Deng leads Bulls over Celtics


Deng leads Bulls over Celtics

In a rematch of Sundays loss in Boston, the Bulls (25-7) were out for vengeance and received a satisfactory result, holding off the visiting Celtics (15-14), 89-80, Thursday night at the United Center.

You can never let your guard down against that team, said Thibodeau. I liked the fact that when they closed the gap, we showed a lot of resiliency to close it out.

Without Derrick Rose and his ailing back for the fourth consecutive game, All-Star Luol Deng stepped up as both a facilitator and scorer, while frontcourt partners Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer also made major contributions, along with an important spark off the bench from D-League call-up Mike James.

Veteran All-Star Paul Pierce (14 points) got off to a quick start, scoring the visitors first six points of the contest against his former assistant coachs squad. Meanwhile, the Bulls stuck with their usual balanced offensive attack and while they fell into a shallow hole, they recovered to play traditionally stout defense, following adjustments from Tom Thibodeau during an early timeout.

However, just like Sundays affair, Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo (17 points, eight assists, seven rebounds) began to get loose, pushing the tempo and scoring on delayed fast breaks on clever layups and even his much-improved mid-range jumper. Despite solid opening periods from starting forwards and Duke products Deng (23 points, 6-for-9 three-point shooting, 10 assists) and Boozer (23 points, 15 rebounds), the Bulls trailed, 24-18, after a quarter of play.

We came out and we were soft in the first quarter. They got us back on our heels. We weren't taking it up strong. They are very good defensively. We were being dominated on the boards in the first quarter and then, the second quarter, it changed. Our defense got better, our rebounding got better, our energy got better. Then, we got back into the game, said Thibodeau. Youre playing a tough team that plays very aggressively. Youve got to match that intensity. You cant be back on your heels, so once we started attacking more, we gave ourselves a chance and I thought we got a lift from a number of guys.

A disjointed, physical second quarter commenced, with the officiating crew letting both teams play through contact Rondo took advantage of this policy, drawing three fouls on C.J. Watson (11 points), who started for the injured Rose, forcing the newly re-acquired James to enter the contest, adding a physical, defensive-minded presence at point guard much to the dissatisfaction of the home crowd, which believed their beloved Bulls were getting the short end of the stick.

Im not going to let anybody smaller than me post me up, said James afterwards. Thibodeau put me in a lot of pick-and-rolls, where I had the freedom of making plays, not just for myself, but for others.

You have to be professional, you have to be ready. One thing I always say is, Its better to be ready than to get ready, and so, mentally, I approach every game the same exact way, so whether I get a DNP or I dont, Im constantly visualizing the game in my mind, he added. If Im not playing, well then, I sit and I try to be the best teammate and cheer my players on, but if I play, mentally Im already into the game.

But although the hosts allowed their guests to build a slim cushion, behind the play of Rondo and future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett (18 points, 10 rebounds), the Bulls, led by their frontcourt, fought back.

Dengs outside marksmanship and passing, Boozers finishing ability which included a posterization of Jermaine ONeal court vision and work on the boards, and Noahs (15 points, 16 rebounds) typical effort on the glass, as well as the ability to convert in traffic, were all critical in the team flipping the script and creating separation from Boston.

Luol was terrific. You cant say enough about all that he did throughout the game. Carlos was a monster on the boards in the second quarter. He got going and then Joakim got going as the game went along. Our big guys did a very good job, said Thibodeau. Our big guys are very unselfish and theyre excellent passers, and I think our team does a good job. They share the ball with each other and they hit the open man, so if we keep it moving and we drive into gaps, we should be able to get some good shots and I thought once we settled down, we were able to do that.

When the damage was done from that critical stretch the home team had a double-digit rebounding advantage, all three frontcourt starters were double-figure scorers and the club had 13 assists on 15 made field goals, just to name a few indicators of success the Bulls went into the intermission with a 44-35 lead, via a 22-7 run.

Explained Thibodeau: Everyone talks about easy baskets and the obvious is the fast break, but you also have to include your second shots, your post feeds and your cuts. All those things will lead to easy baskets and were trying to get as many as we can.

The Bulls didnt cool off after the break, rattling off the third quarters first seven points Watson scored the second halfs first five points before Celtics head coach Doc Rivers, a Chicago native, called a timeout to stop the bleeding.

With the frontcourt starters continuing to play strong all-around games, the gap grew to a comfortable double-digit winning margin, as Boozer and Noah, in particular, made sharp cuts and benefited from the passing of Deng and Watson.

Were moving the ball, guys are hitting shots. You guys have got to ask those guys, How come, all of a sudden, youre making shots? Deng joked about his passing. Deng is focusing on his playmaking especially early in the game. When Derrick is playing, Im more focused on being aggressive offensively and scoring, and attacking. Every game is different. The last two games, early, Ive been trying to move the ball and as the game goes on, I get a better rhythm.

Added Noah: Hes been huge for us. He just does a bunch of everything. You can just switch the pick-and-roll, you can switch the three-five, he can guard in the post, he can make plays, hes been shooting big shots for us, threes. Hes just been doing it all, so its good to have Sweet Lu playing at that level, even with the messed-up hand.

Thibodeau joined the chorus of praise: When Derricks playing, the balls in his hands more. Were going to some different things and I like what he didand he did that towards the end of last year, tooand hes a much better pick-and-roll player than you realize. Hes got good size, hes got vision, he can score, he can drive, he can pull up, so I like having the ball in his hands.

But Boston gradually mounted a comeback the beginning of which coincided with Boozer blowing a wide-open layup in transition trimming the deficit to single digits behind Garnetts work on the interior, Rondos playmaking and veteran sharpshooter Ray Allens (12 points) long-range accuracy.

For whatever reason, the Bulls went away from the crisp ball movement and unselfish play against the Celtics zone defense that marked their earlier run and heading into the final stanza, they held a tenuous 60-59 advantage.

The game continued to be a close-knit affair early in the fourth quarter, as the visitors defense seemingly confounded the Bulls, who forced contested outside jumpers and appeared to have lost their offensive rhythm.

But eventually, with James toughness when matched up against Rondo setting the tone, the hosts settled in, acquired a bit of breathing room and were again patient enough to get some easy offense, as Deng marvelously blended scoring and playmaking to give his team a double-digit lead, while creating easy opportunities for Boozer and Noah.

Mike is tough, Mike is a pro. He came in just ready, he stayed ready and we didnt miss a beat when he came in. a lot of teams, having someone whos gone or his first game back, the rhythm would be messed up a little bit, but hes been going in early and running the plays a little bit, Deng said of James. You guys need to stop calling me weak. I might get six fouls in the next game, just to show my toughness. No, but Mike is tough. Its not like hes a rookie. He knows the game, he knows what Rondos trying to do. He knows what theyre trying to run and all that, so hes prepared and ready. Hes not going to come in there and have somebody just bully him or run their offense going at him, but they tried to run some plays and he did a good job playing D.

Noah added, in his inimitable fashion: Hes a boy, so Mike came in and he doesnt play that post-me-up stuff. Jailhouse basketball, thats what we call him.

Chimed in Thibodeau: Mike James was terrific. Rondos a load to deal with in every aspect of the gametransition, pick-and-rolls, now theyre posting him moreso I thought Mike battled him tough in the post.

Mikes an excellent pick-and-roll player. Then, they went zone. He was able to get into some gaps and make some plays. Hes a very confident player. He knocked down a big three, but he did an excellent job of running the team, he continued. If you double-team, you dont want to bring someone else into the game. You dont want to bring their three-point shooting into the game and so, I thought if we had a little more size, we wouldnt have to double.

James role in the Bulls pulling away from the Celtics cant be discounted, as his pesky defense on Rondo and aggressive offensive play were catalysts as the contest entered the stretch run. Boston repeatedly threatened late, making it as close as a two-possession game, but a Deng corner triple with under a minute remaining sealed the deal.

Its good to win tonight, but theres definitely a lot of areas we need to work on in practice tomorrow, Noah observed. Were not satisfied. We could definitely play better and I think thats a positive. Were definitely not playing our best basketball right now and I think that when you add guys like Derrick and guys like Rip back, it could get ugly.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Looking ahead to opening night matchup against Celtics

Bulls Talk Podcast: Looking ahead to opening night matchup against Celtics

In our latest installment of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski and Kendall Gill get you set for opening night against the Celtics. 

They debate realistic expectations for the team and break down the decision to start Taj Gibson at power forward. Later, Schanowski and Gill analyze the team's biggest concern, defense. 

Finally, CSN New England's Celtics Insider A. Sherrod Blakely joins the panel to discuss what Rajon Rondo has left in the tank. 

Check out the latest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast below: 

Mark Schanowski's 2016-17 NBA playoff predictions

Mark Schanowski's 2016-17 NBA playoff predictions

With the 2016-17 NBA season tipping off tonight with three games, here's a look at how the playoff races might end up.

Let's start with the West, where Kevin Durant's move from Oklahoma City to Golden State may have shifted the balance of power for the next half decade.

1. Golden State (Projected record, 67-15). Sure, it might take the Warriors a little time to build their on-court chemistry, but if you watched any of the preseason games, that lineup is absolutely lethal. Durant looks relaxed in his new environment, and will get more open 3's than he ever could have imagined in Oklahoma City. The "Splash Brothers", Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, should be more rested come playoff time since they won't have to do all the heavy lifting during the regular season. Add in do-everything forward Draymond Green, underrated veteran center Zaza Pachulia and elite sixth man Andre Iguodala, and it's pretty clear Steve Kerr's guys will run away and hide from the rest of the Western Conference field.

2. L.A. Clippers (55-27). It's now or never for Doc Rivers' crew, with a number of key players potentially headed for free agency next summer, including starters Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick. Griffin got off to a fast start a year ago, but then saw his season ruined by injuries and a suspension for fighting with a team employee. Paul is still an elite point guard, but may decide to leave if things don't go well this time around. Lots of talent on this roster including first-team All-NBA center DeAndre Jordan, and Rivers again tweaked his bench with the addition of free agent stretch five Marreese Speights (from Golden St.), forward Brandon Bass and swingman Alan Anderson.

3. San Antonio (53-29). Never underestimate the ability of Gregg Popovich to put together a championship contender, but with Tim Duncan retired and Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker past their prime, the Spurs don't seem to have the ingredients to survive three brutally tough playoff rounds in the West. This team now belongs to Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, with former Bulls center Pau Gasol taking over for Duncan. The Spurs are trying to get younger, but it looks like the championship window may have closed.

4. Houston (50-32). Interesting experiment by first year coach Mike D'Antoni to put ball-dominant guard James Harden at point guard. I guess D'Antoni figured since he has the ball in his hands all the time, what's the difference? It's no secret Harden did not get along with big man Dwight Howard (who's now in Atlanta), and he could put up MVP-type numbers this season with the freedom he'll get at the offensive end. More importantly, the addition of three-point shooting threats Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon in free agency could make the Rockets one of the most entertaining teams to watch on League Pass.

5. Portland (49-33). How about another first round playoff shootout between the Blazers and Rockets? We could do a lot worse. C.J. McCollum cashed in big-time after winning the league's Most Improved Player Award, and you can pencil the Blazers backcourt in for about 50 points a night with Damian Lillard emerging as a top 10-15 player in the league. Portland could use a little more punch in the frontcourt, but with wingmen Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe also capable of scoring points in bunches, they should be okay with a big man rotation of Mason Plumlee, former Illini Meyers Leonard, former Warrior Festus Ezeli and young power forwards Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh.

6. Dallas (46-36). Rick Carlisle is one of the NBA's best coaches, and he'll figure out a way to build another playoff team around the skills of all-time great Dirk Nowitzki. Dallas added Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut from the Warriors, and should benefit from a full season from Wesley Matthews. Former Illini star Deron Williams returns to run the point, and the bench is decent with J.J. Barea, Justin Anderson, Dwight Powell and Seth Curry, who played very well late in the season with Sacramento.

7. Oklahoma City (44-38). Russell Westbrook is determined to keep his team in the playoffs without Kevin Durant, which means you can count on Russ playing at an MVP level this season, possibly averaging 30-8-8. I like the addition of Victor Oladipo at shooting guard, but the Thunder sacrificed power forward Serge Ibaka in the process. OKC still has its big man duo of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, but a lot of question marks with depth on the perimeter.

8. Utah (43-39). After just missing the playoffs a year ago, the Jazz should find a way to break through this time around. Gordon Hayward is one of the league's most underrated talents, and Utah should really benefit from the addition of veteran point guard George Hill, plus proven winners like Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw to help out their talented young players. Derrick Favors has quietly emerged as a rock solid power forward, with the "Stifle Tower", Rudy Gobert anchoring the defense from the center position.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Now to the East, where everyone's chasing the reigning champions.

1. Cleveland (58-24). The Cavs should really go over the 60-win plateau, but LeBron James understands it's all about the playoffs, and will sit out a number of regular season games to stay fresh. The roster is almost identical to last year's, except for the addition of former Bulls' forward Mike Dunleavy and rookie point guard Kay Felder. Don’t be surprised though if the Cavs wind up signing former Heat point guard (and James teammate) Mario Chalmers when he’s fully recovered from injury. Assuming everyone stays healthy, look for Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith to take on a lot of the scoring load during the season, and let LeBron put on his Superman cape for Round 3 against Golden St. in the Finals.

2. Boston (52-30). The Bulls' opening night opponent should be stronger than ever with the addition of All-Star big man Al Horford and lottery pick Jaylen Brown. Former Butler coach Brad Stevens didn't take long to master the NBA game, and has waves of perimeter talent to run at opposing teams, led by All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas. Small forward Jae Crowder stole a page from his former Marquette teammate Jimmy Butler on how to be a force at both ends of the court, while big men Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller work well in Stevens' system.

3. Toronto  (50-32). Another 50-win season is in the cards for the team from the Great White North. The Raptors kept shooting guard DeMar DeRozan with a huge contract in free agency, and he'll again team with Kyle Lowry to form one of the league's best backcourts. Toronto needs more production from talented, but inconsistent center Jonas Valanciunas and a full season of health from defensive menace DeMarre Carroll. Depth could be an issue, especially with free agent addition Jared Sullinger already sidelined because of foot surgery.

4. Indiana (49-33). The Pacers decided to make a coaching change after last season's first round playoff exit because team president and Hall of Famer Larry Bird wanted to play faster. So, former assistant coach Nate McMillan replaces Frank Vogel, and the Pacers traded for long-time Hawks' point guard Jeff Teague to push the pace. Paul George is primed for the best season of his career, and Indiana made a great under-the-radar pick-up by acquiring power forward Thaddeus Young from Brooklyn. Second-year center Myles Turner should also have a big impact as a scorer and shot blocker. The Pacers also have scoring power off the bench with Al Jefferson, Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles. Great offseason for Larry Legend.

5. Detroit (47-35). Stan Van Gundy has done a tremendous job changing the culture in the Motor City, getting shoot-first point guard Reggie Jackson to buy in to his philosophy, while staying patient with Andre Drummond's free throw shooting woes. Drummond is a monster on the boards, and one of the league's best centers overall. Van Gundy also has done a good job on the personnel front, stealing talented forward Tobias Harris from Orlando at the trade deadline last season, and picking up Stanley Johnson and Henry Ellenson in the draft. Jackson will miss the start of the year after foot surgery, but the Pistons should take off when he returns.

6. Atlanta (46-36). It will be interesting to see how the Dwight Howard experiment works in Atlanta, because Howard destroyed team chemistry with the Lakers and Rockets. Howard looked good in the preseason, but will he start to pout in a 3-point heavy offense? Former Bull Kyle Korver is still going strong at the age of 35, Kent Bazemore is a better than average two-way wing player and Paul Millsap is an All-Star going into a free agent season. Biggest question for the Hawks: Is Dennis Schroder ready to be the full-time point guard, or did Mike Budenholzer make a mistake by trading Jeff Teague?

7. BULLS (45-37). One thing we know for sure, the Bulls won't be boring this season with the addition of strong-minded veterans Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. Wade seems genuinely excited about playing in his hometown, and Rondo spent all summer at the training facility getting to know head coach Fred Hoiberg and his new teammates. Jimmy Butler will be asked to increase his scoring from his two previous All-Star seasons, and the Bulls are counting on Doug McDermott to emerge as an offensive force off the bench. Robin Lopez will provide an upgrade over injury-plagued Joakim Noah in the middle, and the power forward tandem of Taj Gibson and Niko Mirotic should be solid. If newcomers Michael Carter-Williams and rookie Denzel Valentine can gel quickly as the reserve backcourt duo, the Bulls have the potential to be one of the NBA's biggest surprises.

8. Charlotte (43-39). Hornets coach Steve Clifford is a Tom Thibodeau disciple, emphasizing defense over everything else. Charlotte lost productive veterans Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee in free agency, but the cupboard is hardly bare. Point guard Kemba Walker could make the All-Star team this season, and perimeter players Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams all bring something different to the table. Depth will be the biggest issue with former Bull Marco Belinelli and Chicago-area product Frank Kaminski being asked to provide offense off the bench.

I would like to tell you we should expect some big surprises when we get to the playoffs in mid-April, but it’s hard to envision any team beating Golden State or Cleveland in a best of 7 series. Round 3 between the Warriors and Cavs will find Kevin Durant celebrating his first NBA championship after a Game 6 win at Oracle Arena.