Bulls looking to right ship after two-game losing streak

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Bulls looking to right ship after two-game losing streak

Following Wednesday afternoons practice, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau was in high spirits, almost chipper. Perhaps it was because the basketball junkie finally had a chance to see his full roster practice, but his mood was in sharp contrast to the negative vibe emitting from him after Mondays home loss to Houston.

Our team needed it. We havent a lot of opportunity to practice, so it gave us a chance to clean up some things and hopefully itll carry over tomorrow, he said. Offensively, we havent been scoring the way we would like and its probably a compilation of things. Were playing low energy, so weve got to try to get some easier baskets. Now, weve shot the three fairly well, so thats been a plus, but overall, we havent shot well and were in a little bit of a lull. Hopefully the two days off will be good for us.

We feel great about our depth and weve got some guys who are nicked up in the backcourt, and theyre playing, but we do have good depth and sometimes you go through stretches where youre not shooting it well, and hopefully your defense and your rebounding will carry you through that, he continued. I thought the big thing in the last game was the whole year weve been a very good low-turnover team, but the Houston game we turned it over 19 times for 25 points. That really lost us the game.

Thats contrary to the message he sent Monday.

No edge, no defense, Thibodeau said after the Bulls blew a 15-point lead to lose to the Rockets at the United Center. I felt like we let go of the rope. Usually, were a team that has shown great fight all year, great resolve. Get down, fight back, never let go of the rope. The last two games, I felt we let go of the rope. We have to get that fight back. We have to get that edge back. Right now, were not playing well. We have to work our way out of it.

Its collective. Were capable of playing much better. The one thing I know about this league is things change quickly, both from good to bad and bad to good. We have a Boston team thats coming in and playing great. At this time of the year, you have teams playing with great urgency. Houston played a great game. They played hard. They fought. Theyre fighting for a playoff spot. Every night when you come in, you have to be ready to fight. People are playing for things. You relax, let your guard down, youre going to get knocked on your ass. Thats the way it is, he continued. If you do three things -- defend, rebound, keep your turnovers down -- youre going to be in position to win regardless of how you shoot. Right now, were bogged down scoring. If we do those other three things, well be in position to win. But were not defending, were turning it over and were not scoring. You cant win like that. We have to correct that. Thats the first step. We have to get that down.

His players didnt deny that the team is currently in a malaise.

I don't think we let go of the rope, but anytime we lose two in a row, questions creep in. Look, the only way we're going to get out of it is us. We fix it ourselves, We put ourselves in this great season and we're going to finish with it a great season. It's up to us to fix it, said Carlos Boozer. We'll figure it out.

Added Luol Deng: We've got to get back to the way we play, just find ways to win. We're not doing that right now.

It's a lot of things throughout the game that we've got to look at. The first thing is always defensively, but it's a lot of stuff, a lot of things we've got to go back, see what we're not doing and try to get back to what we do.

We just didn't bring it. There's still games left in the season to try to fix it. We know where we want to get to and what we want to do. It's definitely something that you don't want to go through, but we've got to turn it around as fast as possible," he continued. "We've got enough guys in here to win. We've proven that. We've got guys that can play. Guys have stepped up all year. Teams are going through the same schedule as us, so it's not that Rose being out. They've got guys out, too. Derrick's a big part of what we do, but we've still got enough guys in here to win games. If we lost every game with the injuries that we've had, then we would say that, but we've beaten good teams.

We can't wait for him to be back.

Thibodeau agreed that Roses ongoing 11-game absence the All-Star point guard could return in the Bulls next game isnt the reason for the teams slide.

To me, thats the convenient excuse. At this time of the year, you can say injuries. You can say condensed schedule. I dont know, what else is there? Back-to back, four in five, three in a row? The fact of the matter is we lost the last two games because of our mistakes. Not because of injuries. Not because of Derrick. Not because of any of that, he explained. The guys we have have shown we have more than enough to win with. We can fall back. But every team in the league is dealing with injuries and the same schedule. We have to have a determination that were going to get it done regardless of the what the circumstances are. The teams that succeed in this league find a way to win. And thats what we have to do.

Overall, however, theres no reason to push the panic button. After a 62-win regular season a year ago and having the leagues best record for the majority of this campaign, its easy to get spoiled, but the fact that people are up in arms about the Bulls simply losing two games in a row is a testament to just how good this team has been.

One could view Sundays embarrassing loss at Oklahoma City as especially concerning the fact that Thibodeau tinkered with his starting lineup (inserting Kyle Korver and bringing Ronnie Brewer off the bench to match up with Thunder sixth-man extraordinaire James Harden) was surprising, even considering the matchup, for the by-the-book coach and not giving a full effort against Houston was another mild shock, but in the course of an NBA season, things happen. To Brewer, the answer to the Bulls problems is simple.

We just have to get a sense of urgency. We've only got so many games left. Miami's right on our butt and if we don't start to play better, we're going to lose home court, so that's very important to us. You never want to lose a game, especially two, he said. We've just got to play better. We've been rebounding pretty well, but we're not making teams miss and the rebounding goes out of the window. That's one of the things that have made us successful all year long -- dominating the boards, getting stops and getting into our offense.

Not to take anything away from Houston, but the way we've been playing all year and last year, if we play our style of our basketball, play hard and cut down on all the mistakes, we're supposed to win games like this, so whenever you lose to a team you're capable of beating, it's always a little tough, Brewer, back in a reserve role with Rip Hamiltons return to the lineup, continued. We didn't play our best basketball against the Thunder, so you try to wipe that game out and come back Monday and try to play better, but unfortunately, we didn't.

Still, it isnt as if the Bulls are suddenly a middle-of-the-pack team, fighting for their playoff lives and with the rival Heat also enduring their own struggles and even the mighty Thunder dropping a game Tuesday night, its just that time of the year where title contenders especially those missing their best player might not look as dominant when matched up with squads in need of simply qualifying for the postseason. Brewer reasoned that losing two games shouldnt put people in a frenzy.

It's not the end of the world. We still have a lot of games left. I don't think we're going to have a demise and we're not going to make the playoffs. We need to continue to get better, continue to work on things and turn it around sooner than later, the backup swingman said. When you lose games, you can look at everything. You can say we didn't shoot a high percentage from the three, we gave up a high a field-goal percentage, you can say we missed free throws, you can say we didn't get defensive stops. You can point a lot of different things in a loss.

Everybody plays the same amount of games. Everybody's has back-to-back-to-backs, everybody's had back-to-backs, four in five nights, so to say the short season with a lot of games and guys are getting tired, to me, that's an excuse, Brewer went on to say. We play basketball. We get paid fairly well to do it, so you find a way to fight through and continue to play at your highest level. There's stretches where you don't play your best basketball -- you miss shots -- but effort should never be one of the things that is not there.

NBA Buzz: 2017 Draft could be the best in more than a decade

NBA Buzz: 2017 Draft could be the best in more than a decade

If you've been watching the NCAA Tournament closely, it's apparent this June's draft will include a number of elite prospects, maybe the best top 10 talent since the LeBron, Melo, Bosh, Wade draft in 2003. 

Washington didn't qualify for the tournament, but NBA scouts seem to be in agreement that Washington point guard Markelle Fultz will be the No. 1 pick. The 6-foot-4 freshman has the size and ball-handling ability to play either guard spot, and word out of Boston is Fultz will be the pick if the Celtics get the first choice in the draft lottery.

UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball put on quite a show in the Bruins' win over Cincinnati on Sunday, finishing with 19 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. The 6-foot-6 Ball reminds scouts of a young Jason Kidd, showing amazing court vision and passing skills with the size to see over the top of smaller defenders. And don't caught up in his unusual shooting form. Ball can knock down shots, hitting almost 56 percent from the field this season and 42 percent beyond the 3-point line.

The other consensus top-3 prospect is Kansas small forward Josh Jackson. The 6-foot-8 Jackson is an Andrew Wiggins clone who has amazing quickness and finishing ability. Jackson improved his draft stock with a sensational performance in the first two games of the tournament. If the Bulls decide to trade Jimmy Butler in a deal for one of the top picks this June, the rangy 20-year-old Jackson would be an ideal replacement. If he ever gets a consistent jump shot, look out. We could be talking about a 25 points per game scorer.

Since Fultz, Ball and Jackson appear to be the kind of players NBA teams build around, the Bulls could potentially negotiate with the teams holding the top 3 picks for the best possible Butler deal. Right now, the Nets (pick will be swapped with Boston), Lakers and Suns own the worst records, and if the order isn't changed by the lottery, the Bulls could obtain a quality package centered around this year's first-round pick and a quality young player from any of the three teams.

Here's a look at how the lottery selections could fall based on the draft order as of March 23.

1. CELTICS (from Brooklyn)  Markelle Fultz  PG   Washington
2. LAKERS                              Lonzo Ball        PG    UCLA
3. SUNS                                  Josh Jackson   SF    Kansas
4. MAGIC                                Jayson Tatum   SF     Duke
5. 76'ers                                  De'Aaron Fox     PG    Kentucky
6. KINGS                                  Malik Monk         SG    Kentucky
7. KNICKS                               Dennis Smith      PG   N. Carolina St.
8. TIMBERWOLVES              Lauri Markkanen  PF    Arizona
9. KINGS (from Pelicans)       Frank Ntilikina      PG    France
10. MAVS                                 Miles Bridges    SF    Michigan St.
11. HORNETS                         Jonathan Isaac   SF    Florida St.
12. BLAZERS                          Justin Jackson   SF    N. Carolina
13. PISTONS                           John Collins      PF     Wake Forest       
14. BULLS                                OG Anunoby     SG-SF   Indiana  

Alright Bulls fans, I'm sure you're asking, why would the Bulls want to draft a player coming off a serious knee injury? Well, the Bulls haven't done all that well drafting productive older players from major programs, so why not roll the dice on a 19-year-old who could develop into the next Butler?

Scouts raved about Anunoby's potential heading into his sophomore season at Indiana. At 6-foot-8, Anunoby has good positional size to play both the small forward and shooting guard spots and figures to be a plus-defender from Day 1 in the NBA. Right now, his rehab from right knee surgery and lack of a consistent jump shot are the biggest concerns, but looking at mock drafts in the 13-20 range, do the Bulls really want to take a project big man or a mystery international player? 

Even if it takes a couple years for Anunoby to reach his ultimate potential, he seems like a good choice in today's position-less NBA. Plus, in the Bulls' current position, they need to take some chances and try to get lucky in landing a future star.

Two other athletic possibilities who are projected as late 1st round picks right now are SMU junior swingman Semi Ojeleye, a 6-foot-7 bundle of energy and muscle who should be able to contribute right away, and Oklahoma St. point guard Jawun Evans, one of the fastest players in the college game who could ignite the Bulls' fast break after Rajon Rondo moves on.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

If the Bulls are going to make a late season run to the playoffs, they'll have to find a way to pass two of the league's hottest teams. Milwaukee has won eight of its last 10 games to pull into a 6th place tie with the Pacers, while Miami has been one of the league's biggest surprises over the last two months, going from an 11-30 record on January 13 to 35-36, and a game and a half lead over the Bulls and Pistons for the final playoff spot.

Both late surges are surprising, especially the job Erik Spoelstra has done in Miami. After the controversial departure of Dwyane Wade, Pat Riley decided to hedge his bets for the future and signed a number of journeyman veteran types like Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington, James Johnson, Derrick Williams and Willie Reed to short-term contracts.

Williams was released and signed on with Cleveland, but Spoelstra and his staff have done a masterful job in piecing together a roster with a lot of duplication into a consistent winning team. Hassan Whiteside has continued to improve, averaging 17 points and 14 rebounds, while the guard rotation of Waiters, Goran Dragic, Ellington and Tyler Johnson has been especially effective.

Bulls fans will remember James Johnson as a guy who arrived from Wake Forest with a lot of potential, but went on to bounce around the league with little success. Now that he's finally in optimal physical shape, Johnson is averaging 12 points, 5 rebounds and 3.5 assists off the bench while doing a strong job on the defensive end.

Spoelstra probably won't win the Coach of the Year award, but it might be his best job yet after losing Wade and Chris Bosh, then seeing promising second-year forward Justise Winslow go out with a season-ending shoulder injury.

It's been a different story in Milwaukee, where the Bucks got off to a fast start behind the amazing rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo to All-Star status. A mid-season slump dropped the Bucks out of the top 8 in the East, and when Chicago native Jabari Parker suffered another devastating ACL injury, it appeared Milwaukee was heading towards another trip to the lottery.

But Bucks' coach Jason Kidd got Khris Middleton back from a hamstring injury, and inserted rookies Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon into the starting lineup. All of a sudden, the Bucks took off with Antetokounmpo getting back to his early season production, and the bench unit of Greg Monroe, John Henson, Michael Beasley, Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova and Jason Terry becoming a real strength.

It's unlikely either Milwaukee or Miami will be a threat to Cleveland and Boston in the opening round of the playoffs, but the hard work and persistence of those coaching staffs should not be overlooked.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Yet another example of the Bulls' maddening inconsistency under Fred Hoiberg over the last 2 seasons is the number of impressive wins offset by blowout losses.

These numbers courtesy of CSN's stats cruncher, Chris Kamka.

Bulls 20+ point wins and 20+ point losses

(with Fred Hoiberg as Head Coach)

                 20+ point wins             20+ point losses

2016-17              6                           7
2015-16              3                           7

total                      9                          14
========================================
(With Tom Thibodeau as Head Coach)

2014-15              7                           1
2013-14              7                           4
2012-13              5                           5
2011-12             14                          0
2010-11              8                          1

total                     41                         11

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

I'm pretty sure Hoiberg was being sarcastic when asked early in the week if battling for one of the final playoff spots in the East is "fun".

The coach's response? "It's miserable." 

Hoiberg won't get a lot of argument from Bulls fans who see their team stuck in the middle among the 30 NBA franchises right now. That's the worst place to be in professional sports, with no hope of contending for championships and little chance of getting a franchise-changing talent in the draft.
 

Bulls supportive of Robin Lopez after one-game suspension following Serge Ibaka scrap

Bulls supportive of Robin Lopez after one-game suspension following Serge Ibaka scrap

Although the punches didn't connect, the NBA was not going to take the Robin Lopez-Serge Ibaka confrontation lightly, suspending each one game Wednesday afternoon.

Lopez served his time in the Bulls' surprising 117-95 win over the Detroit Pistons at the United Center. Per league rules, Lopez was not allowed on team property but he did speak to head coach Fred Hoiberg when the team returned from Toronto after the Bulls' heartbreaking overtime loss Tuesday.

Lopez will return to the Bulls lineup Friday against the Philadelphia 76ers, a relief to the Bulls considering the league could've taken a harsher stance with Lopez — a two- or three-game suspension was being mulled at the league office, sources tell CSNChicago.com

Lopez was pushed into Ibaka after Jimmy Butler hit a three in the second half, and the two combatants squared off underneath the rim, with officials, teammates and coaches trying to separate them.

Ibaka appeared to have his arm reaching at Lopez's neck, prompting Lopez to swing at Ibaka. He missed, and Ibaka grazed Lopez's face with a wild swing of his own.

Both were ejected after being separated and shortly thereafter, the Raptors begun their run from being down 15 points to end the Bulls' recent mastery over them.

Despite the effect, Lopez had the full support of his teammates and coaching staff.

"I think you ask anybody in that locker room, Robin Lopez is one of the most if not the most popular guy on this team," Hoiberg said. "He's a guy that goes out and approaches his job the same way every day. He goes to work. He never complains. He does what's asked of him. Also if you asked them, they'd tell you he's as passionate of a guy as we have on this team as well. He's got a fire to him that you just don't ever want to take away."

That fire clearly got underneath Lopez and Ibaka, causing Lopez to lunge at Ibaka. Telling from the immediate reaction from the Bulls players and from Hoiberg and associate coach Jim Boylen, it seems as if it wasn't the first time Lopez's engine ran a little hot.

"This game gets very competitive obviously, it gets heated at times," Hoiberg said. "That happened last night. It's unfortunate what went down, but we've all got Robin's back. I think everybody in this organization, from the players all the way to up top, has Robin's back. We'll deal with it and move on. We'll be happy to have him in the lineup Friday."

Lopez averages 10.3 points and 6.5 rebounds in 27.9 minutes per game, slightly higher than his career averages through his nine NBA seasons.

Considering the play seemed relatively tame, it was slightly puzzling to see both players go at each other so ferociously but there appeared to be more to the story than first blush.

"There's always more going on than it appears," Hoiberg said. "You go back and watch on film, there's little jabs that happen in the course of the game and sometimes it reaches the boiling point. Robin is a guy that plays this game with a lot of passion, and you don't ever want to see something like that happen, but it did. And again, you move on."

Normally, Lopez attacks mascots during timeouts or pregame warm-ups, so nobody felt Lopez was looking for an altercation, and considering it only cost him a game — one the Bulls won anyways — Hoiberg didn't seem too stressed about it beforehand.

"Yeah, you know, Robin's going to have our guys' backs as much as anybody in the locker room," Hoiberg said. "Again, you look in that locker room, all those guys are going to have each other's back, Robin as much as anybody. Unfortunately, it happened. It looked like it was a little hip check, they turned around and got squared off, and we all know what happened. Again, we'll all be excited to have Robin back in the lineup on Friday."