Rose's mental approach shows evolution as a leader

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Rose's mental approach shows evolution as a leader

For Derrick Rose, it's all mental. His MVP season of a year ago already in his rear-view window -- sans for motivational purposes -- the point guard continues to grow as a player, but it's less about adding any skills to his impressive abilities than adopting a veteran's approach to the game.

"If anything, winning the MVP made me work even harder, just knowing that I want to be better as a player. You want to get back to that level, where you want to compete against the best, you want everybody showing up to your games -- the crowd and everything -- and the goal is to win a championship, and if it takes me being in the gym for numerous hours, I'm willing to do it," Rose said. "I think that's what pushed me this summer, really working on my conditioning, running anywhere possible. I remember running in China, everywhere I went outside of the country, just running on a treadmill. This is the most I ever ran and I think by the time the season comes, I should be in shape."

Honestly, all the focus on Rose's perceived struggles against the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals is probably a bit overblown. At 22 years old in his third season, playing that deep into the postseason for the first time in his career, he was bound to have some hiccups along the way. But you won't hear that excuse coming from the player himself.

"The reason that we lost last year, I put it all on me. Me not making the right decisions at certain times, me not knowing the clock and decision-making, turnovers and all that stuff, it really got to me and it hurt the team," he stated, maintaining the stance he's taken since the Bulls were ousted from the playoffs. "When I look at film, there were a lot of plays where I could have made the extra pass and I know that my basketball I.Q. got higher and I think that if it happens again -- where they over-help like that -- we'll have something for it."

By "we'll have something for it," it's clear he means the team, but feel free to read that as "Rose and Tom Thibodeau," given their extensive one-on-one post-practice film sessions and late-night exchanges of strategy-oriented text messages. However, Rose himself has started approaching the game from a more scientific standpoint, dissecting defenses based on his prior knowledge, as opposed to simply relying on his physical gifts.

The point guard -- often bigger and stronger than his defenders, if not just much quicker -- has talked about improving his post-up game, but aside from his more cerebral approach, expect the defensive-minded Bulls coach to push him to become an improved defender, wreaking havoc as a rover (as Thibodeau employed Celtics All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo while in Boston) in the team's help scheme.

"Just over-helping everywhere. Thibs has been doing a great job in practice, just making sure that I'm always in the play. Even if I'm over-helping, me doing that isn't going to hurt the team. I remember last year, I didn't really understand where he was coming from, but just looking at film, talking to him, just me being in the shape that I am, I should be able to do that," Rose explained. "My game, period: I just want to be efficient. I think I sharpened everything up, making the right decisions, my basketball I.Q. got higher, I think, and I really worked my tail off this summer."

Blessed with a coach who has equal fervor for improvement and just as little tolerance for losing, Rose's incredible work ethic and self-critical nature are a perfect match for Thibodeau's relentless pursuit of perfection. Unlike many stars of his magnitude, who have either been coddled throughout their careers or have adapted to their every whim being catered to, Rose still carries himself like just another player. However, he acknowledges that he's more than that, making it even more admirable that he submits to being one of Thibodeau's primary targets of verbal abuse on the team.

"It's tough. If you know Thibs, he's a tough coach. Every practice is going to be tough and he just pushes you, and as a player, you want that. You want a coach pushing you, yelling at you, telling you to do everything on the floor the right way, holding you accountable on the floor. It makes you a better player and I can say I'm happy being in this position I'm in. I appreciate him being the coach that he is, the coaching staff being the way that they are and I don't take them for granted," he revealed. "Thibs pushes you to that point, but being me, you'll never know when I'm mad or I'm happy so, he probably doesn't know when to stop. As a player, it's going to happen. Throughout your whole basketball career, you're going to have a coach that's always yelling at you, talking to you, but it's not to be an a-hole. It's to push you as a player and to help the team, and to help your teammates, and for Thibs to yell at me -- me being one of the leaders on the team -- he's able to yell at some of the people on the team that's like regular players. People seeing that, I think that helps our team."

As humble, fan-friendly and a reporter's dream to cover Rose is, the side most people overlook about him is his fierce competitive nature. Extremely team-oriented, he also has a strong independent streak within the context of the group, being fiercely loyal to his teammates, to the point where he freely admits to not being very open to recruiting free agents because of his belief in the team as currently constructed.

"It's just me, man. Just being younger, I remember just doing stuff because I wanted to do it. Just like the same thing here, where if it's not coming from the front office or anything, you're not going to hear me say anything about recruiting anyone. I think the city speaks for itself. It's a great marketing place, like I said. If you want to come here, do whatever you want to here, you can. Opportunities are here. The front office is great, our fans are the best in the world and I think Chicago just speaks for itself, especially in basketball," he said. "I think that I'm good. The team is good. My teammates, good. I wouldn't trade my teammates for anything in the world.

"Our front office has been doing a great job coming in, bringing guys in, picking the right guys with the right attitude, that just want to improve their game and want to win, and I think that's really what's driving this team. When you come in the gym, you see our rookie, Jimmy, just up in here shooting. That makes you want to come in here and work as hard as him, and he's a rookie. When you see that, it brings up your spirit, especially as a player, knowing that we have a goal and that's to win a championship, and you've got to put everything that you have into it.

"Our goal is to win a championship and I think we have a decent shot with the guys that we have coming back and we don't know what else is going on, but I know that the front office is doing a great job with getting whoever or whatever. I have a lot of belief in my teammates and I know that they have a lot of belief in me, and confidence in me as a player. That's all we need."

Despite his facade of being oblivious to everything not Bulls-related, Rose admittedly seeks outside criticism for motivational purposes. Contrary to their heads-buried-in-the-sand collective front last season, Rose and his crew are now behaving as if they've been slighted by any and everybody.

"We hear everything. We're just like you all; we hear and see everything, and I know that's just going to push us. We had the No. 1 record in the NBA last year. I guess people forgot that, but if anything, I know that it's going to make us go out there and play even harder. Thibs and the coaching staff are doing a great job making sure guys are coming in early and just training," he said. "We've got like 30 bikes that he ordered, just making sure everyone's in shape. Even when we're watching film, we're on the bike. So, this year is going to be totally different, but I think that everybody should be confident.

"I think that with the guys that we have coming back--we didn't trade really any big pieces yet, or if we trade or whatever, I don't know--we still have the same guys that's back and I think the chemistry that we have as a team, knowing what we went through, with that being our first year, I think that it definitely helped us because of the experience."

When Rose professes that all he's focused on is winning a title and that he's confident in his current group of teammates, take him at his word. His own personal experiences -- going back to his back-to-back Illinois state titles in high school, a NCAA runner-up showing in his lone college season, winning the Rookie of the Year and taking the defending-champion Celtics to the limit in an epic seven-game series, another .500 season and first-round exit in a campaign in which he earned his first All-Star berth, followed by the MVP year -- detail a consistent uptick in his year-to-year progress.

One constant during that time, whether at Simeon, Memphis or the various incarnations of Bulls squads has been his selflessness and desire for a family-like environment within the team. Last season's chemistry approached the level of cohesion usually only found on the high school and college levels, so with that level of comfort, ever-burgeoning leadership skills, motivation from the sting of losing and a mental maturation as a thinker of the game, Rose undergoing a (pardon to the Chicago faithful who believe uttering the following phrase is blasphemy) Jordanesque evolution -- from being able to dominate a game physically to being able to simply will his team to victory because he's out-thinking the opposition -- wouldn't be a shock.

The Bulls are now Rose's team. And with their best player and leader not feeling anywhere close to satisfied, there's a strong case to be made that expectations should be higher, regardless of what additions the front office does or doesn't make.

NBA Buzz: Nikola Mirotic making Bulls' offseason decision tougher

NBA Buzz: Nikola Mirotic making Bulls' offseason decision tougher

It's too bad Nikola Mirotic never played college basketball in the United States. He would have been fun to watch during March Madness.

For some reason, Mirotic has saved his best basketball for the month of March over his three NBA seasons. During his rookie season in 2014-15, Mirotic took advantage of injuries to a couple of the Bulls key players, and averaged 20.8 points a game with expanded playing time in March, leading all NBA players in fourth-quarter scoring.

Last season, after rehabbing from two surgeries following appendicitis, Niko averaged just over 13 points a game in March, shooting better than 53 percent from deep.

And this season, Mirotic is averaging 14.2 points on 47.9% shooting from the field during his favorite month. Since he re-entered the rotation back on March 13, Mirotic has been even better, averaging 17.1 points and 5.9 rebounds, shooting 51 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3-point land.

It appeared Mirotic's time with the Bulls was coming to an end when Fred Hoiberg held him out of three straight games earlier this month, including a spot on the inactive list in Boston on March 12. At that point, Mirotic talked openly of not knowing why he had been taken out of the rotation. Now, he might be the key to the Bulls' playoff hopes.

Mirotic has scored a season-high 28 points each in two of the last three games.

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Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said, "The big thing with Niko is he's playing with a lot of confidence right now. Anybody who's a shooter, they play with confidence, the game's a lot easier. He's not hesitating at all with his shots. He's taking good shots in the flow of the offense. When Jimmy and Rajon get in the paint, and Niko's spacing the floor, it's a great look and right now he's knocking them down."

So, right now all is good for the 26-year-old native of Montenegro. But it's hard to look past the inconsistency that's marked his NBA career. Mirotic is averaging 10.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game in his three NBA seasons, shooting  41 percent from the field and 35 percent from deep. Not exactly the numbers Bulls' fans expected from the guy considered to be one of the best prospects in Europe when he was drafted in 2011. 

Now, as Mirotic gets ready to head into restricted free agency this summer, the Bulls are faced with a difficult decision. Are they willing to pay more than $10 million a year for a player who's been so inconsistent in the NBA? Or, do they let Mirotic walk and risk the possibility the light will suddenly come on for a 6-foot-10 stretch forward that every team in the league could utilize?

The Bulls have 2015 first-round pick Bobby Portis under contract for next season, and Paul Zipser and Joffrey Lauvergne also could be in the mix for playing time at the power forward spot. And, there's always the chance the Bulls could get in the bidding for big name free agents Blake Griffin and Paul Millsap.

But after trading Doug McDermott at the deadline, the Bulls are painfully short on 3-point shooting threats, and that might lead the front office to decide they'll need to overpay to keep Mirotic around.

It's just one of the tough decisions the Bulls front office faces in what promises to be a fascinating off-season.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

It's been another tough season in Phoenix. Despite adding a number of lottery picks in recent years, the Suns currently own the third-worst record in the league. Maybe that's why the players were celebrating with so much energy during a loss in Boston last Friday, watching second year guard Devin Booker explode for 70 points.

Booker becomes only the 6th NBA player to hit the 70-point plateau, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, David Thompson, David Robinson and Elgin Baylor. The baby-faced 20-year-old shooting guard connected on 21 of 40 shots from the field (only 4-11 from 3-point range), plus 24 of 26 from the free-throw line.

With the game hopelessly out of reach in the 4th quarter the Suns kept feeding the ball to Booker to see how high he could push his point total. It might not have pleased basketball purists, but it sure was fun for the Suns' players during their 51st loss of the year.

Phoenix added a pair of young big men in last year's draft, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, and they have a deep backcourt with Booker, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. So, is there a chance they could enter the bidding for Bulls' star Jimmy Butler this summer?

Would a top-3 pick and Bledsoe be enough for Butler? Or would the Bulls prefer a couple of the Suns' young frontcourt players, Bender, Alex Len or T.J. Warren to go along with the pick?

With seven or eight elite prospects at the top of this year's draft, the Bulls will have some options if they decide to go the total rebuild route.

If the Bulls do go shopping for a Butler deal, don't count on Boston still being interested this summer. In case you haven't noticed, the Celtics moved ahead of Cleveland for the No. 1 seed in the East earlier this week, and Danny Ainge might decide he can build a championship team without making a major trade.

The Celtics already have two All-Star caliber players on the roster in Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, and if the pick they have coming from Brooklyn remains in the top 3, Ainge will be able to add an elite young player like Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball or Josh Jackson. After holding on to those Brooklyn picks for so long in the trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets, it's hard to imagine Ainge changing direction now.

Plus, the Celtics also will have enough salary cap room to go after a top free agent, and they've long been linked to Jazz star Gordon Hayward, who played for Brad Stevens at Butler. It's possible the Celtics could come back next season with a lineup of Thomas and Fultz/Ball in the backcourt, with Horford, Hayward and Jae Crowder up front. Maybe not the star power to match Cleveland, but certainly a team that could contend in the East for a number of years to come.

Former Bulls' All-Star Joakim Noah met with the New York media to discuss his 20 game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance contained in an over the counter supplement he was taking. 

"I made a mistake. It was a tough year for me, for this team," Noah told reporters after returning to practice Tuesday. "... I let a lot of people down. It was a mistake. And I gotta learn from it and bounce back. This is a tough moment and I'm going to learn from it."

Noah said he used the supplement to try to help him bounce back from a hamstring injury he suffered in early February. The former NBA Defensive Player of the Year then had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on February 27 to remove loose fragments.

The Knicks are hoping he can get medical clearance to serve part of the 20-game suspension this season, with the remaining time served at the start of the 2017-18 season. Noah still has three more years left on the four-year, $72 million contract he signed with Phil Jackson's Knicks last summer.

Kevin Durant continues to work his way back from the sprained knee he suffered on February 28th in Washington. The Warriors released a statement on Wednesday saying Durant has made very good progress in his rehab and will be re-evaluated in 7-10 days. The hope is to have Durant play a few regular season games over the final week to get him ready for the playoffs.

Durant has been traveling with the team, going through pre-game workouts monitored by the medical and training staff. The plan is to increase his level of movement over the next few days to see how the knee responds.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Even though the Bulls haven't won back-to-back games since February 24 and 25, the players continue to remain confident about their playoff chances.

This from Mirotic following practice on Wednesday, "We have to depend on just ourselves and pray basically. Hopefully we can be there...... I think we deserve it. The attitude of the team is great right now. We're sticking together even after that tough loss against Philly, we bounce back against Milwaukee. So, right now, we've got another chance."

The Bulls probably need to go 5-3 over the final eight games to make the postseason. After a season of ups and downs, it's anyone's guess if they'll be able to put together a stretch of solid basketball during the final two weeks.

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