigned to a team-wide fate of perpetual inconsistency. LaVine offered something of a solution.

“I think getting to the foul line has been big, because that'll almost — not bail you out — but you can make an aggressive play,” LaVine, who has attempted 10 or more free throws in his last three games, said. “You still gotta stay aggressive, you still gotta take those shots if they're open. We gotta run our offense because at times it works really well.”

Thad Young was also candid, saying he thinks the Bulls’ current conundrum is in some ways a repercussion of attempting to blend into the break-neck paced, 3-point-happy style of play that’s en vogue in the NBA.

“When you're up 20 it's hard to win games, simply because of the fact that you have certain teams that just don't give up. And then you're trying to control pace as opposed to playing as fast as you were before. And sometimes that hurts you,” Young said. “When you're trying to slow it down, the other team tends to pick it up and gain confidence.

It stands to reason that the Bulls — notorious for generating turnovers and creating offense in transition — would be uniquely impacted by this. Boylen stressed that they’re continuing to learn and grow. 

"Just get back to what we were doing that got us to that point," Young said on the mentality of perservering through those tough stretches. Markkanen, among others, consistently preaches never getting too high or too low, in victory or defeat.

Bigger picture, the offensive metrics haven’t turned around yet (the Bulls remain 29th in offensive rating — 27th since LaVine’s 49-point outing in Charlotte — and a bottom-eight 3-point shooting team), but the win-loss record is beginning to. However the Bulls are doing it, they’re winning, and that’s worth celebrating, for the time being. It allows the team to hone in on areas of inconsistency from a position of assurance.

“I don't feel a lack of energy or confidence,” LaVine said, on when times get the toughest. 

“We just gotta continue to be aggressive and put the ball in the right players' hands and make plays.”

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Zach LaVine pushed controversy aside in miracle win over Hornets, but the Bulls' season is far from saved

Zach LaVine pushed controversy aside in miracle win over Hornets, but the Bulls' season is far from saved

CHARLOTTE — Give the Bulls this. They’re not boring.

One night after Jim Boylen benched Zach LaVine early and LaVine sounded off about it, LaVine authored a performance for the ages, capping an improbable victory with his franchise-record 13th three-pointer with 0.8 seconds left for a career-high 49 points.

Bulls 116, Hornets 115. Even many of the players who played in the game couldn’t believe the finish.

The Hornets led by eight with 45.4 seconds left. LaVine sandwiched two 3-pointers, the second of which banked in from 34 feet, around two Terry Rozier free throws. Coby White, who scored a season-high 28 points, scored on a driving layup after Rozier split two free throws. Tomas Satoransky sank a clutch three-pointer with 7 seconds left after Devonte Graham sank two free throws.

And then White, Ryan Arcidiacono and LaVine all swarmed Graham on the ensuing inbounds, with White getting credited for a steal that even the principal defenders said was impossible to attribute. The loose ball caromed to LaVine, who eschewed a layup and, a la Reggie Miller, dribbled out to the three-point line and let it fly.

“Sato hit a big three. We doubled the ball. Arch knocked it away or something happened. And I just pretty much said, ‘(Expletive) it. I’m going for the game,’” LaVine said. “Once I shot it, I knew it was cash. That was the craziest game I’ve been a part of.”

In as boisterous a postgame locker room as there has been all season, Thaddeus Young, in an old school move, loudly petitioned for LaVine to star in a new NBA “Where Amazing Happens” commercial. Arcidiacono asked if anybody noticed if he and LaVine combined for 49 points. White said he couldn’t stop shaking.

“I’ve been a part of a crazy game with the national championship in college. But this is just a ridiculous performance by Zach and a tough, gritty win by our team,” said Arcidiacono, who closed over an ineffective Lauri Markkanen. “Keep fighting until there’s zero on the clock. You never know what can happen if you play hard.”

LaVine and Boylen met in Boylen’s hotel suite Saturday afternoon to discuss their issues. That LaVine responded by joining Klay Thompson and Steph Curry as the only three players in NBA history to make 13 three-pointers in a game needs to be more than a band-aid. It can’t be a temporary fix.

The Bulls need to build on such an improbable and thrilling victory.

“When you have a turnaround game like this, hopefully it can be a turnaround for our season,” Satoransky said. “We haven’t won two [games] in a row. That’s our focus for Monday. This comeback shows you we can believe in each other.”

Make no mistake. Issues remain. The Bulls’ aggressive defensive coverages repeatedly left three-point shooters wide open or led to uncontested dunks. The Hornets, who trailed by 14 points in the first half, shot 68.4 percent in the second half.

And what to do about Markkanen? He missed eight of nine shots, scored a meager three points and went up to the scorer’s table in the fourth quarter, only to be called back during a timeout and sat for Arcidiacono.

“We had just made a three and I just didn’t think it was the right thing to do,” Boylen said about his personnel decision. “Lauri didn’t do anything wrong. There wasn’t an issue. It was just that that group was rolling. I kind of went with my gut and feel. We were giving them some two-pointers in the post but because of our small lineup, we were getting three-pointers on the other end.”

About those three-pointers: The Bulls sank a franchise-record 22. None were bigger than LaVine’s game-winner, which he equated to hitting a walkoff homerun.

“I just blacked out. We were celebrating, talking a lot, lot of explicit words running off the court. It was fun, man. That’s an unbelievable win,” LaVine said. “Shooters shoot. I got hot and kept putting them in the basket. I didn’t know how many I had. I just knew I was going to keep shooting them.”

LaVine acknowledged the need for this victory not to represent a stopgap, the need to build on such an unlikely finish.

“This is a big game for us, morally. Everybody’s energy is up,” he said. “We’ve been playing good in stretches. We just executed perfectly down the stretch. Obviously, we got blessed a little with some luck. We can take this energy and move this on to the next game, keep this energy high. Hopefully this is that turning point for us. Every team has one. This could be a big step for us in the right direction.”

That’s the thing: Controversy drops back below the surface when teams win. It’s on the Bulls to make sure that continues.

“He is always good when we coach him and talk to him,” Boylen said of LaVine’s crazy 24 hours from Friday to Saturday. “He wants to play better. I want him to play better. And I am really happy for him.”

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Daniel Gafford makes his case for an increased role in loss to Bucks

Daniel Gafford makes his case for an increased role in loss to Bucks

Jim Boylen seemed pretty sure of what he was getting from Daniel Gafford when he announced he would be available for the Bulls’ Monday night matchup with the Bucks.

“Just run somebody over, knock somebody down, play hard,” Boylen said of his expectations for Gafford. “I’m expecting Daniel, besides maybe a few nerves, to have a smooth transition into what we do and who we are.”

What he got was much more: One night after playing 31 minutes for the Windy City Bulls in Long Island, the rookie from Arkansas posted 21 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks on 10-for-12 shooting against one of the league's most fortuitous frontcourts in the Bucks. He led the Bulls in scoring and threw down six dunks (tied for the highest single-game total by a player this season), each one seemingly more vicious, timely and acrobatic than the last.

But the nerves? Non-existent. In fact, Gafford fit into the Bulls’ three-guard sparkplug bench unit like a glove.

“If you throw it anywhere near the rim, he’s gonna go get it,” Coby White said. “Everybody trust[s] him, so that’s all that matters. You gotta trust your teammates.”

“He can dunk the sh*t out of the ball,” Kris Dunn said.

 

Gafford was active every second of his 20:58 on the floor, hunting screen-and-roll opportunities, rebounds and lob-passes, as if for sustenance. He even said after the game that, energy-wise, he could have handled a weightier minutes total, if needed.

“That’s just the practice and stuff we do every game,” Gafford said of the chemistry between the lineup of him, White, Dunn, Ryan Arcidiacono and Thad Young — a unit that posted a 150.0 offensive rating in 12 total minutes together on Monday. “All the time, we always building relationships...

"I didn’t really have to say anything, they already knew what my plan was… Just go get anything off the rim.”

Even in defeat, Gafford played to a level beyond even his wildest supporters' dreams, corralling one-handed alley oops, mopping up missed shots by teammates and providing security coming over from the weak-side in the Bulls’ aggressive, blitzing defense.

The Bulls offense, too, was 22.2 points per 100 possessions better with Gafford on the floor — he sets solid picks and attracts rare defensive gravity on rolls to the rim. And even though the ancillary defensive metrics weren't ground-breaking, he showed flashes of being the type of player that can anchor the undersized three-guard lineups that Boylen loves to utilize, without sacrificing the level of activity and athleticism that makes the purest form of this Bulls defense so difficult to deal with.

“He brings a whole other dynamic to our team,” Dunn said. “He’s a forceful roller… [and] defensively, someone gets blown by, we know we got help-side with him, we know he’s gonna come over and try to deflect the ball.”

 

As he did before the game, Boylen credited Gafford’s instruction with schematically similar Windy City for preparing him to take full advantage of this opportunity. Now, the question becomes: With Luke Kornet likely to miss at least 7-10 days, can Gafford continue to expand his role with this team, moving forward? 

“I think he made a great case for himself today,” Dunn said. “As long as he just keeps working hard, keep doing what he’s been doing, staying disciplined, I think good things are gonna keep happening.”

“I still got a lot more left,” Gafford said. “Whenever I get my chance again, I’m gonna do the same thing.”

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