Lucas III, short-handed Bulls survive lowly Wizards

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Lucas III, short-handed Bulls survive lowly Wizards

The bruised and battered Bulls (10-2) had little reason for optimism heading into Wednesday nights affair, except for the facts that their pride was at stake and they were facing the lowly Wizards (1-9). Led by emergency starter John Lucas III, Chicago made a defensive stand to hold off the visitors, 78-64.

I knew it was going to be a grind-it-out game. It was our third in a row and were hopeful that we can hang our hat on our defense when were not shooting well, said Thibodeau. The defense was, I thought, pretty good. The rebounding was terrific and I thought that was the difference in the game. Theres a lot of fight in our team.

Down both their superstar starting point guardDerrick Roses sprained-toe injury, suffered during the previous evenings win at Minnesotaand his usual backup, C.J. Watson, third-stringer Lucas (25 points, 11-for-28 shooting, eight assists) was the subject of much scrutiny leading up to Wednesdays contest. But the diminutive, yet experienced floor general proved early on that he had the chops to fill in as an emergency starterat least against the lowly Wizards, scoring six first-quarter points and dishing out six assists in a less-than-bashful outing.

I just wanted to go out there and step in, and control the team like Derrick would do and C.J. C.J. went down, I had to come in and get the Bench Mob going. Then, Derrick went down, I had to come in and do what I had to do. My teammates, theyre the best. They had a lot of confidence in me, coaches had a lot of confidence in me and I just had to go out there and perform, said Lucas, who played more than 45 minutes in the contest. I didnt know until I was driving to the arena that Rose wasnt going to play, so it caught me off guard. But youve always got to be prepared, always got to stay focused. I came in the game with the same mindset.

Even without Rose, one thing that remained consistent about the Bulls was their top-notch defense and it held the youthful, trigger-happy visitots to 35-percent shooting in the opening period. Although the home team didnt exactly light it up from the field themselves, a more disciplined style of play led to a 17-15 advantage after a quarter of play.

Washington was sparked by the play of backup guard Jordan Crawford (14 points), center JaVale McGee (10 points, 14 rebounds), who played his high school hoops in Chicago, and point guard John Wall (11 points, eight assists)Wall caught his counterpart, Lucas, with a monster, left-handed fast-break dunk, as the Bulls point guard tried to draw a charge late in the halfin the second quarter, showing fight that reflected their individual talent. However, the continued strong play of Lucas, who played the entire first half, and the scoring and rebounding efforts of Luol Deng (12 points, 15 rebounds) boosted the hosts lead to double digits.

Its a good feeling, but I know that it doesnt stop here, said Lucas. I just want to go out there and play, play in the game. Coach Thibs was just telling me, Just stay aggressive. Dont back off, dont stop shooting. If Im open, shoot it and I felt like I was shooting too much, and then he got on me for not shooting when I was open

Everybodyall 13 of uswe all stepped up tonight, he continued. John Wall and all of them, theyre great players, but when you go against D-Rose in practice, nothing surprises you that steps in front of you, I dont care who it is. Im just happy that Im part of this team and I get to play against him every day in practicealso C.J., whos a terrific playerand it makes me a better player.

Added Thibodeau: Hes not going to leave many bullets in the gun, thats for sure. I give him a lot of credit. He stayed ready. That was a tough game.

Well, actually, I was mad early because off on the pick-and-roll and he was wide-open, and he wasnt shooting and you cant play like that. If youre open, youve got to shoot, he continued. Once he hit a couple, then it changed things. It opened up things a little bit.

Help from the second unit in the form of Taj Gibsons (nine points, six rebounds, two blocked shots) always-energetic play, Kyle Korvers (14 points, six rebounds, four assists) outside marksmanship and Omer Asiks (eight points, 14 rebounds, five blocked shots) interior presenceone of the deepest teams in the league, the Bulls depth was truly being tested on this nightmaintained the winning margin. At the intermission, Chicago was in front by the score of 45-37.

After the break, the United Center guests charged back, apparently finally realizing how short-handed the Bulls were on the evening, and seized the lead midway through the games third frame. The suddenly-unselfish Wizards shared the ball and played to their strengths, led by the explosive Walls penetration and distribution abilities, and their size, length and athleticism on the inside.

It didnt help matters for the Bulls that Joakim Noah was ailing, suffering a first-half strain in his left thumb, but they plodded on, featuring Deng as the go-to scorer on offense and using swingman Ronnie Brewer at the point to spell Lucas. Receiving scoring from a surprising source in Asik, the home team took back the lead and headed into the final stanza with a 57-53 winning margin.

Buoyed by their defense, the Bulls controlled the games tempo in the fourth quarter, limiting impatient Washington to tough shots and using their inexperience against the visitors. At various junctures, Lucas, Deng, Korver, Gibson and Asik all stepped up for the hostsonce again, Noah, limited by the aforementioned injury on this evening, and Boozer were ineffective and pulled by Thibodeau for the defensive-minded duo of Gibson and Asikhelping to keep a comfortable cushion and then watched their lead balloon.

Omer and Taj, when they shut the lane down, its hard to get anything inside on them.

Youre just going with how the matchups are going, how the game was going. We had a six-point lead, so you know you pretty much can have lockdown defense with those guys on the floor, and I thought we could win it with our defense, Thibodeau explained. Were in the midst of a lot of games in a short amount of time, so you just have to go with the guys who have some energy. We need those guys. Carlos and Jo are a huge part of our team. On a lot of nights, they carry us.

In some ways, its good because their minutes arent piling up and we feel the strength of our club is the depth up front, and theyre all different, so depending on what you need, you can go to whatever the skill set youre looking for. If you need more defense, you go one way. If you need more scoring, you go another way. You need playmaking, you can go another way. Theres a lot of versatility, so we want to take advantage of that.

Lucas, despite cramping up late, continued to fire away with accuracy, Korver made timely long bombs, Asik and Gibson were active on the interior and Deng was his usual steady self down the stretch, as the Bulls sealed the hard-fought win. Thibodeau recognized he had the game in hand in the waning moments and inserted fan favorite

Brian Scalabrine, rookie swingman Jimmy Butler and even the newly-acquired Mike James.

Am I winded? I have a newfound respect for D-Rose and all the players who play 45, 48 minutes a game. But you have to grind it out, said Lucas, who played 45 minutes in the contest. Anything for this team. I would stay out there, even though I was cramping up. Thats how much I love this team. Id throw my body on the line anytime for them, he went on.

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.