Short-handed Bulls ready for surprising Hawks

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Short-handed Bulls ready for surprising Hawks

One of the most impressive teams thus far in the NBA season has been the Bulls opponent Tuesday, the Hawks. Atlanta, who are 4-1 after Monday nights remarkable comeback win at Miami, didnt drastically remake their roster following a second-round playoff ouster at the hands of Chicago last spring, but some subtle changes, particularly the addition of former All-Star Tracy McGrady, have sparked a nice start to the young campaign.

Theyre a tough team. Theyre playing as well as anyone in the league. Theyre deep. Joe Johnson, their bigs power forward Josh Smith and All-Star center Al Horford are versatile, quick. Marvin Williams gets overlooked all the time; hes a tough matchup. Former Bull Jannero Pargos playing well for them, Willie Green, forward Vladimir Radmanovic is a range shooter. Backup center Zaza Pachulias a real tough, hard-nosed big. Theyre really good, said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, who coached McGrady -- who scored 16 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter, against the Heat -- in Houston. McGrady is a great player, has been a great player in the league for a long time. He was derailed some by injury the last couple years, but hes a complete player. Everyone always talks about his scoring; I think the best part of his game is his decision-making. Great pick-and-roll player, great passer, hes got the size, hes got great vision, extremely smart and like I said, the only thing that slowed him down was his injuries. This guy put up huge numbers in the league and theres nothing he cant do. He can play defense, he can pass, he can shoot, he can post, he can pick-and-roll.

Added Bulls swingman Ronnie Brewer: I wouldnt say that he lost it. He was battling injuries; thats the only thing that I can put a finger on. Hes been a playmaker his whole entire career, a prolific scorer. He may not be able to drop 30 points per game like he used to, but he can definitely still put the ball in the basket, so we have to give him a lot of attention.

Brewer acknowledged that he was aware of the Hawks win over the Heat the previous night, but insisted that it didnt sway the teams opinion of Atlanta.

In my opinion, anybody can win a game or lose a game. I dont see anybody going 66-0 this year, so when a team loses, you dont say, Oh, thats the team to beat, because they beat a team thats got a lot of talent, like the Miami Heat, said Brewer, who scored 17 points, along with snatching seven rebounds and doling out five assists in the Bulls New Years Day rout over visiting Memphis. You have to take every opponent seriously. I think Thibs prepares us for that, night in and night out, and we just have to ready for that, so theyre definitely on our radar.

Brewer may start in place of the injured Rip Hamilton again Tuesday, as Thibodeau said the shooting guard, who suffered a groin injury against the Clippers in L.A. last week and sat out of the Grizzlies win, will be a game-time decision.

Rip did some shooting today, said Thibodeau. If he feels better, then well make the decision.

An injured Bulls guard who definitely won't play Tuesday, C.J. Watson, had an MRI on his sprained left elbow, suffered while diving for a loose ball Sunday, after Monday afternoons practice. Thibodeau was cautiously optimistic about the backup point guard's progress.

C.J., hes day-to-day, basically. His injury, theres no surgery involved. Basically, once we can get the swelling out and the pain subsides, then hell be ready to go, said the coach, who said Watson wasnt wearing the sling he was seen sporting after Sundays game on a full-time basis anymore. Hes a pretty tough guy, so I expect him to be back fairly shortly.

I think the fact that its also his left elbow, I think that helps, so we were fortunate in that regard, continued Thibodeau, who said it hasnt been decided yet whether Watson will travel to Detroit with the team after Tuesdays game, in case the flight could aggravate his elbow. His legs are fine, so he can ride the bike. He can do all that stuff.

Replacing Watson as Derrick Roses primary understudy will be third-stringer John Lucas III, who Thibodeau is familiar with from coaching with the Rockets, as well as coaching under Lucas father, a former NBA player and coach.

I have a lot of confidence in John. Hes already demonstrated that he can do it. He did it for the Rockets when I was there, played well in stretches. He stays ready and prepares himself well, smart player, so I expect him to do well, said Thibodeau. John, whenever hes been called upon, hes done well. C.J. was playing at an extremely high level. C.J.s size, of course, allows him to play multiple positions. C.J. gives you a lot of versatility.

However, Thibodeau noted that the Bulls could opt to use Brewer at the position on occasion while Watson is sidelined.

Actually, we did that quite a bit at the end of last year, where we used Ronnie handling the ball and brought Derrick off screens and Ronnies done it some in practice, too, so its another option that we have, he said.

Concurred Brewer: In our offense, if somebody gets the rebound, if its the big guys throwing it to Lu or myself, were able to push the ball, initiate the offense and kind of go from there, so if need be, if D-Rose needs a break, I can definitely initiate the offense and off that.

Brewer, whos got off to a strong start to the season in his role as a reserve with the cohesive Bench Mob, explained that his health has been the key to his improved play, which has featured him finishing opportunities in transition and getting to the basket as both a cutter and off the dribble, as well as knocking down open mid-range jumpers and even shots from beyond the three-point arc.

To me, its a huge confidence shift. Last year, I came in here with a lot of high hopes, with an opportunity to try to win the starting job and tweaked his hamstring right before working out here, and had to try to work my way into shape, learning the plays and its a different speed, playing with D-Rose and the level of defense that Thibs preaches. It kind of takes a little getting used to, but this years a little different. I came in a lot better shape, healthy, working on my shot and just been playing with a lot of confidence so far, he said. D-Rose gets a lot of attention, Booz gets a lot of attention and especially Lu, when he cuts, and whenever they make the pass, youve got to knock down shots for them to keep dishing the ball, so thats all Ive been trying to do.

Its still early; its not like Ive accomplished so much. Ive still got to get better every day. Thats why I continue to work with Coach Griff Bulls assistant coach Adrian Griffin, Brewer continued. Thats what youve got to continue to do in this league, so if I have a shot, Ive got to continue to shoot it with confidence and if I do that, my teammates will continue to find me.

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott wasn’t exactly hunting for his first shot, but the first time he touched the ball in an NBA game in nearly a month wasn’t the optimal situation for him to let one fly.

It wasn’t in transition where he runs to an opening behind the 3-point line, nor was it a drive-and-kick situation where the help defense collapsed and left him open. It was a regular, simple, pass to the perimeter and McDermott’s defender was in reasonable proximity with 3:23 left in the first quarter.

He launched and the crowd soon roared its approval as his sweet jumper was sorely missed by the Bulls bench brigade—and moments later when he ran the floor for a fearless layup that caused Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to call a timeout, McDermott showed he missed the United Center crowd too, calling for more noise on his way to the bench.

“Anytime you have a guy like Doug, he comes back and makes his first 3, that’s hard to do,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He stepped up with confidence on that first shot. I’m sure he had a lot of nerves getting back out there.”

Missing 12 games and suffering two concussions, McDermott looked right at home in 25 minutes of run Thursday as the Bulls were able to rely on their reserves in some form in their 95-91 win over the previously perfect road warriors known as the Spurs.

“We defended and kept them off the foul line,” McDermott said. “Coach (Jim) Boylen was with them, so we feel we know them and I think all this time they were missing my defense.”

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The last statement was certainly tongue-in-cheek, but the Bulls’ bench production was certainly missing in action while he was out with the concussion protocol. So much so that his return prompted the Bulls’ coaching staff to call out the reserves in the morning shootaround, demanding more.

“It’s definitely Dwyane (Wade) and Jimmy (Butler) and (Rajon) Rondo (but) the coaching staff kinda called out our bench like, we gotta have you tonight, bench,” McDermott said. “We took that to heart, we were really locked in.”

Seemingly his presence aided the Bulls’ spirits and production, as the Bulls’ bench had the least effective scoring bench in the NBA since Nov. 13, the day after McDermott hit the unforgiving floor against the Wizards for his second concussion this season.

Their net rating ranks ahead of only the Wizards, Mavericks and Nets, who are a combined 17-45 this season. Their effective field goal percentage, which takes into account 3-pointers, is worst in the league in that span (42.3 percent).

When McDermott was healthy for that smaller sample size, the Bulls’ bench ranked fifth in offensive efficiency, seventh in net rating, and fifth in efficient field goal percentage. Whether McDermott – and his absence – was directly related to those numbers, it’s clear the Bulls are better when they have their best reserve – and only true floor spacers on the second unit – on the court.

“We’re all professionals and we want to help the guys who are busting their butts in the first unit to get us the leads,” McDermott said. “Tonight we did a great job of sustaining it. We take it personal when teams come back on us.”

[MORE: Pau Gasol relishes consistency with Spurs he couldn't find with Bulls]

Nikola Mirotic was four of eight from the field, and Cristiano Felicio seems to be back in Fred Hoiberg’s good graces as he’s carved out a rotation spot for himself with nine points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes.

It seems as if Hoiberg will stick with this rotation of players, at least for a little while until Michael Carter-Williams returns from his injuries. If McDermott is the mark of the Bulls’ bench going from bottom feeder to adequate, it should show this month.

“When he’s out there on the floor and we get him coming off screens, it forces the defense to shift as another person they need to be aware of,” Hoiberg said. “It opens up driving lanes for our guys. It was great to have Doug back with us.”

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

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