Rising Bulls Head West with High Hopes

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Rising Bulls Head West with High Hopes

Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010
7:47 p.m.

by Mark Schanowski
CSNChicago.com

So, what are your expectations for the upcoming seven game road trip? How many games do you think the Bulls will win?

I'm going with three, which means a slightly below .500, (3-4) trip. The key is getting off to a fast start. The Bulls have two winnable games right off the bat against the Warriors and Clippers. They beat Golden State in overtime at the U.C. last month, and the Warriors are the worst defensive team in the league. On top of that, they've been decimated by injuries all season long, playing one game last month with only six healthy players. Unfortunately, some of those injured players are coming back, starting with underrated center Andris Biedrins, who missed last month's game in Chicago, and has really killed the Bulls in the past. Biedrins is a good match-up for Joakim Noah. He can run the floor and does a good job crashing the offensive glass for easy putbacks. And, with Golden State's line-up filled with three-point gunners, there are usually plenty of rebounds to be grabbed. The Warriors haven't exactly been Team Harmony this season. Head coach Don Nelson just wants to get enough wins to pass Lenny Wilkens on the all-time list, and then he'll disappear into retirement in Hawaii. He's feuded openly with his best player, Monta Ellis, and benched former Fenwick high school star Corey Maggette earlier in the season. Maggette is getting big minutes again, and he's still one of the better points per minute scorers in the league, with an innate ability to get to the free throw line. Reportedly, he's available in trade as are most of the Golden State players, but Maggette's skills probably don't fit the type of player the Bulls would like to add, plus he has several more years remaining on a contract that will pay him almost 10 million dollars a season.

Top draft pick Stephen Curry is starting for Golden State after getting limited minutes early in the season, and he's starting to show how valuable he can be as a prolific three-point shooter, He still needs to work on his strength for the NBA game, but there's little doubt he should have a long and successful career. The Warriors are always dangerous because of their ability to score, but the Bulls should be able to take advantage of their non-existent defense to win a high-scoring game.

Next up is the Clippers, who found out last week they won't have last summer's number one overall draft pick, Blake Griffin, for a single regular season minute because of a fractured left kneecap. The Clips were trying to hang on in the Western Conference playoff race until Griffin returned, and they do have pretty good talent with players like Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman and Al Thornton. But again, this is a game the Bulls should be able to win if they take advantage of the Clippers' tendency to fall apart late in close games.

The schedule gets tougher after that with games in Phoenix, Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and New Orleans, but none of those teams should be considered unbeatable. My best guess is the Bulls will win in Phoenix or New Orleans. The Suns are really struggling right now, losing four of their last five games, with Steve Nash starting to come back to earth a bit after playing near his previous M.V.P. level early in the season. Phoenix lost by 26 at Charlotte last week, and their defense has pretty much disappeared with most opponents scoring well over 100 points in recent games. Bulls' fans will get a close-up look at Amare Stoudemire, who was linked to the team in trade speculation last year, and might be one of the Bulls' targets in free agency next summer. Stoudemire looks to be fully recovered from his off-season eye surgery, averaging 21 points and 9 rebounds a game. He's probably fourth or fifth on the Bulls' wish list behind LeBron, D-Wade, Chris Bosh and possibly, Joe Johnson.

New Orleans is another fringe playoff team in the West. They're playing better after Byron Scott was fired as head coach, and replaced by General Manager Jeff Bower and top assistant Tim Floyd. But more importantly, Chris Paul is healthy again after suffering a bad ankle sprain early in the year. Paul is one of the top 10 players in the league, and the Hornets will need to do everything in their power to keep a competitive team around him, or he might look for greener pastures when his contract expires. There have been rumors New Orleans might be interested in trading David West to Cleveland for Zydrunas Ilgauskas' expiring contract to reduce their payroll. I'm guessing that's not a deal Paul would appreciate after seeing his friend Tyson Chandler get traded in the off-season.

Bottom line, the Bulls are still a team capable of beating the best teams in the league, or losing to the worst. Even after that impressive win at Boston last week, their road record is just 4-13 and that's not good enough for a team with hopes of making the playoffs. We should learn a lot about where the Bulls are headed when the seven-game trip is over. Winning three or four games will keep the Vinny Del Negro speculation from heating up, and give the Bulls a decent chance of getting to the All-Star break close to the .500 mark. And, a good showing by Derrick Rose might earn him a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team, ending the Bulls' shutout streak that goes back to the days of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in 1998. The Bulls have looked like a much improved offensive team in winning seven of their last 10 games, with John Salmons finally finding the range from the three-point line and Rose and Luol Deng capable of carrying the scoring load on a given night.

Let's hope that improvement continues on the trip. What do you think? Please post your comments and expectations for the trip in the section below. Enjoy the hoops!

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott wasn’t exactly hunting for his first shot, but the first time he touched the ball in an NBA game in nearly a month wasn’t the optimal situation for him to let one fly.

It wasn’t in transition where he runs to an opening behind the 3-point line, nor was it a drive-and-kick situation where the help defense collapsed and left him open. It was a regular, simple, pass to the perimeter and McDermott’s defender was in reasonable proximity with 3:23 left in the first quarter.

He launched and the crowd soon roared its approval as his sweet jumper was sorely missed by the Bulls bench brigade—and moments later when he ran the floor for a fearless layup that caused Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to call a timeout, McDermott showed he missed the United Center crowd too, calling for more noise on his way to the bench.

“Anytime you have a guy like Doug, he comes back and makes his first 3, that’s hard to do,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He stepped up with confidence on that first shot. I’m sure he had a lot of nerves getting back out there.”

Missing 12 games and suffering two concussions, McDermott looked right at home in 25 minutes of run Thursday as the Bulls were able to rely on their reserves in some form in their 95-91 win over the previously perfect road warriors known as the Spurs.

“We defended and kept them off the foul line,” McDermott said. “Coach (Jim) Boylen was with them, so we feel we know them and I think all this time they were missing my defense.”

[SHOP: Get your Bulls gear right here]

The last statement was certainly tongue-in-cheek, but the Bulls’ bench production was certainly missing in action while he was out with the concussion protocol. So much so that his return prompted the Bulls’ coaching staff to call out the reserves in the morning shootaround, demanding more.

“It’s definitely Dwyane (Wade) and Jimmy (Butler) and (Rajon) Rondo (but) the coaching staff kinda called out our bench like, we gotta have you tonight, bench,” McDermott said. “We took that to heart, we were really locked in.”

Seemingly his presence aided the Bulls’ spirits and production, as the Bulls’ bench had the least effective scoring bench in the NBA since Nov. 13, the day after McDermott hit the unforgiving floor against the Wizards for his second concussion this season.

Their net rating ranks ahead of only the Wizards, Mavericks and Nets, who are a combined 17-45 this season. Their effective field goal percentage, which takes into account 3-pointers, is worst in the league in that span (42.3 percent).

When McDermott was healthy for that smaller sample size, the Bulls’ bench ranked fifth in offensive efficiency, seventh in net rating, and fifth in efficient field goal percentage. Whether McDermott – and his absence – was directly related to those numbers, it’s clear the Bulls are better when they have their best reserve – and only true floor spacers on the second unit – on the court.

“We’re all professionals and we want to help the guys who are busting their butts in the first unit to get us the leads,” McDermott said. “Tonight we did a great job of sustaining it. We take it personal when teams come back on us.”

[MORE: Pau Gasol relishes consistency with Spurs he couldn't find with Bulls]

Nikola Mirotic was four of eight from the field, and Cristiano Felicio seems to be back in Fred Hoiberg’s good graces as he’s carved out a rotation spot for himself with nine points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes.

It seems as if Hoiberg will stick with this rotation of players, at least for a little while until Michael Carter-Williams returns from his injuries. If McDermott is the mark of the Bulls’ bench going from bottom feeder to adequate, it should show this month.

“When he’s out there on the floor and we get him coming off screens, it forces the defense to shift as another person they need to be aware of,” Hoiberg said. “It opens up driving lanes for our guys. It was great to have Doug back with us.”

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

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