Around the NBA: Bulls measure up to rivals

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Around the NBA: Bulls measure up to rivals

It's still a bit premature to anoint any team as a prohibitive favorite this early in the season, but based on early returns, the Bulls could, at the least, make a case.

Dogged by injuries all season, the Bulls' depth has been on full display, While nothing as extreme as third-string point guard John Lucas III scoring 25 points and nearly notching a triple-double in the absence of Derrick Rose and C.J. Watson--let alone the fact that another member of the backcourt, Rip Hamilton, was also out and Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and fill-in starter Ronnie Brewer were virtual non-factors Wednesday evening--Tom Thibodeau's repeated message that the team "has more than enough to win," even with key players sidelined, has often fulfilled its prophecy.

Defense has been the key for the Bulls and except for a few hiccups--most notably, the loss to Golden State in the second game of the season and a blowout defeat to Atlanta last weekend--Thibodeau's defense has looked to be in midseason form.

Additionally, an emphasis on pushing the ball in transition and the ability of players other than Derrick Rose to contribute scoring on a nightly basis, something that should be even more potent when shooting guard Rip Hamilton returns to health and gets completely comfortable with his new squad, have also been significant in the team's success.

Various teams that were expected to be league powerhouses this season have got off to slower, more uneven starts, as the likes of the Mavericks, Lakers, Knicks, Grizzlies and Celtics have looked disjointed at times, mostly due to having to incorporate multiple new pieces and injuries.

Cohesiveness, with Hamilton being the only new rotation player, is another area where the Bulls have an advantage, along with squads like the Heat, Thunder and surprising 76ers, coached by former Bulls head coach Doug Collins.

While Oklahoma City, despite dealing with the fallout of the on-court argument between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and Miami were supposed to be the cream of the crop, Philadelphia has shocked many observers.

Collins' Sixers are young, athletic, versatile and while they don't offer much in the way of star power, their defensive mindset, unselfishness and a strong bench enable them to compete on a nightly basis and potentially ride their strong start to an Atlantic Division title.

But the team the Bulls have their eye on in the East is the Heat, who dropped their second consecutive overtime contest Wednesday night to the Clippers. While it wouldn't be fair to compare Chicago's decisive victory over former Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro's bunch to the Heat's loss, which took place after "Lob City" had more time to jell, it's worth remembering for the future.

Speaking of L.A., Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant's back-to-back scoring outbursts--48 points to lead the charge against the Suns, followed by 40 points last night in a win over the Jazz--seem like statement games, showing that despite his advancing age and the Lakers being written off by many, the veteran shooting guard doesn't intend to go down without a fight.

It isn't like he hasn't had to carry a team before, but center Andrew Bynum is a lot more experienced this time around and surprisingly, new Lakers head coach Mike Brown's offense hasn't inhibited Bryant's scoring prowess thus far, while still keeping big men Bynum and Pau Gasol involved.

Rose's eye-popping scoring numbers from last season are down early in the campaign--though his assists are up and the Bulls point guard couldn't be happier about it--and if that trend continues, no matter how successful his team is, a repeat MVP season is probably unlikely.

But how many people thought, before the season started, that Bryant would be the early-season favorite to take home those honors?

Morning Update: Dwyane Wade comes up clutch in close win vs. Kings

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AP

Morning Update: Dwyane Wade comes up clutch in close win vs. Kings

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Dwyane Wade gets a little help but saves the day defensively vs. Kings

Dwyane Wade gets a little help but saves the day defensively vs. Kings

It was a gift and the Bulls weren't going to look it in the mouth as Dwyane Wade was poised to finish off another one of his sterling defensive plays with a breakaway dunk with the game tied and Arron Afflalo and DeMarcus Cousins trailing.

Lightly touched by the small of his back by Cousins, Wade miscalculated his liftoff and missed the dunk but was bailed out by the refs for a foul with 14 seconds left.

Then, he bailed the Bulls out.

Wade had his fifth fourth-quarter defensive play, stripping Cousins on a steal on the ensuing possession with the Sacramento Kings having a chance to win, leading to a Michael Carter-Williams dunk and finishing a 102-99 win Saturday night at the United Center.

It was a clock-turning performance for Wade on both ends of the floor, even if his missed dunk is a reminder that he is 35 years old. 

"I took off too far as I look at the instant replay," Wade said. "I should've took maybe one more dribble. Can't say I felt 35, I just took off too far (laughs). But hey, sometimes you get calls, sometimes you don't. I'm a person who hasn't gotten a lot all year so I'm not gonna apologize for nothing."

Stripping Cousins on his spin move was the finale, but he swatted an Arron Afflalo corner triple in the fourth, smothered Ty Lawson at the rim twice for blocked shots to end the third and tortured Lawson again in the fourth for another steal that led to him following up a Jimmy Butler missed layup with a follow and foul.

"Just a read," said Wade on stripping Cousins. "We knew he was gonna go to DeMarcus at that point. Once we forced him left, I knew he had to come back to the right hand. And being in the right place at the right time, the ball was right there for me."

Wade played like a desperate and motivated man, putting up 30 with six rebounds and four assists on the second night of a back-to-back is proof positive he took Friday's loss to Atlanta personally and used his play to back up those feelings.

He took to twitter to apologize for the poor effort against the Hawks, producing his best all-around performance as a Bull.

"We've been good in desperate moments," Wade said. "We haven't been good in non-desperate moments, when we win three in a row or playing a team that we should beat. But (in) the desperate moments I like us."

He scored 13 in the fourth, along with the last of his four blocked shots and all three of his steals took place in the final 12.

"I thought he was terrific," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "He was aggressive all game long, taking the ball to the basket, getting to the line 15 times. He came up with two big plays."

Hoiberg threw out different lineups and rotations, playing Paul Zipser as a sixth man and having the second-round draft pick close the game. Zipser took advantage, hitting three triples and scoring 13 points.

"I thought it was night and day from last night," Hoiberg said. "Our energy was really good all night long. We got just enough stops to find a way to win."

Cousins dominated the game with 42 and 14 rebounds in 35 minutes, the only Kings player in double figures all night.

"He was pretty much unguardable for the majority of the game, Taj did a solid job on him," Hoiberg said. "When Robin was on him, they put him on the perimeter and let him shoot threes. He's a monster."

Back-to-back triples from Cousins gave him 40 and tied the game at 97, as a third one rimmed out with a little under two minutes left.

Cousins dominated the start of the third quarter, hitting midrange jumpers over Lopez and taunting the Bulls bench after hitting a jumper to put the Kings ahead, 70-63 midway through the third.

But the Bulls stayed close, with Hoiberg choosing to sit Rajon Rondo for the second half after playing him six minutes in the second quarter, using Wade as a point guard and going with Carter-Williams for defense, along with Zipser, who didn't look scared of the moment.

"I like the wrinkle coach put in there, putting him in early," Wade said. "He gave him an opportunity and he helped us big time."

Butler scored 23 with seven assists and five rebounds in 39 minutes, didn't have to play the hero for once and made fun of Wade's apology tweet.

"He was due for a big night," Butler said. "He can tweet again if he can come out again and give us 30 and some big steals and big dunks."

"I think that's what called of him, to score baskets and guard. It's kinda sneaky. You never really expect it until it happens."

It looked like the worst was over when the Bulls made a short run to end the third, surviving the onslaught from Cousins — and surviving their own experimenting with Zipser instead of going with Denzel Valentine, switching things up altogether.

But the tone was set by the leaders, who can only manufacture but so much urgency on a nightly basis.

"I like this team when we're desperate," Wade said. "A desperate team, we're not bad."