Bulls Take a Big Step Forward with Win Over Cavs

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Bulls Take a Big Step Forward with Win Over Cavs

Thursday, November 5th

by Mark Schanowski
CSNChicago.com

Before the season began, Cleveland was the popular pick to be the Beast of the East, after adding Shaquille O'Neal in a trade with Phoenix, and Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon as free agents.

But the Cavs have been so-so at best in the first week, while Boston looks like the class of the league at 6-0. Still, winning at Cleveland is no small feat, especially when you consider the Cavs had the best home record in the NBA last season at 39-2.

Talk about showing poise under pressure, the Bulls made big plays on both ends of the floor down the stretch, with the Cavs making the key mistakes. Okay, maybe LeBron James did get fouled on that drive to the basket in the closing seconds, but so what? The Bulls played great defense on the King, forcing him to take a tough off-balance shot. Luol Deng has quite a history with James, going back to their high school days, and he didn't back down in guarding LeBron with the game on the line. James finished with 25 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists, but thanks to the Bulls' alert defensive rotations, he only got off 17 shots, which is about 8 to 10 less than the Cavs' coaching staff would like to see him take. Both teams shot only 41 percent from the field, and who would have thought the Bulls would be able to win a game in Cleveland with the final score in the 80's. Vinny Del Negro and his staff talked a lot about improving the Bulls' defense during training camp, and apparently all that hard work is paying off. This was a game won on the defensive end.

On the other end of the floor, the Bulls looked better at times against the Cavs, thanks to pushing the ball in transition whenever possible. My pre and post-game show partner, Kendall Gill, says the Bulls are a much more effective team when they run the floor and look for good shots early in the shot clock, instead of holding the ball and letting opposing teams set their defense. Both Rose and Kirk Hinrich did a good job of forcing the tempo against Cleveland, allowing the Bulls to get quality shots against a team with superior size and strength.

LEBRON STILL THE KING IN CLEVELAND

Wouldn't it be something if the Bulls could convince LeBron to leave Cleveland next summer, and team up with Derrick Rose to make the Bulls the team to beat in the Eastern Conference for years to come? Yes, the summer of 2010 has already been dubbed the "Summer of LeBron", because of James' upcoming free agency which could dramatically alter the balance of power in the NBA. The Bulls should have enough room under the salary cap to sign one maximum contract free agent, and even though LeBron has never been mentioned in connection with Chicago, it's fun to dream.

The Bulls had a chance to witness first-hand what an overwhelming talent James has become Thursday night in Cleveland. The reigning M.V.P. ran the court like a gazelle, and threw down fast break dunks with his head above the rim. It's awfully tough to guard a 24 year old monster who's more powerful and faster than just about anyone else on the floor. Add in the fact he's become a dangerous long range shooter and hard-working defender, and you have the best basketball player on the planet right now. Fans in Cleveland are trying to enjoy THIS season with the possibility of LeBron and Shaq bringing the city its first NBA championship, but the thought of losing James to New York or Miami or yes, even Chicago, is never too far from their minds.

DENG IS BACK

One huge positive for the Bulls so far has been the play of Deng, now in his 6th NBA season. Deng's last 2 years were short-circuited by a series of injuries, but he looks like he's back to the form that had NBA personnel people calling him a future all-star after the 2006-2007 season. Watching Luol attack the offensive boards Tuesday night against Milwaukee had to bring a smile to Bulls fans everywhere. He's never been known as a powerful offensive rebounder, but time and again he battled taller Bucks' players to get 2nd chance opportunities in a game the Bulls really needed to win. The 20 rebounds he pulled down were a career high, and the leadership he showed in bringing the Bulls back from an 18 point deficit is also a very positive sign for the season ahead.

Deng said throughout the pre-season that he felt fine physically, and there were no after-effects from the right leg stress fracture that caused him to miss the end of last season and the playoffs. But until Luol could go out in the regular season and show he could compete without fear of getting hurt again, it was only natural for fans and maybe even his teammates to be a little apprehensive. We all know the Bulls have a number of issues they're dealing with right now, starting with Rose's nagging ankle injury, so having a healthy Deng is crucial for the team to keep its head above water during a very difficult stretch of the schedule. Deng might not average 20 points a game, but his ability to hit the mid-range jumper and attack the basket gives the Bulls an offensive weapon they didn't really have down the stretch last season. And, his offensive rebounding prowess allows Vinny to go with a smaller line-up at times that will have Rose and Kirk Hinrich in the backcourt and John Salmons and Deng at the forwards.

It's easy to criticize the Bulls' offense right now, with so many of their top shooters struggling to make open jumpers. Rest assured that will improve in time. Salmons, Hinrich and Rose are just too good to shoot below 40 percent from the field. Once the outside shooting gets better, the Bulls will be able to attack opposing defenses in a variety of ways. November is probably the toughest month on the schedule, so the goal is to just stay close to .500. If they can accomplish that, they're set up to make a strong push the rest of the way.

What do you think about the state of the Bulls right now? Where do they fit in the Eastern Conference power rankings? Please leave a comment in the section below, or drop me an e-mail.

Mark Schanowski hosts our Bulls pre and post game studio coverage with 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill. You can also watch Mark on SportsNite Sunday through Thursday at 6:30 and 10.

Fred Hoiberg wants a more aggressive Bulls defense

Fred Hoiberg wants a more aggressive Bulls defense

Being a better defensive team was a prime objective for Fred Hoiberg coming into camp, as the Bulls hope to reclaim some of their defensive identity that disappeared last season.

Reciting a not-so-true stat routinely to reporters in the first few days, that the Bulls were last in forcing turnovers in 2015-16, means he’s likely barking it to the team in practices (they were actually second-to-last behind the New York Knicks).

“Absolutely,” said Hoiberg when asked if being more aggressive defensively is a goal. “We are turning the ball over way too much. After watching film, our defense is responsible for some of that. We have a guy in (Rajon) Rondo that's a high steals guy, got great hands, great instincts, great wingspan. Jimmy (Butler) is always had great anticipation and one of the top steals guy.”

Butler is one of the best two-way players, along with San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Indiana’s Paul George, but even he admitted his defense slipped last year as the Bulls fell to a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of advanced defensive rankings (15th).

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Rondo was once one of the league’s best defensive point guards before tearing up his knee his last full season in Boston, and averaged two steals last year in Sacramento, but gave up a career-high 107 points per 100 possessions, according to basketball-reference.com.

Whether Rondo was a function of a bad defense overall for the Kings or a player who no longer fully commits himself to that end remains to be seen, but it’s clear Hoiberg wants a more hands-y defense. Too many times last year, the Bulls defense had leaks from the top down, resulting in compromised drives to the basket and breakdowns all around.

More than anything, the Bulls defense was one of indifference, especially after the first 30 games or so.

“Like all staffs we watched a ton of film and tried to figure out with this group how to create more turnovers, how to impact the ball better,” Hoiberg said. “Every day it's been a big emphasis in our defense and we get out and force turnovers and make sure the help is there behind the trap and being aggressive on the ball.”

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

The common refrain among coaches in the first days of training camp is “this guy had an incredible summer”, a phrase Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has said so much that even he had to laugh when asked who didn’t have a banner summer period.

Of course, that’s before fans and media get to see anyone play, so we can only speculate who’ll win certain position battles, like the starting power forward spot or how deep Hoiberg’s rotation will go.

So in the spirit of speculation, Bulls rookie Denzel Valentine’s versatility makes him a candidate for the backup point guard position, a spot that is filled with different options for Hoiberg to choose from.

“He’s such an instinctive player. He does a great job,” Hoiberg said. “We talk about making simple plays. You’ve done your job when you beat your man, draw the second defender and make the easy, simple play. Denzel is great at that. That’s not a gift that everybody has. That’s not an instinct that all players have. But Denzel certainly has it.”

One wonders if Valentine could find himself on the outside looking in at the start of the season, like Bobby Portis did last year before all the injuries hit the Bulls and forced him into action.

It’s a different vision than when Valentine was drafted as a late lottery pick after a seasoned career at Michigan State. The Bulls hadn’t signed Dwyane Wade or Rajon Rondo in free agency, and had traded Derrick Rose 24 hours before the draft, so the thought was Valentine could be an instant contributor.

Even still, Valentine can likely play anything from point guard to small forward, but hasn’t gotten extensive reps at the point, yet.

“I’ve played on the wing so far. A little bit of point,” Valentine said. “I got a couple reps on the point, but like 70-30. Seventy on the wing, 30 on the point.”

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He got an early jump on the Hoiberg terminology at summer league, so the language isn’t a big adjustment, but having to learn multiple positions along with the tendencies of new teammates can mean a steeper learning curve.

“Yeah, I just got to continue learning sets and learning guys’ strengths so that I can use that to their best advantage,” Valentine said. “Play-make as best I can when I’m at the point guard spot. Just learning the system, learning guys’ strengths, and then I’ll be better at it.”

The presence of Wade and Jimmy Butler, one of whom will likely anchor the second unit as Hoiberg will probably stagger minutes so each can have the requisite time and space, means even if Valentine were on the floor, he wouldn’t have to be a natural point guard.

Hoiberg does, however, crave having multiple playmakers who can initiate offense or create shots off penetration or pick and roll action, meaning Valentine can work it to his advantage.

“I think he can. Jimmy played with the ball in his hands a lot last year,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy rebounds the ball and if Dwyane rebounds the ball, they’re bringing it. Rajon if he’s out there knows to fill one of the lanes. Denzel is an excellent passer. He’s got such good basketball instincts. So if you can get guys out there who can make plays, that’s what it’s all about. I think you’re very difficult to guard in this league when you have multiple ballmakers.”

Other notes:

Dwyane Wade won’t be taking walk-up triples for the Bulls, despite his call that Hoiberg wants him being more comfortable from behind the long line. Hoiberg does want him being willing and able to take corner threes, likely off guard penetration from Rondo or Jimmy Butler.

When Wade played with LeBron James in Miami, cutting from the corners became a staple, so putting him there could be an old wrinkle Hoiberg is adding to his scheme.

Wade took seven of his 44 3-pointers from the corner last season, hitting two from the right side, according to vorped.com.

“When he’s open, especially in the corners, that’s a shot we want him taking. It’s a thing we worked on yesterday, making sure he stays on balance,” Hoiberg said. “He’s got a natural lean on his shot, which has been very effective, being on the elite mid range shooters in our game. That’s allowed him to get shots over bigger defenders. When you get out further from the basket, especially by the line, you need to get momentum going in, work on your body position and work on finishing that shot. He’s got good mechanics, it’s a matter of finishing the shot.”