Bulls fall hard in surprising, disappointing defeat to Nets

675572.png

Bulls fall hard in surprising, disappointing defeat to Nets

By Aggrey Sam & Christopher Cason
CSNChicago.com

Readiness to play and preparing for each and every game the same way are some of the mottos that the Bulls (25-8) have abided by under Coach Tom Thibodeaus reign.

Even with the challenges of the most games played at the midway point of the season having also played the most road games out of any team at this point the Bulls have always prided themselves on being ready to play when the ball is thrown up, which is why Saturdays 97-85 matinee loss against the New Jersey Nets (9-23) was so depressing.

I dont think you can change game-to-game. I think you have to prepare for each game the exact same way, said Tom Thibodeau.

Everyone in this league is extremely talented and capable of beating you; it doesnt matter who it is. This isnt like college where you may have twenty-points more talent than somebody. It doesnt work that way, theyre all pros. If youre not ready to go, youre capable of being beaten and thats what happened.

Amazing happens is the NBAs motto and while the beginning of the contest was a tad shy of truly remarkable, the fact that the woeful Nets jumped out to a 15-2 lead including 13 unanswered points after the two teams exchanged buckets to start the game was certainly a shocker.

But even after a Thibodeau timeout in an effort to rectify the situation, New Jersey, behind All-Star point guard Deron Williams (29 points, 5-for-9 three-point shooting, eight assists) outside shooting and playmaking, as well as contributions from Kris Humphries (better known as the ex-husband of reality-TV star Kim Kardashian, the power forward was booed by United Center fans, as he is in every arena), built on its double-digit cushion.

While ball security was an issue for the Bulls in the early going, there appeared to be a lid on the basket and disjointed offensive execution was also problematic things that occasionally occur to the squad that entered the day with the leagues top record the surprising aspect of the hosts slow start was a lackluster defensive effort, leading the visitors to shoot 14-for-21, compared to the Bulls 7-for-22, in the first quarter.

After permitting the Nets to run crisp plays that led to easy scoring opportunities, get out in transition and attempt wide-open jumpers, at the conclusion of the opening period, the Bulls trailed, 34-19.

Sometimes, the game is won in the first quarter, said Mike James who contributed 16 points. You can sometimes have rallies towards the end of the game but its hard because this is the NBA. Even though, the Nets record is what it is, they still have pretty good players. If anybody start getting confidence, knocking down shots, its hard to get them out of that rhythm and they got into their rhythm early and kept their rhythm.

Thibodeau emphasized James point by saying; It was too big of a whole hole to get out of. If you study the statistics, theyre going to tell you that most teams that are leading after the first quarter are the teams that win. Readiness to play is huge.

Thibodeau lost patience with his starters midway through the first quarter and inserted an all-reserve lineup and it began to pay dividends toward the end of the period, as Taj Gibsons (14 points, eight rebounds) typically energetic play made an impact, then carried over to the second stanza.

With fellow backup big man Omer Asik (eight rebounds) providing a rebounding and defensive presence, sharpshooter Kyle Korver and a dual point-guard set featuring John Lucas III and James (seven assists), the Bulls trimmed the deficit to make it a competitive affair.

I was just searching for energy somewhere, said Thibodeau. We had a couple of chances to maybe get back into it.

Thibodeau reinserted his re-energized regulars, but kept James fast becoming a fan favorite due to his tough defense, fearless drives, intelligent passing and timely shooting on the court and combined with C.J. Watsons usual instant offense, Luol Dengs (14 points, eight rebounds) scoring and Carlos Boozers (16 points, nine rebounds) rebounding and mid-range shooting, the Bulls made it a single-digit contest.

But with Williams accurate outside marksmanship and Humphries (24 points, 18 rebounds, five assists) work on the interior, the guests remained in command and the Bulls went into the intermission facing a 59-45 deficit.

Our defense wasnt very good, acknowledge Boozer. We pretty much spotted them a twenty-point lead and we tried to fight back. We did fight back and then they went right back up at the half.

Although New Jerseys once-gaudy shooting percentage dropped precipitously after the break, a blend of the Bulls turnover problems resurfaced and an inefficient offense allowed the visitors advantage to balloon. Humphries high activity level was the difference for the Nets, whose defense and rebounding factored into the hosts offensive struggles.

As the third period waned on, however, Boozers jump-shooting prowess reared its head, as the Alaska natives mid-range game from the baseline and elbow was the Bulls most consistent offensive weapon in making the deficit more manageable.

But the mini-run was eventually stymied partly of their own doing; adding injury to insult was Watson getting drilled in the face by Williams, leading to the latters steal and fast-break dunk, killing the Bulls momentum and through three quarters of play, the Bulls still faced an uphill battle, being on the wrong end of a 73-56 score.

The final period didnt immediately yield better results for the hosts, as rookie MarShon Brooks (19 points) and starting center Shelden Williams (eight points, 14 rebounds) were productive for the Nets early in the quarter, ensuring that their lofty winning margin remained intact.

Never known to give up on a game until the final buzzer, the relentless play of Gibson and James persisted, and coupled with Deng rediscovering his hot hand a dunk, plus the foul, for an old-fashioned three-point play, followed by an actual three-pointer, ignited the All-Star unearthed signs of life within the Bulls at the halfway mark of the frame.

Unforced miscues and the inability to string together multiple defensive stops, both issues all game long, were the home teams ultimate undoing, as they couldnt pull off a miraculous late run to get back into striking distance.

We had a bad day, were not denying that, said Deng. We have no excuses, we played terrible. Were going to look at game tape, get better and bounce back the next game. Its just a lot of things went into tonight. We just have to bring a better effort.

Already needing no further motivation after the loss, the Bulls seem to have already put the loss behind them and began to look ahead.

Well have a great practice tomorrow, dust this game off and be ready for the Hawks. Theyre a very good team who smacked us the last time we played them we havent forgot that and be ready for Monday.

Fred Hoiberg wants a more aggressive Bulls defense

Fred Hoiberg wants a more aggressive Bulls defense

Being a better defensive team was a prime objective for Fred Hoiberg coming into camp, as the Bulls hope to reclaim some of their defensive identity that disappeared last season.

Reciting a not-so-true stat routinely to reporters in the first few days, that the Bulls were last in forcing turnovers in 2015-16, means he’s likely barking it to the team in practices (they were actually second-to-last behind the New York Knicks).

“Absolutely,” said Hoiberg when asked if being more aggressive defensively is a goal. “We are turning the ball over way too much. After watching film, our defense is responsible for some of that. We have a guy in (Rajon) Rondo that's a high steals guy, got great hands, great instincts, great wingspan. Jimmy (Butler) is always had great anticipation and one of the top steals guy.”

Butler is one of the best two-way players, along with San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Indiana’s Paul George, but even he admitted his defense slipped last year as the Bulls fell to a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of advanced defensive rankings (15th).

[SHOP: Get up for the 2016-17 season, Bulls fans!]

Rondo was once one of the league’s best defensive point guards before tearing up his knee his last full season in Boston, and averaged two steals last year in Sacramento, but gave up a career-high 107 points per 100 possessions, according to basketball-reference.com.

Whether Rondo was a function of a bad defense overall for the Kings or a player who no longer fully commits himself to that end remains to be seen, but it’s clear Hoiberg wants a more hands-y defense. Too many times last year, the Bulls defense had leaks from the top down, resulting in compromised drives to the basket and breakdowns all around.

More than anything, the Bulls defense was one of indifference, especially after the first 30 games or so.

“Like all staffs we watched a ton of film and tried to figure out with this group how to create more turnovers, how to impact the ball better,” Hoiberg said. “Every day it's been a big emphasis in our defense and we get out and force turnovers and make sure the help is there behind the trap and being aggressive on the ball.”

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

The common refrain among coaches in the first days of training camp is “this guy had an incredible summer”, a phrase Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has said so much that even he had to laugh when asked who didn’t have a banner summer period.

Of course, that’s before fans and media get to see anyone play, so we can only speculate who’ll win certain position battles, like the starting power forward spot or how deep Hoiberg’s rotation will go.

So in the spirit of speculation, Bulls rookie Denzel Valentine’s versatility makes him a candidate for the backup point guard position, a spot that is filled with different options for Hoiberg to choose from.

“He’s such an instinctive player. He does a great job,” Hoiberg said. “We talk about making simple plays. You’ve done your job when you beat your man, draw the second defender and make the easy, simple play. Denzel is great at that. That’s not a gift that everybody has. That’s not an instinct that all players have. But Denzel certainly has it.”

One wonders if Valentine could find himself on the outside looking in at the start of the season, like Bobby Portis did last year before all the injuries hit the Bulls and forced him into action.

It’s a different vision than when Valentine was drafted as a late lottery pick after a seasoned career at Michigan State. The Bulls hadn’t signed Dwyane Wade or Rajon Rondo in free agency, and had traded Derrick Rose 24 hours before the draft, so the thought was Valentine could be an instant contributor.

Even still, Valentine can likely play anything from point guard to small forward, but hasn’t gotten extensive reps at the point, yet.

“I’ve played on the wing so far. A little bit of point,” Valentine said. “I got a couple reps on the point, but like 70-30. Seventy on the wing, 30 on the point.”

[SHOP: Get up for the 2016-17 season, Bulls fans!]

He got an early jump on the Hoiberg terminology at summer league, so the language isn’t a big adjustment, but having to learn multiple positions along with the tendencies of new teammates can mean a steeper learning curve.

“Yeah, I just got to continue learning sets and learning guys’ strengths so that I can use that to their best advantage,” Valentine said. “Play-make as best I can when I’m at the point guard spot. Just learning the system, learning guys’ strengths, and then I’ll be better at it.”

The presence of Wade and Jimmy Butler, one of whom will likely anchor the second unit as Hoiberg will probably stagger minutes so each can have the requisite time and space, means even if Valentine were on the floor, he wouldn’t have to be a natural point guard.

Hoiberg does, however, crave having multiple playmakers who can initiate offense or create shots off penetration or pick and roll action, meaning Valentine can work it to his advantage.

“I think he can. Jimmy played with the ball in his hands a lot last year,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy rebounds the ball and if Dwyane rebounds the ball, they’re bringing it. Rajon if he’s out there knows to fill one of the lanes. Denzel is an excellent passer. He’s got such good basketball instincts. So if you can get guys out there who can make plays, that’s what it’s all about. I think you’re very difficult to guard in this league when you have multiple ballmakers.”

Other notes:

Dwyane Wade won’t be taking walk-up triples for the Bulls, despite his call that Hoiberg wants him being more comfortable from behind the long line. Hoiberg does want him being willing and able to take corner threes, likely off guard penetration from Rondo or Jimmy Butler.

When Wade played with LeBron James in Miami, cutting from the corners became a staple, so putting him there could be an old wrinkle Hoiberg is adding to his scheme.

Wade took seven of his 44 3-pointers from the corner last season, hitting two from the right side, according to vorped.com.

“When he’s open, especially in the corners, that’s a shot we want him taking. It’s a thing we worked on yesterday, making sure he stays on balance,” Hoiberg said. “He’s got a natural lean on his shot, which has been very effective, being on the elite mid range shooters in our game. That’s allowed him to get shots over bigger defenders. When you get out further from the basket, especially by the line, you need to get momentum going in, work on your body position and work on finishing that shot. He’s got good mechanics, it’s a matter of finishing the shot.”