'Captain Kirk' leads Bulls to win over Lakers

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'Captain Kirk' leads Bulls to win over Lakers

With the likes of Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash on the court, as well as more scoring-proficient teammates Carlos Boozer, Rip Hamilton and Joakim Noah leading scorer Luol Deng missed his second consecutive game with a strained right hamstring Kirk Hinrich might have been the least likely player one would have predicted to have a scoring explosion.But Monday night at the United Center, the veteran point guard showed that when called upon, hes still capable of being a force to be reckoned with, as his 22 points on 9-for-11 shooting, as well as second-year swingman Jimmy Butlers solid defense on Bryant, propelled the Bulls (24-16) to a 95-83 triumph over the reeling Lakers (17-24).The hosts scored the first six points of the contest, four of which were by Noah (13 rebounds), who obviously wasnt in danger of being benched again by Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau after sitting out the final 22:53 of the squads previous outing, Saturday nights overtime loss to Memphis.Noah, who also made his presence felt with his typically high activity level on both ends, received offensive assistance from veterans Hamilton (13 points) and Boozer (14 points) in the early going, though they were countered by the outside marksmanship of floor general Steve Nash, the aggressive play of former Bull Metta World Peace (12 points) and the contributions of fellow forward Earl Clark (12 points), who started in place of Pau Gasol (15 points, 12 rebounds), now relegated to a reserve role.Hinrich (eight assists, seven rebounds, 3-for-4 3-point shooting), usually the fifth scoring option out of the Bulls starters, didnt permit the Lakers to disregard him offensively, knocking down a pair of early triplesbefore picking up his second foul, continuing his trend of early foul troubleto help the home team build a slim cushion.Hamilton, who looked to drive to the basket more often than usual, continued to be a factor on offense, while Noah played with a lot of energya foregone conclusion, not only because of the aforementioned benching, but his matchup with Howard, as Thibodeau frequently used the departed Omer Asik to defend him in the pastand along with the support of their teammates, the Bulls held a 27-20 advantage at the conclusion of the opening period.Backup point guard Nate Robinson (11 points) took his turn at sparking the Bulls next, hitting a pair of three-pointers, in addition to a late first-quarter triplenot to mention an emphatic post-whistle blocked shot on Howard (eight points, nine rebounds), which energized the crowdto help the hosts, who also got a lift from an active Taj Gibson, acquire a double-digit lead.Veteran Nazr Mohammed was inserted into the contest specifically to defend Howard, leading to the two centers getting tangled up midway through the second period, with the result being a technical foul on the Chicago native.Bryant (16 points on 7-for-22 shooting) started to heat up for the visitors as halftime drew closer and along with the long and athletic Clark, helped narrow the gap, minimizing the Bulls loyalists previously frenzied state.But the hosts maintained their separation from their guests and at the intermission, the Bulls led, 47-40.After the break, the Bulls combination of defense and transition playa sequence in which a Noah block led to a textbook fast break, resulting in a Hinrich layupset the tone and helped the hosts again briefly possess a double-digit winning margin.The Lakers, buoyed by World Peaces hard-nosed style and the continued contributions of Clarkthrough the midway point of the third quarter, Bryant was mostly passive on offense and Howard was a non-factordidnt let things get out of hand, but with the veteran backcourt of Hamilton and Hinrich leading the charge, the Bulls appeared to be in control.The visitors fought back, however, slicing into the deficit, as Nash (18 points, six assists) and Bryant focused on playmaking and Gasol, gave them a boost off the bench to gradually make it a close-knit affair.Although the Lakers briefly seized their first lead of the evening on a Bryant transition layup with less than a minute to play in the period, it was fleeting, as two Butler (10 points, eight rebounds, four assists) free throws tied the score for the Bulls, but still, heading into the final stanza, the game was knotted up at 69 apiece.Butler, who played dogged defense on Bryant all night long, sparked the Bulls at the outset of the fourth quarter and while the game remained tight, working against the hosts was Noah picking up his fifth foul at the 7:26 mark of the period, though Howard was whistled for a fifth of his own with 6:41 remaining, putting both starting centers on the bench as the game entered its stretch run.Hinrichs scoring remained a theme for the Bulls, who bought themselves some breathing room, as the likes of Butler and Belinellithe latters clutch three-point shooting extended the lead to double digitsalso hit timely deep jumpers to keep the visitors at bay for the time being.Another Hinrich jumper, over the defensively-deficient Nash, with 1:56 left, seemed to be the Lakers death knell, as it was followed by a Boozer jumper to give the Bulls a 14-point lead, the biggest spread of the evening.Following a Gasol dunk, Boozer knocked down another free-throw line jumper with under a minute on the clock and it was all academic after that, with the Bulls claiming a victory over the leagues most talented, yet dysfunctional squad.

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.