Top-seeded Bulls not done yet

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Top-seeded Bulls not done yet

Sunday, April 10, 2011
Posted: 10:02 a.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

ORLANDOTheyre not done yet. Typically, a team thats locked into the top seed in the postseasonlet alone a team just guarantee of making the playoffs, periodwould go into shutdown mode now, with just three games left in the regular season. Not the Chicago Bulls.

Its a goal that we quietly had, said Carlos Boozer, adding, We have other goals, too. But were not done with the Spurs.

One game behind league-leading San Antonio in the loss column for the NBAs best overall record and home-court advantage throughout the entire playoffs, the Bulls plan to continue to go full throttle Saturday against the Magic, as well as for the foreseeable regular-season future, according to Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau.

Were just looking at the next game, explained the NBAs Coach of the Year award candidate. We want to stay consistent with what were doing.

You want them to be in rhythm and you want everyone playing their best. As the season winds down, the two things youre focused on is you want to be playing your best basketball and you want to be healthy, so if someones injured, well sit them down. If theyre not injured, theyre going to play, continued Thibodeau, who prepared just as seriously for Saturdays opponent, Orlandomissing All-Star center Dwight Howard, who was suspended for incurring his 18th technical foul of the seasonas he did for last Thursdays big win over the Celtics or last Fridays top-seed-clinching victory over the Cavaliers.

"The teams Ive been with, thats the way weve always approached it. You look at your team, you look at the make-up of your team and you determine how to pace your team. Thats one of the biggest things you have to think about all year long and you also do that when youre planning for your season.

Youre looking at can a guy handle minutes? Are they young? Are they old? Are they coming off injury? You look at all those things and then you look at how your teams functioning and playing. Sometimes you may feel that rest is more important, so you may not practice, but you have a film session, a meeting and a walk-through.

Or, as Joakim Noah put it, This is a dictatorship, guys.

All jokes aside, the Bulls dont chafe at Thibodeaus hard-driving ways because not only do they respect his decisions, but they actually want to play.

I really havent thought about it. If anything, I thought I was playing, so Im not disappointed or anything, said All-Star point guard Derrick Rose, in his usual, understated manner. Well have to see. Of course I want to play. Its not up to me. Its up to Coach.

Thats fine with me.

That mentality is what got them to this pointEastern Conference regular-season champions, a meaningless title if they dont augment it with a strong postseason showingbut if all goes according to plan, this is just another item on their checklist.

Thats the last goal of the regular season. We had a lot of goals. Weve checked off a lot of them, but thats the last one, said Kyle Korver. We had a lot to prove and I think weve worked really hard, weve put a lot into it and to be rewarded with this is big for us.

Were still going to try to catch the Spurs and were not done yet, but I think it speaks a lot about this team and the year that weve had.

Still, for the Bulls who were here for the past regime, they do feel a sense of accomplishment that stems from past mediocrity.

This is the best season Ive had in the NBA with the team and Im just proud that Im still here, and for the Chicago Bulls organization, said Luol Deng, the longest-tenured player on the team. Im a big believer that everything happens for a reason. I never want to go through struggles, so its all about how youre handling how youre coming out of those struggles. Thats what all makes it worth it and I believe Ive matured a lot as a man from what Ive seen and what I went through.

We want to be the best. We believe were capable of it, we put in work to try to be here and going into the postseason, thats going to be in the back of our minds.

Added Noahwho concurred with Thibodeaus sentiment that his right ankle is fine; I feel like Ive got a ways to go, but it feels good to be playing, he said after Fridays winabout the teams improvement: The growth has been formidable. Last year, we qualified on the last day and today, we are the No. 1 seed. That feels pretty good.

The 22-year-old Rose, in the midst of likely an MVP season, sounded determined to stay the course.

Weve got to keep playing good basketball and keep trying to get better, said the Chicago native. I know its definitely going to be different because everybodys going to be expecting us to win, but I think Thibs will have us ready for it.

It has something to do with the coaching staff. Thibs, man. Coach of the Year to me. Hes just been on us, holding everybody accountable every time we step on the court and with him, weve just been balling. Making sure that we go over everything and our preparation for the game is important, he continued. We took everybody by surprise. Thats from us winning games. It happened with the way that were playing under Thibs system. Its all because of him, giving us the opportunity to go out there and play. I think that were well-coached, but we can always get better.

While the first-year head coach and his staff have obviously been key to the teams success, its chemistry has also played a huge role.

In the beginning of the season, I told people that I thought we were going to be ready to play and thats what we showed this year. Were trying to keep playing, trying to stay humble, stay positive. Just trying to keep this thing going. Our fans have been great, traveling with us everywhere. Just bringing Chicago back, Rose explained.

We knew the guys that we were getting were guys that wanted to win. Thats what I always tell people. They dont care about their stats or anything. They just want to win games and its hard to be on a team like that, especially in the NBAwhere people have their own agenda, people have things going onbut were a very close team. We go out, anywhere to eat, whatever, theres five or six going out eating. Always calling each other, texting each other, BBMing texting via BlackBerry Messenger each other. Were pretty close on this team.

Communication, trusting each other and having confidence with each other, he went on to say. When youre on the court, the game is intense, even though it sounds like were yelling at each other sometimes, its nothing negative. Its just that were trying to win the game.

Whatever the formula, these Bulls need to stick to it. Who is anybody to doubt them at this point?

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

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.