Bulls host rematch with Bucks on Comcast SportsNet


Bulls host rematch with Bucks on Comcast SportsNet

The Bulls will be on the opposite side of a familiar situation tonight when they square off against the Milwaukee Bucks. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet with Bulls Pregame Live.

It's been an eventful past few days for Milwaukee, as Monday night head coach Scott Skiles mutually agreed with the organization to part ways after four-plus seasons at the helm. Replacing Skiles is former assistant Jim Boylan, whose only other head coaching experience came in 2007, when the Bulls fired Skiles on Christmas Eve. At that point, the 2007-'08 Bulls had underachieved to a 9-16 record, but Skiles had led the Bulls to three straight playoff appearances. His situation in Milwaukee was almost reversed, as the Bucks have missed the playoffs the past two seasons but surprisingly had played .500 basketball (16-16) as of Monday.

As is the case in most situations when a head coach is dismissed, the Bucks played inspiring basketball last night, coming from behind to beat the Suns 108-99. It broke a four-game losing streak, one that came on the heels of back-to-back home wins over Brooklyn and Miami. The roller coaster of a season through 33 games has included two contests against Chicago -- the Bulls were victorious in Milwaukee, and two days later the Bucks edged out a one-point win at the United Center.

While the Bucks' scouting report begins with their talented backcourt -- Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis have combined for better than 37 points and 11 assists per game -- one of the biggest changes that could come from Skiles' departure is new life for forward Ersan Ilyasova. One of the most improved players in the league last year, Ilyosova signed a five-year, 45 million deal this offseason to stay in Milwaukee, choosing the Bucks over the Nets and Raptors.
But a sluggish start made him a victim of Skiles' inconsistent rotations, moving him to the bench in favor of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Tobias Harris, Marquis Daniels and John Henson. Nine different players have started in the Bucks frontcourt this year, but Boylan's first move as interim head coach was to place Ilyasova back in the starting lineup. He responded with 12 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists in the win over Phoenix, and while his minutes (26) were near his season average (22.8), Skiles leaving could be just what the fourth-year forward from Turkey needs to revive his slow start.

Staying in the frontcourt, the Bulls also will have to deal with an improved Henson. The No. 14 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft made a slow acclimation to the NBA, but his minutes have increased the last week-and-a-half and the results have been impressive. In his last four contests, the 22-year-old Henson has averaged 12.3 points and 12.0 rebounds in 23.4 minutes, including a 20-point, nine-rebound effort in a loss to the Spurs last week.

The Bulls out-rebounded the Bucks in both contests this year, including two big double-doubles from Carlos Boozer (22 and 19; 19 and 11) but should see an improved frontcourt tonight at the United Center. Both Ilyasova and Henson are making strides, and Larry Sanders -- who leads the NBA with 3.1 blocks per game -- could join the pair in making the difference in this Central division matchup. The Bucks enter the contest 2.5 games behind the Bulls, who are one-half game behind the leading Pacers, winners in eight of their last 10 games.

No hard feelings between John Fox and Jay Cutler, but no clear future, either

No hard feelings between John Fox and Jay Cutler, but no clear future, either

Jay Cutler returned to practice as he left it before the Week 2 game against the Philadelphia Eagles, in which he suffered a thumb injury that sidelined him for the past five games. He was back as the No. 1 quarterback.

But the landscape changed over those five weeks, at least outwardly, with Brian Hoyer filling in with a succession of 300-yard passing games and coach John Fox indicating that as long as Hoyer was performing well, he could hold onto the job.

Now Hoyer is gone to IR with a broken left arm suffered in a Week 7 loss to the Green Bay Packers and Cutler returns to a situation where his head coach’s endorsement and support has appeared conditional.

“He doesn’t have a choice, I guess, at this point,” Cutler said on Tuesday. “Brian is out, so I’ve got to go. I’ve had good conversations with Foxy this week, last week, the week before. There’s never been any strain in our relationship. We’re both very open and honest, and we’re on the same page. We just want to win football games.”

Fox has been ripped in some quarters for what was taken as creating a quarterback controversy. In fact, consistent with a competition mantra that has applied to every position since the end of last season, Fox supported each quarterback when their time was at hand: Hoyer when Hoyer was performing well, and Cutler now that he is back.

Bill Belichick made it clear that, regardless of how well Jimmy Garappolo played for his New England Patriots, Tom Brady would be back as the starter when his four-game suspension was over. Cutler has not established a Brady lock on the position.

Speaking about the running back situation, where one-time starter Jeremy Langford is returning from injury to find Ka’Deem Carey and Jordan Howard in front of him, Fox laid out the NFL reality, which applies to the Cutler-Howard situation.

“Earlier in the season I mentioned that way back in the day, if you were the starter, when you got hurt, it was yours when you came back,” Fox said. “Well, that’s not really the case as much anymore. It can be; you’re going to play the best guy and there’s competition to be involved in that.”

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The broader issue overhanging Cutler is whether the Bears plan to bring him back in 2017. This season has been bluntly described as a prove-it year for Cutler, who has no guaranteed contract money after this year, and Cutler has not proven a great deal in seven quarters of football, with a 75.7 passer rating, one TD pass and two interceptions.

Whether that is regressing from last year to levels closer to his career standards is what the next several weeks will reveal. At this level, the Bears would be unlikely to pay Cutler $15 million in 2017.

“I think those are conversations for the end of the year,” Cutler said. “Right now I’m working with Dowell [Loggains, offensive coordinator] and ‘Rags’ [QB coach Dave Ragone] and we’re just trying to find first downs and get our third-down conversion rate back up, score more points. That’s all we’re really trying to do and that’s all my focus is.

“Whatever happens at the end of the year, it’s supposed to happen, and we’ll go accordingly. But right now it’s not something that I worry about. It’s my 11th year, my eighth year here. I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs, and it’s how it goes. At the end of the year, we can have those conversations. Whatever happens, happens.”

As far as the best way to handle the inevitable questions about the future, “I think ignoring it is,” Cutler said. “I think it's going to be there; you can't completely ignore it.”

Taj Gibson starting for Bulls on Opening Night puts spotlight on shooting

Taj Gibson starting for Bulls on Opening Night puts spotlight on shooting

The Bulls’ starting five is set and healthy before Thursday’s season opener against the Boston Celtics, with Fred Hoiberg announcing that Taj Gibson will start at power forward after his strong preseason.

Or, if one chooses to be a little more realistic, Gibson won the competition in large part due to Nikola Mirotic’s underwhelming showing, as Mirotic came into camp as the favorite with his outside shooting making him a more natural fit offensively.

With Gibson’s insertion, the Bulls will be one of the worst 3-point shooting starting fives in the league, although Mirotic and Doug McDermott can balance things out when they’re on the floor.

“We feel like he has played excellent basketball throughout the preseason,” said Hoiberg of Gibson. “He’s been good in practices. We’ve talked to our guys about that. Niko has had a couple good practices in a row now. You try to get him in a good rhythm coming out of the gate. But that’s the way we’re going to start.”

Hoiberg has touted Mirotic’s practices as being stellar, but he struggled though most of the preseason. It seemed like Hoiberg was attempting to give Mirotic the benefit of the doubt before announcing what should’ve been obvious to those who’ve watched the Bulls in the preseason, that Gibson was the better performer.

“Taj is a fighter,” said Jimmy Butler, who wasn’t surprised with the outcome. “That’s one thing you know you’re going to get from him. He’s one of the toughest guys that we have, somebody that’s always working.”

One of Butler’s main concerns last season was that the Bulls lost their defensive identity, that their toughness left the building when Tom Thibodeau was fired and the offensive-minded Hoiberg was ushered in.

Presumably, Gibson’s nod can be taken as a return to the Bulls’ roots—although anyone in their right mind wouldn’t be wrong to think if Mirotic had been the least bit consistent, he would be a starter and Gibson would be a reserve.

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“I think everybody is trying, man,” Butler said. “I’m not going to say that we’ve got the best defenders, that’s for sure, but as long as you’re putting in the effort. Sometimes good defense is just getting in the damn way. I’m telling you.”

The Bulls finished as a middle of the pack team in terms of defensive efficiency last season, but experienced a steep decline after the All-Star break, leading to their first lottery appearance since 2008.

“As long as guys are out there competing, we’ll take it if someone hits a tough shot over you or whatever,” Butler said. “When we think about the offensive end entirely too much that’s when we get down a lot.”

With Dwyane Wade, Butler and Rajon Rondo needing Mirotic to provide the necessary floor spacing to keep defenses honest, it means there’s more pressure on Hoiberg to stagger minutes and alter his rotations early in games.

Wade has shot the ball well in the preseason, but is a career 28-percent shooter from deep. Rondo shot 36.5 percent last season but like Wade, is at 28 percent for his career.

Butler is the best of the bunch, having shot 37.8 percent in 2014-15 but dipped to 31 percent last year, and is a 32.8 percent shooter for his career.

“We just have to step up, take them, shoot them with confidence like we do every day in practice,” Butler said. “I think we’ll be fine. As long as we’re guarding, the offense will take care of itself. We’re constantly in attack mode. There’s more than just shooting 3s.”

Which means a tough task just became all the more complicated. Hoiberg typically replaced Wade with McDermott midway through the first quarter and then brings Wade back to finish up in place of Butler.

More tinkering and some downright wizardry will have to be worked for things to go smoothly—but then again, it doesn’t have to be smooth to be effective.

“if we can things staggered it the right way---and we’ll continue to look at things---what you see on Thursday might not be what you see in the middle of the season,” Hoiberg said. “We have to start somewhere. We’re comfortable with the lineup and the rotation plan we have.”