In Rose's absence, Deng steps up assist game

666206.png

In Rose's absence, Deng steps up assist game

No disrespect to C.J. Watson, but when replacing a player like Derrick Rose, it takes a village. In the Bulls Tuesday night win over Sacramento, a surprising source, All-Star small forward Luol Deng -- not fill-in Watson, usual third-stringer John Lucas, who had a strong outing off the bench in a backup role, or newly re-acquired veteran Mike James, point guards all -- led the Bulls in assists, handing out a career-high 11.

As versatile as Deng is on the floor, one knock on him throughout his career has been although hes an effective slasher, he isnt the most proficient ballhandler for his position. Dengs offensive game is primarily based on getting to the basket or setting up pull-up jumpers off one or two dribbles, as well as moving without the ball, finishing in transition, spot-up shots from long range and when he has a mismatch, posting up smaller defenders.

In the offseason, Deng starred for Great Britains national team in the FIBA EuroBasket tournament and while the squad struggled, he got valuable experience as a primary ballhandler, being the teams focal point. Additionally, prior to the lockout, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau encouraged him to further develop that aspect of his game.

Its something we spoke about. The first thing Thibs said to improve after taking the Bulls head-coaching job was my three-point shooting, extending my range a little bit. Then, last year, it was I wanted to handle the ball more and the two things last year was the ballhandling and the post. I know I havent been in the post as much, but if its needed, Ive been working on that, still work on that with Griff and I work on my ballhandling a lot with Griff, but I got a chance to handle it a lot with the national team, Deng explained after the Bulls Wednesday-afternoon practice. Its definitely helped us a lot, especially when I rebound and I push it. Were a lot faster coming down the floor and trying to get easy baskets.

Added Thibodeau about the first-time All-Star, who hell join, along with Rose, in Orlando on Feb. 26 as the Eastern Conferences head coach: He was terrific, played an all-around game, played very good defense, scored, he play-maked and he was leading, and thats what we count on him every game. Whatever the team needs, he provides.

We like some of the stuff that hes been doing lately and we wanted to go to it more, and its an option that we have. Hes a very unselfish player, so if theres two players on him, we always want him to hit the open man, he continued. Jo was playmaking, too. We like the versatility of both Jo and Luol to make plays.

As for the Bulls starting point guard, Rose wasnt at the Berto Center with his teammates, who had a light practice, reviewing film and shooting, according to Thibodeau. Instead, he was seeing a back specialist about his recurring lower back spasms.

Still day-to-day. Hes still not quite ready, so well see where he is and each day hes gotten better. Were encouraged by that, said Thibodeau. Hes off-site getting treatment right now. Hes doing well."

The coach, however, wouldnt speculate about his superstars return.

Hes just doing his rehab right now, so well see.

Nikola Mirotic reflects on pump fakes, maddening March, future in Chicago

Nikola Mirotic reflects on pump fakes, maddening March, future in Chicago

If there's a more maddening player in the Eastern Conference than Nikola Mirotic, that player's psychologist should be getting paid double considering Bulls fans have been talking to themselves about Mirotic so much over the past three years.

And as they've reached no conclusion on Mirotic, along with many other sage minds, only one thing is for certain: March is his month.

Meaning it's the month where it becomes maddening to watch him play and probably equally as maddening for his teammates who've watched his inconsistencies for the better part of four months or so.

Averaging 16.0 points and 5.9 rebounds in 41 career March games, it's the only full month where Mirotic averages in double figures for his career—meaning there's a lot of inconsistencies to wade through to get to the proverbial pot of gold.

In 2014-15, he emerged as the NBA's best fourth-quarter scorer that month when the Bulls were without both Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. Last season, he came back fresh after an appendectomy took a big chunk of his year.

This year, there's no big macro reason. He's just playing definitively, making quick movements and it's paying off as his two best scoring games took place within a four-day span (28 against both Detroit and Milwaukee).

"Right now, you see I'm shooting without hesitation," Mirotic said to CSNChicago.com. "Just catch and shooting. It's a great feeling."

No word on whether Mirotic hears the fans in the arena or the twitterverse screaming for him to ditch the pump fake that he actually admits it got in his head, but this season has been a roller coaster of the most dramatic kind, as the Bulls are still vying for playoff positioning with eight games remaining in the regular season.

"Sometimes, especially when I'm reading you guys (media), Niko pump fake, pump fake," Mirotic said with a smile. "Okay, no more pump fakes, just fire that ball. I'm laughing because you guys are (right)…that's true. You guys want me to shoot. It doesn't look good when you pump fake every time you have a wide-open shot."

Being penciled in as a training camp starter due to the need for floor spacing, Taj Gibson quickly outplayed Mirotic for the power forward spot. Then Mirotic's up and down, down and up, season began.

Kind of like his pump fake that often drew more defensive attention for it's predictability than effectiveness, stability has been hard to find for a player many have been waiting on since the day he was drafted in 2011.

"I know the defenses are ready for my pump fake so now just like, shoot the ball," Mirotic said. "I've been spending a lot of hours working on my shot before practice, after practice, trying to catch the feeling."

Better late than never or too late?

That's the question surrounding Mirotic and he knows it, being aware of his status as a restricted free-agent-to-be, along with his trade value a month ago being so low, the Bulls could only get a future second-round pick for him from teams.

[VIVID SEATS: Get your Bulls tickets right here!]

With the Bulls having so many questions going into the future, who knows if they want to go through the up-and-down, down-and-up cycle with a talented player yet again, with a big-time financial commitment.

In a sense, Mirotic knows he's left plenty on the table as far as his play through the years and seems to be content with playing with a sense of freedom as the season concludes, whether he's back with the Bulls or not for next year and beyond.

"I just wanna leave a good impression for the Bulls," Mirotic said. "Whatever decision they make. It's been a pleasure. A lot of people dream to be here, I was one of those guys when I was in Europe. I was really like, I wanna go there and play for the Bulls. The history they have. For me, it's a dream come true. Whatever decision they make, I make, whatever. I don't know. The years here have been great. I know it's been up and down. It's been a pleasure and I just wanna finish right."

Jimmy Butler, Bulls prep for stretch run with realistic eye on the postseason

Jimmy Butler, Bulls prep for stretch run with realistic eye on the postseason

The Bulls are focused on their own basketball these days, and in winning two of three they may have righted a ship that was headed toward another playoff miss.

But with just eight games remaining in the regular season they're also aware of where they stand in a closely knit Eastern Conference. As 

Entering Tuesday night the Bulls sit one-half game behind the Miami Heat for the No. 8 seed in the conference, while just 3.5 games separate the fifth-seeded Hawks and tenth-seeded Hornets.

With the Bulls in the middle of so much movement that's bound to change a half dozen times between now and April 12, Fred Hoiberg and his team admit they're paying attention to what the rest of the league is doing.

"You almost have to this time of the year with all the outlets, being able to watch every game with (NBA) League Pass," Hoiberg said at Tuesday's practice. "You do keep an eye on what other teams are doing. But at the same time we talk every day about how it's up to us. We've got to go out and play with purpose, play with energy every time we step on the floor, and give ourslves a chance to win."

The Bulls have done just that lately. 

An ugly skid in which they lost eight of 10 in March saw them fall out of the East playoff race, but crucial wins over the Pistons and Bucks - albeit with an ugly home loss to Philadelphia - have the Bulls back in solid playoff positioning.

Though they trail the Heat for that No. 8 spot, the Bulls hold the tiebreaker over Miami (2-1 season series advantage) and have a far easier remaining schedule down the stretch. In fact, the Bulls' remaining opponents have a combined win percentage of .390, the easiest remaining path in the East. It's different in Miami, where Erik Spoelstra's group has the third most difficult remaining stretch in the East.

Throw in injuries to Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside and it's looking likely that the Bulls will catch Dwyane Wade's old team by season's end. The Bulls' only two games against teams with winning records are the Cavaliers (8-10 since February began) and the Atlanta Hawks (losers of seven in a row).

[WATCH: Jimmy Butler puts Benny the Bulls on last after draining trick shot]

After that the Bulls get bottom feeders in New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Orlando and Brooklyn twice. Then again, the Bulls have had issues against some of those teams, as they tout a 7-4 record against those squads (with losses to New York twice, Philadelphia and Orlando).

With Wade out of the lineup the rest of the year the backcourt tandem of Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo has picked up the slack. Rondo is looking more like the player who signed a two-year, $30 million deal this past offseason, averaging 12.4 points on 51 percent shooting and 7.4 assists in 31.1 minutes since being moved back to the starting lineup on March 13.

"I just try to look at what we're doing and control what we can control," Rajon Rondo said. "We're not playing other teams that we're racing against so we got 8 left and we want to take advantage of all eight.

"I would love to get back to the playoffs. That's the goal. That was the goal when I came here was to make the playoffs, nothing else. So we got a little bit more work to do.

Jimmy Butler claimed he hasn't been focused on what other teams around the Bulls are doing, but knows that making the playoffs has added value. Though the Bulls would likely be the No. 8 and seed and face either the Celtics or Cavaliers, with so many young players on the roster that experience can pay dividends down the line.

"You get to see how important every possession is, the way you've got to lock in, the challenge of playing the same team the possibility of seven times, it just shows the mental growth that you're gonna have to withstand and hold through a seven-game series," Butler said. "It's a lot harder than the regular season, I'll tell you that much."