Deng leads Bulls over Celtics

674090.png

Deng leads Bulls over Celtics

In a rematch of Sundays loss in Boston, the Bulls (25-7) were out for vengeance and received a satisfactory result, holding off the visiting Celtics (15-14), 89-80, Thursday night at the United Center.

You can never let your guard down against that team, said Thibodeau. I liked the fact that when they closed the gap, we showed a lot of resiliency to close it out.

Without Derrick Rose and his ailing back for the fourth consecutive game, All-Star Luol Deng stepped up as both a facilitator and scorer, while frontcourt partners Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer also made major contributions, along with an important spark off the bench from D-League call-up Mike James.

Veteran All-Star Paul Pierce (14 points) got off to a quick start, scoring the visitors first six points of the contest against his former assistant coachs squad. Meanwhile, the Bulls stuck with their usual balanced offensive attack and while they fell into a shallow hole, they recovered to play traditionally stout defense, following adjustments from Tom Thibodeau during an early timeout.

However, just like Sundays affair, Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo (17 points, eight assists, seven rebounds) began to get loose, pushing the tempo and scoring on delayed fast breaks on clever layups and even his much-improved mid-range jumper. Despite solid opening periods from starting forwards and Duke products Deng (23 points, 6-for-9 three-point shooting, 10 assists) and Boozer (23 points, 15 rebounds), the Bulls trailed, 24-18, after a quarter of play.

We came out and we were soft in the first quarter. They got us back on our heels. We weren't taking it up strong. They are very good defensively. We were being dominated on the boards in the first quarter and then, the second quarter, it changed. Our defense got better, our rebounding got better, our energy got better. Then, we got back into the game, said Thibodeau. Youre playing a tough team that plays very aggressively. Youve got to match that intensity. You cant be back on your heels, so once we started attacking more, we gave ourselves a chance and I thought we got a lift from a number of guys.

A disjointed, physical second quarter commenced, with the officiating crew letting both teams play through contact Rondo took advantage of this policy, drawing three fouls on C.J. Watson (11 points), who started for the injured Rose, forcing the newly re-acquired James to enter the contest, adding a physical, defensive-minded presence at point guard much to the dissatisfaction of the home crowd, which believed their beloved Bulls were getting the short end of the stick.

Im not going to let anybody smaller than me post me up, said James afterwards. Thibodeau put me in a lot of pick-and-rolls, where I had the freedom of making plays, not just for myself, but for others.

You have to be professional, you have to be ready. One thing I always say is, Its better to be ready than to get ready, and so, mentally, I approach every game the same exact way, so whether I get a DNP or I dont, Im constantly visualizing the game in my mind, he added. If Im not playing, well then, I sit and I try to be the best teammate and cheer my players on, but if I play, mentally Im already into the game.

But although the hosts allowed their guests to build a slim cushion, behind the play of Rondo and future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett (18 points, 10 rebounds), the Bulls, led by their frontcourt, fought back.

Dengs outside marksmanship and passing, Boozers finishing ability which included a posterization of Jermaine ONeal court vision and work on the boards, and Noahs (15 points, 16 rebounds) typical effort on the glass, as well as the ability to convert in traffic, were all critical in the team flipping the script and creating separation from Boston.

Luol was terrific. You cant say enough about all that he did throughout the game. Carlos was a monster on the boards in the second quarter. He got going and then Joakim got going as the game went along. Our big guys did a very good job, said Thibodeau. Our big guys are very unselfish and theyre excellent passers, and I think our team does a good job. They share the ball with each other and they hit the open man, so if we keep it moving and we drive into gaps, we should be able to get some good shots and I thought once we settled down, we were able to do that.

When the damage was done from that critical stretch the home team had a double-digit rebounding advantage, all three frontcourt starters were double-figure scorers and the club had 13 assists on 15 made field goals, just to name a few indicators of success the Bulls went into the intermission with a 44-35 lead, via a 22-7 run.

Explained Thibodeau: Everyone talks about easy baskets and the obvious is the fast break, but you also have to include your second shots, your post feeds and your cuts. All those things will lead to easy baskets and were trying to get as many as we can.

The Bulls didnt cool off after the break, rattling off the third quarters first seven points Watson scored the second halfs first five points before Celtics head coach Doc Rivers, a Chicago native, called a timeout to stop the bleeding.

With the frontcourt starters continuing to play strong all-around games, the gap grew to a comfortable double-digit winning margin, as Boozer and Noah, in particular, made sharp cuts and benefited from the passing of Deng and Watson.

Were moving the ball, guys are hitting shots. You guys have got to ask those guys, How come, all of a sudden, youre making shots? Deng joked about his passing. Deng is focusing on his playmaking especially early in the game. When Derrick is playing, Im more focused on being aggressive offensively and scoring, and attacking. Every game is different. The last two games, early, Ive been trying to move the ball and as the game goes on, I get a better rhythm.

Added Noah: Hes been huge for us. He just does a bunch of everything. You can just switch the pick-and-roll, you can switch the three-five, he can guard in the post, he can make plays, hes been shooting big shots for us, threes. Hes just been doing it all, so its good to have Sweet Lu playing at that level, even with the messed-up hand.

Thibodeau joined the chorus of praise: When Derricks playing, the balls in his hands more. Were going to some different things and I like what he didand he did that towards the end of last year, tooand hes a much better pick-and-roll player than you realize. Hes got good size, hes got vision, he can score, he can drive, he can pull up, so I like having the ball in his hands.

But Boston gradually mounted a comeback the beginning of which coincided with Boozer blowing a wide-open layup in transition trimming the deficit to single digits behind Garnetts work on the interior, Rondos playmaking and veteran sharpshooter Ray Allens (12 points) long-range accuracy.

For whatever reason, the Bulls went away from the crisp ball movement and unselfish play against the Celtics zone defense that marked their earlier run and heading into the final stanza, they held a tenuous 60-59 advantage.

The game continued to be a close-knit affair early in the fourth quarter, as the visitors defense seemingly confounded the Bulls, who forced contested outside jumpers and appeared to have lost their offensive rhythm.

But eventually, with James toughness when matched up against Rondo setting the tone, the hosts settled in, acquired a bit of breathing room and were again patient enough to get some easy offense, as Deng marvelously blended scoring and playmaking to give his team a double-digit lead, while creating easy opportunities for Boozer and Noah.

Mike is tough, Mike is a pro. He came in just ready, he stayed ready and we didnt miss a beat when he came in. a lot of teams, having someone whos gone or his first game back, the rhythm would be messed up a little bit, but hes been going in early and running the plays a little bit, Deng said of James. You guys need to stop calling me weak. I might get six fouls in the next game, just to show my toughness. No, but Mike is tough. Its not like hes a rookie. He knows the game, he knows what Rondos trying to do. He knows what theyre trying to run and all that, so hes prepared and ready. Hes not going to come in there and have somebody just bully him or run their offense going at him, but they tried to run some plays and he did a good job playing D.

Noah added, in his inimitable fashion: Hes a boy, so Mike came in and he doesnt play that post-me-up stuff. Jailhouse basketball, thats what we call him.

Chimed in Thibodeau: Mike James was terrific. Rondos a load to deal with in every aspect of the gametransition, pick-and-rolls, now theyre posting him moreso I thought Mike battled him tough in the post.

Mikes an excellent pick-and-roll player. Then, they went zone. He was able to get into some gaps and make some plays. Hes a very confident player. He knocked down a big three, but he did an excellent job of running the team, he continued. If you double-team, you dont want to bring someone else into the game. You dont want to bring their three-point shooting into the game and so, I thought if we had a little more size, we wouldnt have to double.

James role in the Bulls pulling away from the Celtics cant be discounted, as his pesky defense on Rondo and aggressive offensive play were catalysts as the contest entered the stretch run. Boston repeatedly threatened late, making it as close as a two-possession game, but a Deng corner triple with under a minute remaining sealed the deal.

Its good to win tonight, but theres definitely a lot of areas we need to work on in practice tomorrow, Noah observed. Were not satisfied. We could definitely play better and I think thats a positive. Were definitely not playing our best basketball right now and I think that when you add guys like Derrick and guys like Rip back, it could get ugly.

Can anybody beat the Warriors? Breaking down which teams have the best chance

Can anybody beat the Warriors? Breaking down which teams have the best chance

With most of the major offseason moves already made in the NBA, it's probably a good time to take stock of whether any team has closed the gap on the rising dynasty in the Bay Area.

Golden State is young and talented with most of its core players locked up for the next several years. The Warriors re-signed two-time MVP Steph Curry to a designated player extension worth over $200 million and also brought back NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant on a two-year deal that was about #9 million less than what he was entitled to under the league's collective bargaining agreement.

Durant's willingness to give the Warriors a "hometown discount" allowed general manager Bob Myers to also bring back productive vets Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston on multi-year deals, while using league exceptions to add shooters Nick Young and underrated Omri Casspi for depth off the bench. The Warriors also re-signed veteran big men Zaza Pachulia and David West. Barring a serious injury to one of the team's stars, Golden State is locked and loaded to steamroll the league for the foreseeable future.

But that doesn't mean the other 29 teams have given up trying.

Houston GM Daryl Morey says it's now an "arms race" for contending teams, adding the Warriors "aren't unbeatable." Morey struck before the start of free agency with a blockbuster trade to acquire one of the league's top point guards, Chris Paul, from the Clippers, and he's still pursuing a Carmelo Anthony deal with the Knicks to form the NBA's latest "super team."

Problem is, does anyone really believe a Houston team with three ball-dominant players in Anthony, James Harden and Paul have any chance to beat Golden State in a best of seven series? Especially given the fact Harden and Anthony are going to get torched on the defensive end? I didn't think so.

San Antonio is still a threat after bringing back most of the key players from last year's team, along with free agent addition Rudy Gay. But even though Kawhi Leonard is a top 10 player, and LaMarcus Aldridge is a reliable secnd scoring option, the Spurs are getting pretty long in the tooth with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Pau Gasol. Plus, they lost one of their most dynamic bench players, Jonathan Simmons to Orlando in free agency.

Can Gregg Popovich lead this group past the Warriors? I don't think so.

Love what Sam Presti did in Oklahoma City, adding top 10 talent Paul George in a trade with Indiana for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Both George and league MVP Russell Westbrook can be free agents next summer, so it will be fascinating to see if they can develop some on-court chemistry and lead OKC to a top four seed in the West, while pushing their own personal agendas to the side. The Thunder have a couple of talented big men in Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, and they also brought back defensive specialist Andre Roberson. But beat the Warriors. No chance.

Let's move over to the East. Boston won the free agent sweepstakes for Gordon Hayward, and top draft pick Jayson Tatum was impressive in summer league play. But the Celtics had to sacrifice Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and Amir Johnson to fit Hayward in under the salary cap. So, is Brad Stevens' team really better than the one that had the best record in the East last season? Maybe, but probably not improved enough to beat the Cavs.

Speaking of Cleveland, the biggest offseason story for the Eastern Conference champs involves the future of LeBron James. James reportedly is frustrated and disappointed by the lack of roster improvement, but then what should he expect, considering the Cavs still haven't replaced general manager David Griffin, who was fired over a month ago.

Chauncey Billups turned the job down after getting a low-ball initial offer, and the Cavs missed out on their opportunities to acquire George or Jimmy Butler in part because of the front office dysfunction. Cleveland still figures to be the class of the East next season, but anything short of a championship could send James looking for a better life out west with the Lakers or Clippers.

As for the rest of the East, Toronto and Washington should hold on to top-four seeds after re-signing their key free agents, and Milwaukee could be a team on the rise, especially if Chicago native Jabari Parker can make it all the way back from a second ACL injury.

Philadelphia will be fun to watch with the top picks from each of the last two drafts, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, and free agents J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson joining talented big man Joel Embiid. But it's pretty bleak after that, with the Pacers and Hawks joining the Bulls in pushing the reset button and hoping for luck in next year's draft lottery.

Back to our original question: Can anyone beat the Warriors next season? Sure doesn't look like it.

Jimmy Butler on first game back in Chicago: 'I’m just gonna try to score like five points'

Jimmy Butler on first game back in Chicago: 'I’m just gonna try to score like five points'

Longform podcast interviews are good for getting honest answers out of notable guests.

Bill Simmons got former Bulls wing Jimmy Butler to open up about a wide range of topics in an hour-plus interview on The Bill Simmons Podcast. Butler said plenty of interesting things about his time with and exit from the Bulls.

For starters, Butler opened up about how his draft day trade went down from his perspective. He said he was in Paris, playing cards with Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union.

“It was a great game of spades,” Butler said.

Butler recalled a comical reaction to his agent calling him in the middle of the game to let him know a move to Minnesota was likely.

“I said ‘OK, cool, I’m going to get back to my spades game’ because once again I can’t control that,” Butler said.

Butler said he had an exit interview with Gar Forman and John Paxson after the Bulls were knocked out of the playoffs. After the meeting, Butler explained that he wasn’t sure what direction the team would go in, either to build around Butler or go through a rebuild.

“I have nothing against anybody on that team, anybody in that organization, but they were so stuck on not building around me, but maybe building with me as they would say, or going young, a rebuild,” he said. “It was one or the other, but I just wanted to know. Was it clear when I left that meeting what we were going to do? No.”

Butler did eventually start to think that he would get traded from Chicago. He turned to Anthony for his experience in being traded.

Anthony is back in trade rumors again and while Butler wouldn’t say anything about Melo’s latest rumors, he did say he asked Anthony about going through the trade process.

“It was new to me,” Butler said. “It was shocking at first, but then it settled in. It was like it’s a business. You can’t act like you didn’t know eventually that this was going to happen. I may not have known that it was going to happen that day, but I knew I wasn’t going to be there.”

Butler is now reunited in Minnesota with former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and former Bulls teammate Taj Gibson. Simmons asked Butler if Thibodeau sleeps more than three hours. Butler's response: “No way.”

Butler’s return date to Chicago isn’t yet set with the NBA schedule set to come out in August. Simmons asked Butler about what his return to the United Center could be like.

“I’m just gonna try to score like five points in my first game back,” Butler said. "That’s all I need.”

While that answer doesn't really explain why he said he will try to score only five points, Butler thinks the Chicago crowd will give him some love. He was adamant that he wouldn’t cry though. That will be tested during the highlight reel the Bulls are likely to play for him in his return.

Butler also said he has no bad blood with owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Reinsdorf called him after the trade and Butler said he respected him for that.

“The ownership was phenomenal when I was there… as in great people,” Butler said. “(He) was always doing everything in the community, which means so much to me.

“They always put everybody in a position to be successful when it came to in that community and just being really great people and wanting it to be a family-like atmosphere.”

Butler also said he’s the best at dominoes, for whatever that’s worth.