Whether or not Rose plays, Bulls confident with Watson at the helm


Whether or not Rose plays, Bulls confident with Watson at the helm

BOSTON Derrick Roses status for Sunday afternoons showdown against the rival Celtics is still undetermined, but if he doesnt play, his teammates wont fret. No, C.J. Watson cant equal the reigning league MVPs impact, but as the Bulls 5-1 record without Rose and that one loss, on Martin Luther King Day in Memphis, was Watsons first game back in the lineup after a sprained left-elbow injury attests, the backup point guard is a more than capable replacement.

Watsons mindset when starting for Rose is the same thing when I know hes playing. Go out there and try to be aggressive, try to change the tempo of the game and just push the ball, he said. I can only be myself. I cant be another D-Rose. I have to play my game and do what I do best.

In his first year with the Bulls last season, Watson faced a steep adjustment, in terms of reduced minutes and a completely different style of play after thriving in Golden States run-and-gun system. By the end of the campaign, however, he had earned head coach Tom Thibodeaus trust (in the one game Rose missed last season, with a stiff neck, Watson scored 39 points as a starter in a narrow November loss at Denver, where the Bulls were beaten by a Carmelo Anthony buzzer-beater) and had developed into an astute floor general for the teams potent second unit, The Bench Mob.

Last year he had a really good year. Studying the games from last year, every time we played him extended minutes, he played extremely well. He was terrific in the playoffs. He had a very difficult job last year. He was deserving of more minutes than he got, but he handled short minutes great and hes got great character, and hes a terrific leader, said Thibodeau. Hes done a great job with the second unit, but hes shown he can play with the first unit and when he starts or he plays with Derrick, its just a different weapon we can go to and it gives us multiple pick-and-rolls. It also adds to our shooting, which I thought was a big concern. So, it gives us another three-point shooter on the floor. So, we want to take advantage of that.

Concurred Luol Deng: Were very lucky to have C.J. Hed be starting for a lot of teams. Were not worried when he fills in for Derrick. Were such a deep team that whenever someone goes down, guys are just stepping up and doing a great job.

The soft-spoken, but quietly confident Watson himself acknowledged that hes taken his game up a notch this season and has accepted his role, knowing that its often tough to shine when playing behind the leagues MVP.

This season has been better. Im just trying to go in and play better, play well while Im in and do what I can, and just hope for the best, he said. Watson brings everything, a lot of different stuff to the table. Playing out there sometimes with D-Rose, just trying to up the tempo when Im in the game, make open threes, get to the basket if Im open.

Thibodeau has gone more frequently to a dual point-guard set with Rose and Watson as of late, allowing the Bulls to match up better with smaller teams, as well as push the pace.

Its a good option to have because its a different look. So, we can do it defensively to match up with two point guards and we can do it offensively to add some things that we like, to add more three-point shooting to the floor, more multiple pick-and-rolls, things of that nature. I like it and theyve shown that theyve can play very effectively together, said the coach. In transition, its either or as far as who handles the ball, but Derrick is usually the primary guy, but sometimes its good for C.J. to handle and let Derrick catch off a live ball because its different. It puts, I think, more pressure on the guy guarding Derrick.

Explained Watson: Its fun to play with Derrick, to get out there and run, and get a lot of easy spot-ups with him. Theres a lot of attention on him and its good that we look to get out on the fast break and run when we get the rebound.

Its less pressure to do more stuff and create for yourself, and your teammates. With another point guard with Derrick out there its a lot easier, he continued. Most of the time, he handles it and if the ball comes to me or if I get the rebound, I push it and try to get it to him or whoevers running the break with me.

We just decide on defensive assignments while on the court. It really doesnt matter. Mostly, I guard the point guard and he guards the two-guard. It just depends on foul trouble.

In Roses view, the smaller lineup frees him up to be even more of a scorer, though his opinion of who handles the ball more differs from that of Thibodeau and Watson.

C.J., when hes in, my job is usually spot up or driving to the hole because he handles the ball the majority of the time or hes coming off pick-and-roll and I can spot up, and shoot the ball. But I love playing with someone that can handle the ball, he said. Its weird. It feels weird sometimes, knowing that I dont have to come back to get the ball after we get the rebound. I can just run down the court and get in our play sets a little bit early.

While Thibodeaus been pleased with how Watson has run the show, his teammates are happy with how the shoot-first point guard has been distributing the ball and his defense has also rung up accolades, the Las Vegas native is himself disappointed in one part of his game. Prior to last Wednesdays blowout win over the Hornets, Watson was shooting 49.1 percent from three-point range, but since then coincidentally, just as a push to get him in the leagues All-Star weekend three-point contest began although hes played well in other aspects of the game, hes been ice-cold from deep.

My agent pushed it first and ever since then, I havent hit a three, so Im just going to stop. No more Tweeting it for me, no mentioning, so Im just going to shoot the ball, he joked. After that, it was downhill.

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.