Michael Carter-Williams thriving in latest game of Bulls musical chairs

Michael Carter-Williams thriving in latest game of Bulls musical chairs

SACRAMENTO — As Jimmy Butler walked gingerly to the Houston Rockets’ training room with longtime Rockets trainer Keith Jones last Friday night, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg sat in his office in the locker room and called Michael Carter-Williams into it.

Within a couple minutes, Carter-Williams’ face lit up. Carter-Williams was back in the rotation as Butler’s right toe contusion put him out and the Bulls’ third-year guard was back with another chance to definitively be back in the land of the living.

And thus, the Bulls’ game of point guard musical chairs has taken a new beat with Carter-Williams putting together his best stretch of back-to-back games since being acquired late in the preseason.

Scoring 23 that night while gamely defending James Harden — fouling out when Harden literally jumped on his back in overtime — and following it up with 21 against Sacramento solidified himself as someone capable of minutes, no matter who’s on the floor.

But it’s taken plenty of time to get to this point, if he’s fully in the stage of some real consistency. Being a restricted free agent after the season, the uncertainty of not playing for a stretch would get to anybody looking to secure his future.

“It only naturally can. I can only control what I can control,” Carter-Williams told CSNChicago.com in Houston after the Bulls’ narrow loss. “The guys tell me, control what you can control and when you get your opportunity, try to take advantage of it the best you can. Of course it gets frustrating sometimes. I know I'm being watched all the time. It's 30 teams in this league. All it takes is one team to like me.”

If he keeps playing with the aggressiveness and zeal that he’s displayed recently, one would think he wouldn’t be going anywhere. Slashing to the basket for scores, defending, hedging and helping, he’s playing more far more confidence in the two-game sample size than he did in his first 18 games or so after coming back from an early injury.

He was inserted as a starter when Hoiberg was fed up with Rajon Rondo and the lack of fit in the first unit, so it wasn’t exactly a move of merit with Carter-Williams’ play; He was just the next man up.

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So when Carter-Williams’ flaws began to hurt the Bulls — flaws that never disappeared — being yanked from the starting lineup for Jerian Grant in the next game of musical chairs seemed to leave him confused.

And it wasn’t just that he was yanked out of the lineup, he stopped playing completely and without a clear enough explanation.

He was asked if clarity was too much to ask for.

“It's not too much to ask at all,” Carter-Williams said. “It's not that me and Fred don't speak. We talk often. Fred tells me what he thinks in different situations. Some things I disagree with, some things I agree with. But at the end of the day, I respect him and what he says and I'm in this for the team.”

Whether he received an explanation to his satisfaction doesn’t matter. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be the first player to drive himself crazy over a coach’s decision but it would cost him plenty in a number of ways.

“It's not the first time it's happened,” Carter-Williams said. “In college, I didn't play my whole freshman year (at Syracuse). The thing I'm still learning and gotta learn is to not understand why. Just let it go. If you keep trying to understanding why, you'll drive yourself crazy.”

“If you keep searching for that answer, if you keep thinking about it and not focus in on the right things, It can play with your head a little bit.”

Now he’s put the onus back on Hoiberg to figure out a way to keep Carter-Williams playing aggressively when Butler returns, and he’ll have to balance Carter-Williams, Grant and Rondo’s minutes as the game of musical chairs rages on to the All-Star break.

“I wanna be as good as we can be,” Carter-Williams said. “I wanna be in the playoffs. I wanna experience winning and (Hoiberg)’s not doing things to lose. Whatever he's doing, he's believes we can win the best that way. Just gotta trust him.”

With no Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, opportunity available for younger Bulls

With no Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, opportunity available for younger Bulls

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Absence often creates opportunity, which means there will be a lot of opportunity for a few Bulls Tuesday night with Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade out against the Washington Wizards.

The Bulls’ two leading scorers will be out, with Butler still recovering from the flu and Wade on a scheduled rest.

“Coach said I’m out tomorrow,” Wade said at his locker following the Bulls’ loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder Monday night at the United Center.

With two more sets of back-to-backs this month, Wade and Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg have agreed to a plan for his usage. Sitting Wade for the second night in this first set — while also having a game Thursday night in New York for a three-game, four-night set — seems to be the prudent approach for a man who turns 35 this month.

It just so happens to coincide with Butler being all but useless against the Thunder Monday, barely able to muster up much of an athletic effort while fighting off illness. Butler didn’t make the trip to the nation’s capital but the Bulls hope he’ll join the team in New York.

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“When you see guys fighting through stuff, you really appreciate it,” Wade said. “’Be smart’, that’s my message to him. We need him to be healthy. We need him to take care of himself.”

While the Bulls are without 43 percent of their scoring, it means Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine and Isaiah Canaan will see opportunity against a Wizards team that used strong second halves from John Wall and Bradley Beal to beat the Bulls by 10 in Chicago.

“I’ve been telling the young guys, just be ready,” Taj Gibson said. “Next man up. Just giving them as much encouragement as you can. Jimmy played his heart out, tried his best. But we have to be better.”

As for Rajon Rondo, Hoiberg didn’t dismiss the possibility of playing him but never really dismisses the possibility of playing him — but Rondo hasn’t played in the last six games, with the Bulls going 4-2 in that stretch.

The front office has a lot invested in some of the younger players, so it wouldn’t be surprising for them to get an extended look.

“That’s the first thing when young guys look at me,” Gibson said. “We have more than enough to win. We always thugged it out. If you go in with the right mindset, first you’ll learn from it and then confidence will come.”

Bulls: Jerian Grant shines after early-season inactivity

Bulls: Jerian Grant shines after early-season inactivity

PORTLAND--There’s no great motivator like inactivity.

Jerian Grant arrived in Chicago through the Derrick Rose trade before draft night, and had done little to impress those watching him since—as Robin Lopez was crowned as the chief piece in the Bulls trading away a former MVP.

As a 2015 first-round pick, Grant found himself among the clutter in the Bulls’ roster and on opening night, couldn’t even put on a jersey for his actual debut. The feeling was probably something like no other he’d felt in his entire basketball career, even if the intention wasn’t to embarrass.

“When you’re inactive you feel like you’re the last guy on the team,” said Grant, who was on the Bulls' inactive list the first three games. “Everybody else is out there suited up, so I wanted to prove to myself, to everybody out there that I’m not the last guy. I’m a guy that can contribute to this team.”

Fast forward to 11 games in the season, and Grant found himself center stage in the Bulls’ wire-to-wire win over the Portland Trailblazers as a surprise starter when Rajon Rondo couldn’t go with an ankle injury.

It didn’t matter that Damian Lillard, the league’s third-best scorer, was on the other side. All Grant saw was opportunity and he seized it as quickly as it appeared at his doorstep.

“You talk to people that have been in that position, and they just tell you stay ready,” Grant said. “Your opportunity is going to come. Eighty-two games in this league, things happen, so just stay ready. That’s been my mentality.”

Grant introduced himself to the Bulls fans who stayed up late to watch the romp, barely letting Lillard out of his sights while also scoring 18 points and getting five steals in 30 minutes.

He knew he had help defensively but his long 6-foot-4 frame was the first line of defense in making Tuesday the second-worst night of the season for Lillard (he went one for 10 against the Clippers a week ago).

“Keep the ball out of his hands, once he gets the ball he’s dynamic,” Grant said. “So really keep it out of his hands.”

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Playing next to Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler eased the burden on him having to be a primary playmaker, something he struggled at in the preseason, leading to his inactive status for the opener.

“Yeah, it’s great playing with those guys. They give you a lot of confidence,” Grant said. “When I was named the starter they came to me, sat me down, and said, ‘You’re the point guard, so let’s go.’ That gave me a lot of confidence to just go out there and play my game.”

Butler said he saw some type of success coming for Grant, simply because he put in the work by being “constantly in the gym, asking the right questions, wanting to do well”.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg noted the inactive status didn’t deter the second-year guard, monitoring Grant during the competitive 3-on-3 games following Bulls practices.

It was a blow to Grant’s ego but not his competitive spirit. Dwyane Wade said he was glad Grant wasn’t just a player happy to be on a roster to start the season.

“It’s definitely tough. At first you’re shocked, but then it makes you work harder,” Grant said. “It puts things into a reality check, and makes you get back into the gym and work that much harder. As disappointed as I was, it makes you work harder, and I stayed ready.”

Staying ready meant staying attached to Lillard, being ready to knock down open shots and also, picking and choosing the right times to attack defenses when the ball swung to him from Wade or Butler.

“I just feel like I’m out there trying to make plays,” Grant said. “Today I felt like they were kind of playing me as a guy that is going to be out there trying to pass, so it helped me be more aggressive.”

The chatter about the Bulls being a better unit without Rondo will certainly begin over the next couple days, but the revelation that they’ve found a dependable option who looks comfortable in the most critical of settings—playing next to Wade and Butler—should be the grandest one of all.

“He wasn’t intimidated at all. He went out there and battled,” Hoiberg said. “Lillard, you could argue he’s as good as we have in this league at that lead guard position. Just to play with that poise that he played with really for his first meaningful minutes and to guard one of the top players in this league, I thought he handled it great.”