Bulls make it six straight

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Bulls make it six straight

ORLANDO, FLA.Another one bit the dust Friday evening, as the Bulls (7-1) used a strong all-around effort and contributions from multiple sources to gut out a 97-83 win over the Magic (5-3) at the Amway Center. Clearly tired from its hectic schedule and frequent travels, as well as having several players either sidelined or at less than 100 percent, Chicago survived various runs from the hosts to eventually conquer Orlando, mostly based on its familiar staples of strong defense and balanced offensive play.

Anything to win, that was the whole mindset, said Derrick Rose, who battled through a bruised left elbow. Just try to come out aggressivewe tend, in the past, to come out kind of sluggishso try to get guys going early and that was the whole game plan, especially with Magic All-Star center Dwight Howard.

The visitors were at the wrong end of an 8-2 start at the games outset, as a Howard (28 points, 15 rebounds) jump hook to open scoring and a thunderous dunk were sandwiched around two Jason Richardson (17 points)the veteran shooting guard was pursued by the Bulls in free agency before he re-signed with the Magicbuckets, prompting an early Tom Thibodeau timeout to restore order. His goal was accomplished, as the Bulls found their offensive rhythm, highlighted by pushing the tempo and excellent ball movement, with Rose (21 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds) and Luol Deng (21 points, five rebounds, four assists) leading the charge as both scorers and playmakers.

I didnt like our first quarter, but I thought after the first quarter, we were pretty good, said Thibodeau. We had a lot of guys come in and do a really good job.

With Chicago back in the thick of things, Thibodeau atypically used his bench liberally in the opening periodperhaps because the absences of starting shooting guard Rip Hamilton (groin) and backup point guard C.J. Watson (elbow) altered the regular rotationshuffling in the likes of Omer Asik and Kyle Korver (18 points, 5-for-7 shooting from three-point range) earlier than usual, though the moves did little to stop a dominant quarter by Howard. Although Orlandos shooters went cold, the Bulls continually swarmed Howard and aggressive play from Joakim Noah (10 rebounds), Deng and Rose as penetrators attacking the basket persisted, the Amway Center guests trailed, 27-26, after a quarter of play.

Definitely with Rip not playing, I wanted to be aggressive early and no disrespect or anything, but playing Orlando, I knew they were going to be up for it and they were going to try to take touches away from Derrick, said Deng, who admitted before the game that he was fatigued in Wednesdays win over Detroit, though he didnt have to exert himself much offensively that night, as his teammates picked up the slack. I just wanted to be aggressive and make sure I was an option on the floor.

It remained a close-knit affair early in the second quarter, as the Bulls reserves held down the fort, with designated marksman Korver, in particular, making significant contributions.

It felt good, said Korver. I felt good in warm-ups and tried to be aggressive tonight, and guys were looking for me, set some pretty good screens and I was in the flow of the game.

Added Thibodeau: Hes shown that hes a big shot-maker and I liked the way we moved the ball. We had good ball movement tonight and guys were sharing it. When they were helping, they found the open man and made the extra pass.

Thibodeau reinserted his starters and the combination of continued solid ball movement, Noah using his ballhandling ability to pull Howard away from the basket, team defensive awareness, timely outside shooting, opportunistic up-tempo play and both Rose and Deng making plays off the dribble, allowing power forward Carlos Boozer (20 points, 13 rebounds) to get involved in the action, gave the Bulls a slim cushion.

Just take whatever the game gives me. Im just trying to work hard out there. Dwight is definitely a handful and hes a great player, very physical, but it was a great team effort tonight. Everybody came in and chipped in and helped in a positive way, said Noah. Hes such a presence down low defensively that I was just trying to make plays from the elbow and do whatever I could.

Chimed in Thibodeau: I liked his aggressiveness. I thought he missed a couple of bunnies, but hes not hesitating as much, his timings getting better, hes rebounding the ball. I thought he competed with Dwight. Dwight is big, hes strong and its a physical pounding that youre involved with. From the start of every time he hits the paint, hes going to hit your body, so he was engaged. He did a really good job. I think his offense will come around.

The dinged-up Rose frequently went to high-arcing floaters when faced with the proposition of the behemoth-like Howard, while Deng showcased his improved ballhandling skills as driver and playmaker, as well as knocking down jump shots, propelling the Bulls to extend their advantage to double figures as the first half wound down.

Explained Rose: A lot of floaters tonight, knowing that when I did go to the holeI think I got fouled a couple times tonight, but they didnt call itbut Im used to throwing floaters up and tonight, some of them fell.

Although Chicago would suffer lapses toward the end of the period, the visitors, buoyed by their usual strong defensive effort, went into the intermission with a 53-43 lead, following an improbable Boozer fadeaway at the buzzer off a beautifully-executed set inbounds with 0.9 seconds left.

Chicagos defensive effort and unselfish offensive play continued after the break, as the visitors went on a 9-2 run to open the third quarter, punctuated by a Rose alley-oop finish from Deng in transition, leading to frustrated Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy calling for a halt to the proceedings. Orlando responded with three straight triples to make a 9-0 run, cutting its deficit to single digits and leading an irked Thibodeau to call a timeout of his own to combat his former bossex-Knicks and Rockets head coach Jeff Van Gundy was courtside, calling the game as a television analystbrothers strategy.

The Magic continued to gradually chip away at the Bulls winning margin as the period waned on, but the Bulls bench, led by the active reserve big-man tandem of Taj Gibson and Asik, as well as third-string point guard John Lucas, playing in place of the injured Watson, gave them a boost, aiding Chicago in pushing their lead back to double figures. Heading into the final stanza, the visitors maintained a 73-62 edge.

Orlando made an early fourth-quarter stand, led by its familiar combination of Howards inside dominance and three-point marksmanship, not to mention a jolt of energy from backup power forward Glen Davis (eight points, 10 rebounds), making a 9-2 run at the beginning of the period to get back within striking distance. The Magic continued to close the gap through the contests midway mark, making it a one-possession game, as Thibodeaus vaunted defense failed him for a critical stretch, although the Bulls, dead on their feet as a wholeDeng, Noah, Boozer and Rose were clearly laboringsomehow obtained a bit of breathing room entering the games stretch run.

Your lead is never safe against them because of the way they shoot the three, so they can make up ground quickly on you, said Thibodeau. When you have the lead, youre concerned about the three, so we used some fouls. Dwight has really improved; theyve done a great job with him and their team is tough. The pressure is on you constantly. You can never let your guard down against them.

By grinding out possessions on both endsThibodeau went small up front with Boozer and Gibson, whose defense on Howard and off the ball was crucial, while Boozer made shots from the field and charity stripe when it countedand receiving timely shooting by Korver, who found his way out of a slump, the Bulls again made it a double-digit game late.

This is the NBA, man. Youre not going to make every shot that you take, but youre going to have an opportunity to take another shot. This is my 10th year; I dont get rattled by too much. Ive seen a lot, said Boozer. We just keep playing.

The one thing that I can always tell you: no matter what happens offensively, our defense has been great all season. Were holding teams to 80-something points, were keeping their field-goal percentage low and thats why well always have a chance to win, he continued. We just play, man. Were a veteran group, just because of what we went through last year.

We always keep our poise. We believe in our system, we believe in each other and they made a runbut we knew that we would have a chance to make our run, and we did.

Said Rose: Kyle is someone that youve definitely got to look out for. He can definitely put the game away and you see thats what he did tonight. Give him any type of space and hell knock it down.

The Amway Center crowd hit the exits early and the tired visitors cruised in the end, headed to Atlanta for a rematch against the equally, if not more, haggard Hawks the following night.

We just played great, especially at the end. Every time they made a run, we answered to it. Someone came up and made the big play, and at the end, with six minutes to go, we just made plays to win the game, said Deng. We just stuck together. They made their run. NBA teams are going to make runs; its how you answer back to it. Our whole mindset was just, stop, score, stop, and we got a couple stops in a row and guys are making big plays right now.

Concurred Korver: I think weve had a bunch of close games this year. Weve kind of had to pull it out in the end and I think were fairly confident that when we have to do that, were going to be able to.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will the Bulls make the postseason?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will the Bulls make the postseason?

Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000), Brian Hedger (nhl.com) and Jason Goch (SB Nation Radio) join Kap on the panel.  The Bulls beat the Pistons in a game with huge playoff implication.  So could they actually make the postseason?

The Blackhawks are closing in one division title but what’s their biggest weakness?

Plus Theo Epstein’s a really great leader, Kyle Hendricks is going to have to wait a while to pitch plus DeShone Kizer loves the band “Chicago” but will he play here?

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.