Lingering concerns for Bulls after tough loss?

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Lingering concerns for Bulls after tough loss?

Games like Thursday night's narrow home loss to the Thunder illustrate both the ceiling and floor of this season's edition of the Bulls. Certainly a good team, one that can be penciled into the playoffs at this early juncture and depending on the matchups, one that could potentially make some noise--the top-heavy nature of the East, with presumed Central Division favorite Indiana now missing a key piece in Danny Granger for an extended absence, Boston starting slow out of the gates with its retooled roster and the two New York teams having major question marks only reinforces the Miami and everybody else assumptions many made before the campaign began--but clearly one with flaws.

Not that they weren't before, even with Derrick Rose's game-changing ability as an equalizer, the size of Omer Asik looming as a defensive presence underneath the basket, sharpshooter Kyle Korver's elite marksmanship and an experienced, deeper, more cohesive bench, but this season will tests the team's discipline on both sides of the ball, as well as the commitment to Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau's oft-stated principles. Indeed, more than ever, low turnovers, strong rebounding, unselfish play, inside-out offense and last but definitely not least, stout defense.

The thing is, while Thibodeau could nit-pick about which of those tenets weren't being followed after contests during the past two seasons, when the Bulls won a league-high number of regular-season games, they didn't fall on deaf ears, but they were much less of a concern, due to the effort being displayed on the floor, a high level of overall execution and superior talent. When facing the league's elite teams, there wasn't necessarily room for deviation from the plan, but the Bulls could eke out wins without completely following the game plan to the letter.

That's no longer the case, as the Oklahoma City loss proved. It was just one game, but little things here and there, as well as superstars Russell Westbrook and especially Kevin Durant asserting themselves down the stretch, was an early example of the fact that even when the Bulls come to play, they won't always have enough when it comes to the league's true contenders.

"Theyre hard to guard, they made some tough plays and we couldnt close it out," Thibodeau observed. "I thought we battled.

"The game was there. The game was there to be had," he went on to say. "Our turnovers hurt us. We had a good start to the game. Our defense was very good at the start of the game, but it was nowhere near a 48-minute game for us defensively."

"You have to give them credit. Theyre a good team."

Joakim Noah added: "It was a frustrating loss because we really had a chance to win this game. Theyre obviously very talented, but a couple of our shots down the stretch just went in and out. Overall, I felt like we played hard, but those turnovers definitely haunted us.

"At the end of the day, its all about Ws and Ls, so we got an L tonight. Weve got to learn from it. We always feel like we can play against anybody and its just frustrating because you do two or three things differently and you win the game. I guess you can always look back at games like that, but when you lose by such few possessions, its tough," he continued. "Were definitely capable. I think everybody who saw the game could see that were capable. Twenty turnovers against some high-scoring team, you cant do that. Those guys get out on the break, its two points.

"I think you have to look at it and learn from your mistakes because these games are won by one or two possessions, and theres obviously things throughout the game that you feel that you could have done better as a team. Its frustrating right now because we lost, but you have to learn from it and get better, and I think that we can definitely get better...I think we did a good job on KD. Hes just a great player. He hit some tough shots at the end of the game, off one leg. I think on one of his shots, he was behind the backboard. Youve got to give credit where credit is due, but we feel like we could have played better."

Rip Hamilton chimed in: "We were right there. We came out slow early in the fourthit was all about a game of runs. I thought, late in the game, we defended real well. I thought Kevin hit two great shots. There was nothing you could do about them. But we were right there. We really feel as though we let one slip away.

"Theyre the defending Western Conference champs and any time youve got an opportunity to play against one of the teams thats considered the best, youve really got to bring your A game because if you dont, theyll show you up, so that was the biggest thing. We wanted to come out, take care of home and we just couldnt get it at the end."

It's hard to take solace in simply playing the Thunder close and the Bulls aren't a team that accepts moral victories, but there were some positives in the defeat. Hamilton and All-Star Luol Deng both had it going simultaneously, and while neither is a player that will beat a team by themselves as a scorer on a nightly basis, the two-pronged wing attack is extremely difficult for opposing teams to deal with, particularly when Noah is playing with such a high activity level, regardless of his point production, reserve swingman Jimmy Butler continues to make strides as a defender and the feisty Kirk Hinrich plays one of the top point guards in the game, Westbrook, to a virtual draw.

But with the team's offense-by-committee approach, if one primary scorer--in this case, Carlos Boozer, who did make his presence felt on the glass--doesn't have it going, then the Bulls will have issues, as certain matchups, such as Westbrook, who has great size for his position, basically nullify diminutive energy player Nate Robinson and fellow backup guard Marco Belinelli, a player with defensive shortcomings, doesn't have his shot falling. Still, give Thibodeau, a tireless strategist, and his heady, veteran squad, time to figure out how to get over the hump against the supposed glamour teams on a regular basis.

"Its still early. Weve just got to get rolling," Deng said. "Normally, we start rolling. We start putting wins together. I know its early, but the last two games we lose were at home.

"Theres always a positive in every game. Our mindset is just finding a way to win somehow. Theres a lot of positive stuff out there, but theres still a lot of stuff weve got to do better. At home, the game is close, weve got to find a way to win," he added. "Weve just got to find ways without having Derrick there, even if youre having a bad night.

"We cant be surprised when its a close game. Theres going to be a lot of those games. Just got to be tough-minded in winning those games at the end, but theres going to be a lot of those games."

Against Saturday's visitor to the United Center, Minnesota, a team the Bulls are already quite familiar with, having split two exhibition contests with the Timberwolves, expect the hosts to come out with energy and focus, traits they're apt at showcasing following losses, especially since they haven't lost a trio of consecutive games during Thibodeau's tenure. While they tend not to overlook teams like Minnesota--an improved group themselves, but not a club that presents the proverbial measuring-stick game--their subsequent opponent, the Celtics, are more the type of marquee squad the Bulls would like to get redemption by beating.

But in the meantime, expect an adherence to Thibodeau's beloved principles, particularly his ball-security edict, as that was perhaps the aspect of Thursday's loss that stuck in the coach's craw the most. In fact, while Thibodeau isn't one to reflect upon past failures, he was surprisingly candid about the defeat following the team's Saturday-morning shootaround at the Berto Center.

"You never have it figured out. It's something that you constantly have to work on. It got us. That really was the difference in the game, in a hard-fought close battle, giving buckets away. In many ways, they're very similar to Miami. If you turn it over and it's a live ball, you're basically giving them a layup and that's what we did, so that, more than anything, is what hurt us and that being said, we did a lot of good things in that game. Disappointing," he explained, adding "today's a new day," just in case the assembled media decided to make a habit of dissecting an event that occurred two days prior. "We're up six going into the fourth, 87-87, with three minutes to go. We've got to find a way to win that. But that's gone, we've got to focus in on Minnesota, get better. We had a good shootaround today and hopefully we'll be ready tonight."

View from the Moon: Bears make statement in taking tight end while passing on defensive backs

View from the Moon: Bears make statement in taking tight end while passing on defensive backs

With their second pick in the 2017 draft, the Bears addressed offense and did it in a way that, when coupled with one of their main offseason moves, makes for some very interesting what-ifs for the upcoming season.

The choice at No. 45 was tight end Adam Shaheen, who at 6-foot-6 and 278 pounds becomes the second significant addition at the position following the signing of Dion Sims (6-foot-4, 270 pounds) to a three-year deal. In a sometimes over-specialized NFL, the Bears have brought in not one but two every-down tight ends.

“Yeah, that’s accurate,” general manager Ryan Pace said. “So it opens up a lot of possibilities for our offense.”

The acquisitions of Shaheen and Sims hold some intrigue, if only because of sheer bulk, because the inescapable conclusion with the commitments to big tight ends is that the Bears might be serious about running the football. They ran 28.4 percent of their 2016 plays in personnel packages of two or three tight ends or with a tight end and fullback.

Under coordinator Dowell Loggains the Bears ran the football just 39.3 percent of the time in 2016. Head coach John Fox and Loggains cite the Bears’ frequent need to play catch-up as the reason why, though in 12 of the 16 games the Bears were tied, led or were within seven points at halftime. In fairness to Fox and Loggains, the Bears in fact arguably did not have the physical firepower at tight end to sustain a smash-mouth base of operations.

That said, both Shaheen and Sims also have a fully formed receiver side to their games, which is where the bigger-picture interest lies. Shaheen had 122 receptions over his last two seasons at Ashland. Sims caught 36, 25 and 35 passes in his final three years with the Miami Dolphins. Both Shaheen and Sims were high school basketball standouts; Shaheen played a year of basketball at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown, while Sims was dual-recruited for football and basketball at Michigan State after finishing fourth in voting for Mr. Basketball in Michigan in 2009.

“I definitely think (the basketball stuff) helps,” Pace said. “Half the time, it’s like these tight ends are going up for a rebound and boxing out. And (Shaheen) definitely has it. When we talk about body control and catching radius, the ball is not always going to be on target. And Adam has the ability to do that. We confirmed that through the tape, and Frank (Smith, tight ends coach) was able to confirm it during the workout.”

Why not take a defensive back?

During the NFL owners meetings this spring, Pace said that the draft's depth of talented options was a factor in free-agency decisions as well as the draft. So his willingness to trade down in the second round of this draft was expected, given that it has been rated as one of the best-ever drafts for quality and depth at defensive back.

Of course, these were the same experts’ analyses that concluded that no quarterback would be drafted before the middle of the first round, when in reality three went in the first 12 picks after teams traded up, so ... oh, never mind.

The NFL collective seems to agree with the take on defensive backs: Of the 107 players selected through three completed rounds, 29 (27.1 percent) have been defensive backs (18 cornerbacks and 11 safeties). Meaning more than one-fourth of the 2017 draft picks have been defensive backs.

What wasn’t expected was Pace then making no move at either cornerback or safety even after the trade-down that recovered much of the draft capital expended to deal up to No. 2 for Mitch Trubisky. When the Bears’ pick at No. 45 came around, the Bears instead chose a smaller-college tight end.

First thoughts were that Pace agreed with thinking that said starter-grade corners in particular could be had as late as the fourth round — he reacquired a fourth-round pick in the trade with Arizona, giving him two (Nos. 117 and 119) — or that he had been outflanked by a sudden minor run on defensive backs. In the eight picks from No. 36 (the Bears’ original second-round slot) to No. 43, four defensive backs were snatched up, three of them safeties.

That clearly didn’t bother Pace, though the Bears ended Friday with a plan to take a revised look in the defensive back direction.

“Yeah, we’re going to have to kind of sort through it tonight and we’ll be here late tonight and early in the morning,” Pace said. “Kind of resetting our board and going through it again. We’re going to take best player available, and if it ends up being offensive players, that’s what it is.”

After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective

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USA TODAY

After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective

Championship moments rarely occur in the first round. With a playoff format that drags the postseason out for more than two months, with playoff series taking as long as two weeks, the second season feels like just that. It’s far too early to say what exactly Friday night in Chicago will mean for the top-seeded Celtics, but a sense of a team coming together under unfathomable circumstances may prove to be the turning point in a season that a week ago appeared hanging by a thread.

It happened in three parts.

On the floor the Celtics looked every bit the part of a 51-win team that edged out LeBron’s Cavs for the top spot in the East. Brad Stevens’ small-ball approach came full-circle as the Boston guards lived in the paint against the Bulls, kicking out to open shooters for 16 3-pointers that helped the Celtics put away the game (and series) midway through the third quarter.

Avery Bradley starred for a second consecutive night, tallying 23 points while making Jimmy Butler work for his, while eight different Celtics hit a 3-pointer and the team shot 49 percent. For the first time in the series the Celtics looked dominant, like a team poised to contend with the Cavaliers for supremacy in the East.

“It felt good to play Celtic basketball again,” Avery Bradley said. “We were all smiling, having fun, and that’s what it’s supposed to be. That’s how hard we worked this entire year, to play that type of basketball.”

Isaiah Thomas was naturally somber much of the series. The well-documented death of his 22-year-old sister put a damper on the series before it began, and the MVP candidate understandably chose not to address it on the few occassions he spoke with the media. But Thomas looked more like himself as the series went on. Not only did his numbers improve, he appeared more vocal after made baskets, laughed off trash talk from Bulls point guard Isaiah Canaan, and engineered the Celtics' offense to near-perfection.

His defining moment came late in the third quarter with the Celtics nearing a 30-point lead. After a hard foul he gathered his four teammates in a huddle near the baseline and shouted that the series for the Bulls was "a wrap for these m------------!" This was the same player who two weeks earlier was brought to tears prior to Game 1, and who will bury his sister on Saturday in Tacoma, Washington. Under unthinkable circumstances, Thomas averaged 23.0 points and 5.7 assists in 34.8 minutes in the series.

“I feel like he has grown,” Al Horford said. "And we all have in a way with all the adversity that has gone on. It could have easily gone the other way, but I feel like especially tonight when we got the game in hand, in control, we all just kept on repeating to stay focused to keep it going, keep pushing. We didn’t want to give them any life and we were a focused group and we were enjoying the moment.”

Thomas' journey won't get easier. He'll have another short turnaround to get ready for Sunday's second-round matchup against the Celtics. But like his teammates did in Games 3 and 4, when Thomas flew by himself to Chicago following his return home to Tacoma to mourn with his family, they'll have another opporuntity to grow closer. Brad Stevens kept an incredible perspective on the situation throughout the series, and applauded his team for doing the same while still fighting for wins.

"Bigger things than basketball happened, and that took precedent and it takes precdedent," he said. "I was really proud of our guys for how they treated each other, how they stood together, stuck together. And how nobody pointed fingers, they were just a great support for one another, especially Isaiah."

When Thomas does return, and when the Celtics gear up for their next postseason journey, expectations will have remained the same. Though the Wizards were one of the league's best teams in the second half, and with John Wall and Bradley Beal playing on another level, it'll take more performances like Friday night - both on the court and collectively staying together - for Boston to advance. A 2-0 hole against the Wizards will feel a whole lot different than it did against the Bulls.

That sort of letdown doesn't feel like it will happen again. Though no one would have wished such tragedy to force it, the Celtics came together at a critical moment and came out better for it. Their work isn't done, and they know it. But the way they were able to handle the adversity in Round 1, anything seems possible for Stevens, Thomas the top seed in the East.

"We just try to stay the course in the day-to-day. And if that results in us winning more games or winning in the playoffs, or whatever the case may be, there’s only one goal in the Boston," Stevens said. "Seventeen (NBA championship) banners above us. We don’t have a choice. We only shoot for one thing there."