Bulls bench, stingy defense hold off Raptors

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Bulls bench, stingy defense hold off Raptors

Updated: Saturday, Jan. 14 at 10:53 p.m.

The mantra has been frequently repeated and served the Bulls (12-2) well Saturday night: when the team struggles with its shooting it can count on defense to bail them out.

That was certainly the case against the Raptors (4-9), as a lackluster offensive showing for most of the evening not to mention another big effort from the bench, a regular occurrence bailed out Chicago as they beat their Canadian foes, 77-64.

Were not concerned with the aesthetics. We just want the wins, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said in his matter-of-fact manner. I think our defense and our rebounding are huge and then of course, the turnovers, keeping those down. When we do those three things, we know were going to be in position to win, regardless of how we shoot the ball, and particularly with this schedule, where youre playing so many games in a short amount of time.

It minimizes your practices. Weve only had one practice since Christmas. The rest is your shootarounds, your walkthroughs, your film sessions, so I think our guys are doing a good job with it, theyre working at it and were still not where we want to be. Theres a lot of room for improvement.

For the second consecutive night, balanced scoring in the opening period paced the Bulls, as four of five starters got on the board. Derrick Rose (18 points, 11 assists), who claimed prior to the contest that his injured toe had improved, proved that his health was nothing to worry about, as he was aggressive as both a scorer and playmaker.

Meanwhile, the Bulls highly-scrutinized starting post players again showed concerns about its cohesiveness were overblown, as center Joakim Noah (12 rebounds) and power forward Carlos Boozer (17 points, 13 rebounds) were both productive and efficient in the early going, while ever-consistent small forward Luol Deng (14 points) got off to one of his usual quick starts.

Although Toronto swingman DeMar DeRozan (15 points) provided the Raptors with a scoring threat, the Bulls were still able to build a comfortable cushion and were up, 23-14, after a quarter of play.

Observed Thibodeau: I thought Carlos was terrific and I thought Joakim was great. His reaction to the ball was tremendous. His defense was excellent. His energy was high. So, I was very pleased with our bigs.

At the outset of the second quarter, however, the visitors closed the gap, led by a familiar face, ex-Bulls forward James Johnson (12 points), whose energy on both ends of the court and apparently either improved scoring ability or motivation to prove the team that drafted him wrong for trading him helped the Raptors cut what was once a double-digit deficit to a mere two points. But Dengs scoring managed to help stem the tide until Thibodeau inserted the rest of his regulars.

Surprisingly, the Bulls starting lineup was unable to create any separation from a young, inexperienced Toronto squad, which played a zone defense that seemed to occasionally flummox the home team, with Chicago often settling for contested jumpers. Despite strong play from Boozer and Rose persisting, the teams were tied at 37 at halftime, complete with identical 18-for-43 shooting numbers.

It remained a close-knit affair after the intermission, as the Bulls continued to struggle shooting the ball and seemed less than supremely motivated against a clearly inferior opponent. Rose and Boozer were the protagonists, but the teams overall offensive flow appeared to be out of whack, as the Bulls routinely forced perimeter shots or mishandled passes and rebounds alike.

Defensively, however, the hosts continued to limit the Raptors to similarly poor shot selection and although instant-offense reserve guard Leandro Barbosa (15 points) came off the bench to spark the visitors, the Bulls held onto a slim edge. At the end of three periods, the home team led their guests, 56-52.

Thibodeau went small at the start of the final stanza, plugging in third-string point guard John Lucas III (10 points) next to Rose (in lieu of the still-sidelined C.J. Watson), and using reserve sharpshooter Kyle Korver next to the backup big-man tandem of Taj Gibson (11 points, 12 rebounds) and Omer Asik. Chicago responded with increased energy and a faster pace, as Gibsons relentless interior play and Lucas quickness freed up Rose and helped the Bulls gain momentum and take a double-digit advantage.

Whatever I have to do to help my team, Im willing to lay it on the line because I dont want to disappoint Thibs. I want to go out there and do the best job I can. Hes a good coach, Gibson explained. Thats one thing about our team. You never know whos going to provide the spark. Our starting five always does a great job. Theres always somebody whos going to come in and play lights out. Who knows whos going to step up the next game?

Added Thibodeau: I really liked it because Gibson didnt have a great first half, but he stayed with it and in the second half, he was great, so I liked how he persevered through things not going his way early on.

I thought our team played great in the fourth quarter, in all areas," Thibodeau continued. "Offensively and defensively. I thought John hit some open shots, I thought Derrick made some good plays, I thought the ball moved, I thought the defense was very good.

With Gibsons remarkable effort on the boards and the streak-shooting Lucas catching fire a monster follow-up dunk from Gibson, followed by a Lucas crossover move and finish at the rim energized the United Center crowd and caused the short-handed Raptors to start to unravel, as the Bulls lead ballooned.

In the end, the home team cruised to an easy victory, with a day off in advance of a Monday afternoon matinee in Memphis for the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.

Its still not over. They keep coming, deadpanned Thibodeau. Were not looking back. Were just looking at the next one.

Chimed in Rose: Weve still got a long way to go. Thats the scary thing about it. Were still learning each other.

Were trying to get as many wins as possible. We know that we have a good team, he added. Winning definitely feels good, but while were winning, were still going over all of our mistakes, so that all of us are on the same page.

Position battles to watch for at Bulls camp

Position battles to watch for at Bulls camp

After the Bulls traded for veteran center Robin Lopez and signed guards Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo in free agency,  the starting lineup for the 2016-17 season was 80 percent complete with Jimmy Butler moving over to small forward. The only real question remained: will Nikola Mirotic or Taj Gibson start at power forward?

Arguments can be made for both players, but early in camp it appears Mirotic will have the edge, based on his three-point shooting ability. The Bulls need to create floor spacing for their wing players (Wade and Butler) who are most effective driving to the basket, and Mirotic has the ability to knock down the three (.355 for his career, .390 last season). Mirotic is also an underrated defensive rebounder with decent size at 6-foot-10, 240 pounds.

Mirotic got off to a fast start last season in a starting role, but eventually went to the bench after a late November-early December shooting slump. His second NBA season was also sidetracked by an emergency appendectomy in late January that caused him to miss almost six weeks of action. Mirotic finished the season strong, and went on to play a lead role with his former Bulls teammate, Pau Gasol, on Spain’s national team at the Rio Olympics. Mirotic will be a restricted free agent at season’s end, so he has a lot riding on establishing himself as a bonafide NBA starter.

It's a similar story for Gibson, who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and is looking to land one more big contract when he turns 32-years-old next June. Gibson is known for his relentless work on the boards and his ability to defend power forwards and centers. He’s also 100 percent healthy after dealing with the after-effects of ankle surgery last season. But given the Bulls’ spacing issues, it makes sense for the coaching staff to go with Mirotic alongside Wade, Rondo and Butler, and to pair Gibson with young perimeter threats like Doug McDermott, Denzel Valentine and Isaiah Canaan on the second unit. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg could use Gibson in a backup center role, with McDermott getting minutes at power forward in small ball lineups. Gibson will play, but don’t be surprised to see his name come up again in midseason trade rumors.

So, where does that leave 2015 first-round draft pick Bobby Portis? Portis looked good in Las Vegas Summer League play, showing off improved low-post skills and a consistent three-point shot. But unless Portis has a big preseason, it’s hard to imagine him getting consistent rotation minutes early in the season. Portis could earn some time as a stretch five backing up Lopez, but those minutes might also go to Gibson or second-year center Cristiano Felicio. Portis worked hard all summer, and should be a better all-around player in his sophomore season, but he faces an uphill battle to earn regular minutes. It will be interesting to see how many of the Bulls young players wind up logging time with the Bulls’ new D-League team in Hoffman Estates. Portis might not be involved as a No. 1 draft pick, but Felicio and second-round selection Paul Zipser might want to get familiar with the trip out to the Sears Center.

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The other major training camp battle involves the backup point guard spot behind Rondo. The coaches have a wide variety of options, starting with former Notre Dame star Jerian Grant, who came over in the Derrick Rose trade with the Knicks. The soon to be 24-year-old Grant is the son of long-time NBA player Harvey Grant and nephew of former Bulls star Horace Grant. The Bulls were interested in selecting Jerian Grant in the 2015 draft, but he went off the board a few picks before their turn in the first round.

Grant was a big-time scorer at Notre Dame, but struggled to get on the court in his rookie season with the Knicks. After Kurt Rambis replaced Derek Fisher as head coach of the Knicks, Grant finally got some consistent playing time, averaging 16.8 ppg over the last four games of the season. He’s not a great three-point shooter, hitting just 22 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie, but his ability to get to the basket and create open shots for teammates would give the Bulls consistent point guard play throughout the game.

Canaan was signed late in free agency to give the Bulls another long-range shooting option. He hit 36 percent of his 3’s with Philadelphia last season, averaging 11 points a game. The 25-year-old Canaan figures to be specialist with the Bulls, much like Aaron Brooks who could score points in bunches, but didn’t excel at running a half-court offense. Even though Canaan only stands 6 feet tall, he’s really a shooting guard in a point guard’s body, much like Brooks, D.J. Augustin, Nate Robinson and C.J. Watson who proceeded him.

6-foot-6 Spencer Dinwiddie was considered a potential lottery pick at Colorado before suffering a devastating knee injury that dropped him into the second round. Dinwiddie didn’t get a lot of playing time for Stan Van Gundy in Detroit, but he’s completely healthy now and showed during Summer League play he’s capable of scoring over smaller point guards in the post. His size, scoring ability and defensive skills might push him ahead of the other candidates when all is said and done.

The wild card in the backup point guard derby is this year’s first-round pick Denzel Valentine. Even though he played a wing spot at Michigan State, Valentine was the floor general for Tom Izzo, and is an exceptional passer with outstanding court vision. Since playing time behind Wade & Butler might be limited, Valentine could wind up running the point on the second unit, with Butler on the court as the primary initiator on offense. Valentine’s shooting ability gives the Bulls another floor spacer, and at 6-foot-5, he’ll have size advantage over smaller backup point guards.

Boiling it all down, Hoiberg and his assistants figure to do a lot of experimenting during the preseason to find out which players execute best together. But once the ball goes up for real on Oct. 27, Hoiberg has to decide on his best 9 or 10 players for a consistent regular-season rotation. Matchups could dictate which backup point guards find the floor, but even this early in camp it’s pretty obvious the Bulls are intrigued by Valentine’s potential, and he should get consistent playing time in his rookie season.

Joakim Noah appreciative of time with Bulls despite 'low blow'

Joakim Noah appreciative of time with Bulls despite 'low blow'

Joakim Noah may be wearing a different uniform, but he's still wearing the same heart on his sleeve.

That much was made clear in his comments made to the New York media on Wednesday.

Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million deal with the Knicks after eight seasons with the Bulls, was asked about comments Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf questioning Noah's future as a main contributor on a team.

Reinsdorf told the Chicago Tribune earlier this month that Noah was "not a frontline player," referencing the team's decision not to bring him back in free agency.

Noah responded to those comments in classy fashion - while also getting his true thoughts across:

“He’s entitled to his opinion,’’ Noah said. “I feel I have no regrets about my time in Chicago. I gave it everything I had. To me that’s all that matters. I did everything I could for that organization. I thought it was a little bit of a low blow, but at the end of the day I have nothing but respect for that organization. I’m just excited for this new chapter of my career.”

No one would ever question Noah's heart, but it's undeniable that his body is beginning to show wear, and his performance has reflected it.

Noah played in just 29 games last season before a season-ending shoulder injury, averaging career-lows in points (4.3), field goal percentage (38.3%), free throw percentage (48.9%) and steals (0.6). That came on the heels of a 2015 season in which he missed 15 games and averaged 7.2 points, the lowest since his second season in the league.

But the Knicks are hoping a rejuvenated Noah, playing in his hometown, will find some magic in his 31-year-old body and be able to get the Knicks back to the playoffs.

Noah, Derrick Rose and the Knicks will square off against the Bulls at the United Center on Nov. 4.