Bulls go punchless against Knicks

Bulls go punchless against Knicks

NEW YORK — Explaining a rhyme or reason to the Bulls season is like figuring out what the Knicks’ plan is for the long-term, or playing trivia on where players like Maurice Ndour and Mindaugas Kuzminskas went to school.

But those were the players taking the Bulls to school, when the Bulls were the ones who apparently had something to play for, when they came in on a season-high four game winning streak.

Like most other times when the Bulls had quick highs, the lows came hard and fast as the New York Knicks completed a season sweep of the Bulls with a 100-91 win at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night.

In position to actually come within a game of the Milwaukee Bucks for fifth seed in the East, they played like they’d rather be in Bora Bora come April 13 with a woeful performance that seemingly stretched all night.

They broke trends they established during the win streak such as 3-point shooting and dominating the glass, getting beat by a 53-36 margin on the boards and shooting six of 23 from the 3-point line.

The rebound disparity caused the usually-mild Fred Hoiberg to unleash an expletive in his postgame media session.

“Tonight we just got our asses kicked on the boards and you’re not going to win when you have an effort like that,” Hoiberg said. “Look at the numbers on the glass, that tells you everything you need to know. They had their way with us. It’s not how you win games.”

After trading baskets to start the game, the offense slowed to a crawl and the Bulls didn’t fall back on their defense to keep them in it.

“We gotta let our defense lead to our offense instead of our offense go to our defense,” said Jimmy Butler, who led the Bulls with 26 points and four assists. “It looks good when we’re making shots, but you can’t rely on that every single night like you want to. You gotta guard, rebound, get loose balls.”

The Bulls shot 38 percent, a number that was inflated by a late comeback that made the game look respectable—although they didn’t perform like a team that respected its opponent.

“We didn’t come out with the fire we needed to,” Butler said. “They came out like they were playing for something and we didn’t. They whipped our tail in every aspect of the game.”

Yes, Carmelo Anthony returned after an injury and contributed 18 points, including a highlight-reel crossover on Nikola Mirotic and triple from 30 feet, but it was more of the lesser-known Knicks who delivered the blows to the Bulls.

Like Kuzminskas, who probably gave Hoiberg a conniption on the sideline with his easy drive past Bobby Portis and dunk over Joffrey Lauvergne in the third quarter.

Like Ndour, who trapped and agitated and ran the floor to the tune of 12 points and 10 rebounds—only playing because the Knicks want to get an extended look of their young players, as playoff possibilities are far out of reach.

Or Justin Holiday, who took the place of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah as former Bulls who came back to torture their former teams. Holiday was only a Bull for a short time before being shipped with Rose to New York right before the draft but fit the bull of young and athletic, scoring 12 off the bench.

With the last four games against teams like the Knicks—out of the playoffs and giving players an opportunity to prove themselves, the Bulls can’t let their guard down if they hope to play beyond 82 games.

“The next three teams we play are gonna play as hard as any team in the league,” Hoiberg said. “They’re gonna play free, they’re gonna play loose. We gotta come prepared and we gotta come ready.”

And an old bugaboo reared its head again, as Robin Lopez pointed to a lack of accountability on the defensive end.

“It’s an accountability issue. We gotta stay on each other’s backs,” Lopez said. “Keep reminding each other how important each one of these individual games are.”

But given they’ve been at this exercise since October, expecting the light to magically appear doesn’t seem realistic.

“That’s a very good point. We’ve been up and down all season long and that’s when you want to build good habits,” Lopez said. “We’ve done a good job holding each other accountable this past stretch and we didn’t see that tonight. It’s something we have to keep up as we go into the playoffs—if we go into the playoffs.”

The second quarter was as bad a display of basketball as you’ll see, given the plight of the Knicks and the alleged newfound life that had been on display from the Bulls. Perhaps the fatigue played a part but if fatigue could talk, it would tell the Bulls not to use him as a scapegoat as they played their third game in four nights.

Butler even had his moments, although he tried to bring the Bulls back from the dead in the second half.  But Paul Zipser went scoreless and Rajon Rondo was a minus-21 when he was on the floor. Denzel Valentine went scoreless, missing his six shots.

Whenever you think you have a handle on these Bulls and they’ve found something, an old layer revealed itself and you feel silly for believing anything, one way or the other.

Dwyane Wade would like clarity on Bulls' direction before making decision

Dwyane Wade would like clarity on Bulls' direction before making decision

If there’s one thing that’s been in short order for the Bulls over the last year or so, clarity would be first on the list.

So Dwyane Wade would certainly like to have a little of that before heading into the summer of evaluating his place with the franchise and whether or not he’ll pick up his $23.8 million option for next season.

The Bulls’ front office signed players like Wade and Rajon Rondo last summer for the “now”, and then traded dependable veteran Taj Gibson for the “future”, along with management’s repeated flirtations with the prospect of trading Jimmy Butler for the last two years.

The only thing consistent about the Bulls’ front office strategy has been the inconsistency and their desire to have flexibility in the future. For the now, they’ve positioned themselves to have flexibility to go in one direction or the other, to be contenders or hit the button on a rebuild that could take years to recover from.

Wade has called his experience a mostly positive one, although there’s been some hiccups in his return home to Chicago. After Friday night’s series-ending loss to the Boston Celtics, Wade called it a “weird season” and seemed to echo the same big picture feelings Saturday.

He also seemed to shoot down the thought of being a prime recruiter for the franchise even if he does opt-in, considering his role in bringing LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Miami to help the Heat win two championships and get to the NBA Finals in each of the four seasons they were together.

“It happened at a time in Miami where it just so happened one of my good friends is one of the best players to ever play the game of basketball on the planet (James),” he said. “This is now. It's a different time. It's all about the picture that's presented to everyone here and what the goal and future is gonna look like. It's not just about, 'oh we have Dwyane'. Dwyane ain't gonna play that much longer, not forever.”

Wade had five 30-point games in 59 games this season, being on pace to play 71 before breaking bones in his right elbow in mid-March. His numbers weren’t too dissimilar from last year in Miami, with the exception of more 3-point attempts at the urging of the roster construction.

Repeating that type of performance in Year 15 is feasible, one would think, even if he’s closer to the finish line than starting blocks.

“If I could say anything, if there’s one word I could pull out it’s just different,” Wade said. “I expected it to be different. I only played in one organization my entire career, but the biggest thing is I came here and I was embraced. Not only by the city, by up top. I was embraced by the coaches, the players, and it was some good moments and some bad moments, just like every season. But I don’t regret my decision at all.”

Wade has at least a month or so before he believes he has to truly think about what he’ll do, and let management know that in exit interviews at the Advocate Center Saturday afternoon.

“We just talked face to face and touched bases,” Wade said. “We really left it at as we would touch base in a few weeks. No matter where I’m at in the world, we’ll fly and meet somewhere and talk about it.”

Somewhere, he’ll also have a conversation with the player he came to Chicago to pair with in Butler, as one can’t help but think their futures are inextricably tied. If Butler goes in some trade, one would think Wade wouldn’t be gung-ho about signing back on to play with Romper Room.

Being on a team where he’s not as depended on nightly for it to be successful could factor in, as he was the second-best player behind Butler. One wonders if he would be better served as the third-best option or even fourth—meaning he would likely be on a team contending for a championship if he were to fall on the pecking order.

“I have a great luxury. I don't need to ring chase, but I can,” Wade said. “It's a great luxury to have if I want to do. Or I can be a part of passing down my knowledge to younger players. It's either way. Whatever I decide, I'm going to embrace whatever role I have on a team. That's sometimes being the second option. Sometimes I'm going to be the first. And sometimes this season, I had to be the third or fourth.”

[MORE: BullsTalk Podcast - Top-seeded Celtics too much to handle for Bulls]

Considering he’ll be 36 next January with 14 years of NBA wear and tear on his body, that paycheck might not be enough to keep him around.

“Well, obviously it is a Dwyane Wade decision. Jimmy is, you know, a huge component in me being here. You know, what’s his future like? But at the end of the day it is a me decision,” Wade said. “But everyone knows that Jimmy’s my guy, and I’m here because of our conversation [last summer]. But a lot of it depends on the whole big picture. Not just one piece. Jimmy’s a big piece, but it’s a big picture as an organization. Just want to make sure we’re all on the same page.’’

But on the other side, he also arrived in Chicago due to perceived disrespect from a Miami Heat franchise that didn’t pay him what he deemed worthy. Opting out after one year of a big deal to face an unknown market is a risk considering the salary sacrifices he made with the Heat.

“I don’t really go with the signs, I’m not a predictable person, I don’t think,” Wade said. “I don’t know. It’s not a bad thing for me. I’m in a good situation. Whether there’s a lot of options or not, I’m in a very good situation. As a player, you can decide what you want to do. And I have a lot of money to decide if I want to take it or not. It’s not a bad thing, because I worked my butt of for it over my career, so no rush in my mind.”

That’s where the clarity comes in, as Wade indicated the front office said it wants a clear path moving forward. On a team that had so many young players thrust into prominent positions then shuffled out of them, one wonders if they’ll pick a few to grow with and then try to replace the rest with veteran reinforcements to maximize Butler’s prime and Wade’s time.

Either way, the limbo is a bit old, it seems from all parties involved.

“Yeah, we definitely talked. We said it to each other. I think they want a defined vision and view of where they're going too,” Wade said. “And as players, with player options, you want that too. I want that. I want it smack dead in my face. Of how it's gonna be. And from them, too. What their thought of my role or position could be here. All of it. It's not just one-sided. It's definitely from both sides.”

“I look forward to the opportunity where we sit down and have that face to face about what both sides wanna to do. Either way it goes, whether it’s me here, not here, it'll be something that's mutually talked about. I'm a firm believer in talking to people, and I will never make a decision and not tell them I'm making a decision, whether I come back or not, I'll definitely talk to those guys and be very open about where my mind is and what I'm thinking and I want them to be the same way.”

Communication was a big part of the Wade experience this season, whether he returns or not. He seemed to be more invested than people would’ve expected earlier in the season, before the Jan. 25 loss to the Atlanta Hawks where the Bulls blew a 10-point lead in the final three minutes.

Wade and Butler called out their teammates in the postgame, followed by Rondo crafting an Instagram post the next day calling out Wade and Butler. It was a firestorm of the worst kind.

Some would’ve called it necessary considering Wade’s standing in the league but the Bulls believed otherwise, fining Wade and Butler and then benching the two the next game against Miami.

It seemed to sting Wade, who believed his opinions were valued by the organization because of his experience, and that type of pushback had never happened to him in Miami.

“As a player, obviously I want to use my voice the way I want to use it,” Wade said. “As an organization, they didn’t appreciate the way that it was said _ not what I said, but the way I said it. As I told Gar, I respect the decision on whatever they decided to do. I respected it, just like what I decided to do when I said what I said. My biggest thing with my message was just wanting to _ you can always look back on it and say, yeah, I could have done this, I could have done it differently.”

He tried to laugh it off in his media session but it clearly bothered him, at least in hindsight.

“You’ve got young guys, their whole career is in front of them,” Wade said. “I do things a certain way. I’ve done it in Miami. It’s just the way it is. I would do it again if I’m put in that position. But I respected their decision to fine me. I didn’t like the benching part. But I definitely respected their decision to fine me. It’s their organization. And what they decide from at the top, you live with it.”

But the difference between how Wade saw things and the young players dealing with inconsistencies was a direct result of how the team was put together and the fact the Bulls had a young coach in Fred Hoiberg who’s still learning his voice.

His level of patience in any process—even franchise purgatory—has to be speculated about. Most believe he wants to play two more years and evaluate his career from there.

“Losing, like I said, it’s never easy, especially when you’ve won championships before. Whenever you lose it always sucks, but you sit back and reflect on the positive, you look at the things that came out of it, and there’s always some good, more than bad. When you’re playing basketball for money at the top level, it’s not all bad. I definitely don’t regret my decision of being here this season.’’

After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective

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USA TODAY

After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective

Championship moments rarely occur in the first round. With a playoff format that drags the postseason out for more than two months, with playoff series taking as long as two weeks, the second season feels like just that. It’s far too early to say what exactly Friday night in Chicago will mean for the top-seeded Celtics, but a sense of a team coming together under unfathomable circumstances may prove to be the turning point in a season that a week ago appeared hanging by a thread.

It happened in three parts.

On the floor the Celtics looked every bit the part of a 51-win team that edged out LeBron’s Cavs for the top spot in the East. Brad Stevens’ small-ball approach came full-circle as the Boston guards lived in the paint against the Bulls, kicking out to open shooters for 16 3-pointers that helped the Celtics put away the game (and series) midway through the third quarter.

Avery Bradley starred for a second consecutive night, tallying 23 points while making Jimmy Butler work for his, while eight different Celtics hit a 3-pointer and the team shot 49 percent. For the first time in the series the Celtics looked dominant, like a team poised to contend with the Cavaliers for supremacy in the East.

“It felt good to play Celtic basketball again,” Avery Bradley said. “We were all smiling, having fun, and that’s what it’s supposed to be. That’s how hard we worked this entire year, to play that type of basketball.”

Isaiah Thomas was naturally somber much of the series. The well-documented death of his 22-year-old sister put a damper on the series before it began, and the MVP candidate understandably chose not to address it on the few occassions he spoke with the media. But Thomas looked more like himself as the series went on. Not only did his numbers improve, he appeared more vocal after made baskets, laughed off trash talk from Bulls point guard Isaiah Canaan, and engineered the Celtics' offense to near-perfection.

His defining moment came late in the third quarter with the Celtics nearing a 30-point lead. After a hard foul he gathered his four teammates in a huddle near the baseline and shouted that the series for the Bulls was "a wrap for these m------------!" This was the same player who two weeks earlier was brought to tears prior to Game 1, and who will bury his sister on Saturday in Tacoma, Washington. Under unthinkable circumstances, Thomas averaged 23.0 points and 5.7 assists in 34.8 minutes in the series.

“I feel like he has grown,” Al Horford said. "And we all have in a way with all the adversity that has gone on. It could have easily gone the other way, but I feel like especially tonight when we got the game in hand, in control, we all just kept on repeating to stay focused to keep it going, keep pushing. We didn’t want to give them any life and we were a focused group and we were enjoying the moment.”

Thomas' journey won't get easier. He'll have another short turnaround to get ready for Sunday's second-round matchup against the Celtics. But like his teammates did in Games 3 and 4, when Thomas flew by himself to Chicago following his return home to Tacoma to mourn with his family, they'll have another opporuntity to grow closer. Brad Stevens kept an incredible perspective on the situation throughout the series, and applauded his team for doing the same while still fighting for wins.

"Bigger things than basketball happened, and that took precedent and it takes precdedent," he said. "I was really proud of our guys for how they treated each other, how they stood together, stuck together. And how nobody pointed fingers, they were just a great support for one another, especially Isaiah."

When Thomas does return, and when the Celtics gear up for their next postseason journey, expectations will have remained the same. Though the Wizards were one of the league's best teams in the second half, and with John Wall and Bradley Beal playing on another level, it'll take more performances like Friday night - both on the court and collectively staying together - for Boston to advance. A 2-0 hole against the Wizards will feel a whole lot different than it did against the Bulls.

That sort of letdown doesn't feel like it will happen again. Though no one would have wished such tragedy to force it, the Celtics came together at a critical moment and came out better for it. Their work isn't done, and they know it. But the way they were able to handle the adversity in Round 1, anything seems possible for Stevens, Thomas the top seed in the East.

"We just try to stay the course in the day-to-day. And if that results in us winning more games or winning in the playoffs, or whatever the case may be, there’s only one goal in the Boston," Stevens said. "Seventeen (NBA championship) banners above us. We don’t have a choice. We only shoot for one thing there."