The Bulls held on for a 102-98 victory over the Bucks on Sunday, but they still sit two games back of a playoff spot with only a handful to go. Their odds are long, but nothing is off the table yet. The Bulls just have to keep pushing and hope things fall their way. Let’s take a look at their win in Milwaukee.
- Jimmy Butler followed up Saturday night’s massive triple double with another great performance. He notched 25 points, eight assists and five boards on 10/11 shooting, the first time a Bull had shot that well on 10+ shots since Scottie Pippen in 1990-91. Mentally, Jimmy looks to be all the way back from his knee issue after having some confidence issues in prior games.
- While Butler was masterful against Detroit on Saturday, he dominated the ball; at one point late in the game, several possessions in a row were the same Butler-Pau Gasol two man game. Against Milwaukee, Jimmy still facilitated the offense but kept the ball moving much more. Everyone was able to get involved, and the offense looked much better. Granted, Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons defend a lot better than the Bucks.
- Pau Gasol played pretty well for an old guy on a back-to-back. He scored 16 points to go along with eight rebounds and eight assists. Pau attempted four three pointers (making one), but his stroke is pretty sound from deep. Makes you wonder how things might’ve been different if the team made a conscious effort to have him out there more often from the start.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo was the player of the game. Now the Bucks point guard (at nearly seven feet tall!), Giannis was absolutely unstoppable unless Jimmy Butler was on him. The Greek Freak tallied a career-high 34 points on 14/22 shooting to go along with nine assists. His only weakness offensively is shooting, so putting the ball in his hands forces teams to play him close or cede a long-legged drive to the bucket. That defensive attention has unleashed Chicago-product Jabari Parker, who many were starting to wonder about. Jabari had 24 and 11.
- After no-showing against Detroit, Nikola Mirotic played a big role on Sunday with 19 points and six rebounds. It seems pretty clear that Mirotic is most effective when given the freedom to go to work offensively. Sure, he’s gonna have some awful shooting nights, but forcing him to the margins of the offense just doesn’t fit his game. Hopefully Fred Hoiberg is able to find Niko’s sweet spot next season like he has for Doug McDermott this year.
- Justin Holiday continues to get regular rotation minutes, but still hasn’t broken through in a meaningful way. He’s 27, so it’s hard to imagine him developing much more in the future. Regardless, he’ll be cheap as hell next year, so *shrug*.
- E’Twaun Moore was solid in 27 minutes, and he’s been a real find this season. To a lesser degree, Cristiano Felicio was also a good spot, as he looks worthy of playing at the end of an NBA rotation. He doesn’t offer much offensively, but he’s a natural defensive center.
- Derrick Rose missed his second straight game but is set to return on Tuesday against Memphis. Khris Middleton sat out for Milwaukee, a nice break for the Bulls.
- Coming up: the Bulls head to Memphis on Tuesday night.
I’m a little conflicted as to whether or not I want the Bulls to make the playoffs, because on one hand, even an eight seed means at least a few more games and a chance to surprise Cleveland in the first round, but on the other hand, it seems like continuing to lose in the waning weeks of the season exposes the troubles of this team in a way that hopefully leads to change. The trouble with the losses is that watching games like last night’s against Detroit is increasingly difficult. These two teams have been pretty evenly matched all season, so it is no surprise that this game stayed close throughout, but it remains frustrating to watch the Bulls continue to lose, as they did 94-90 at the United Center last night, dropping to an even 38-38 and now two games out of the eighth seed. The patterns to their losses are very familiar now, but there are a few things that stood out to me last night, so let’s take a look:
- This was their 22nd different lineup last night. This is an effect, of course, of injuries to key players throughout the season, but that kind of inconsistency has plagued them all year when it comes to who starts each game. Some shifting in the starting five is natural, but not necessarily to this degree. Last night they started with E’Twuan Moore, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Bobby Portis, and Pau Gasol. Moore was an important factor in keeping their defense somewhat solid – the lack of which was plainly evident when some of the bench players came in last night.
- Derrick Rose was still out with his injured elbow that was hyper-extended on Thursday in Houston. Rose might be able to return against the Bucks today, but that will depend on his level of soreness. Despite the struggles of the team around him, Rose has quietly put together a very quality season, as our own Drew Hackman wrote here just a few days ago. Rose has consistently shot well in 2016 and is a key part of the scoring attack, as he has changed his approach to the rim.
- The Bulls were also without Taj Gibson, who has not played since Tuesday against the Pacers. Like Rose, Gibson could return against the Bucks today, but that is unclear so far.
- Speaking of players who have put together solid seasons, Gasol had another strong night, scoring 16 and grabbing 14 rebounds. As recently as the February trade deadline, Gasol has been named as a probable part of the Bulls future as they move on from this season, but of late, this stance has changed. He wants to compete for a championship, and at 35 years old, his opportunities to do so are fleeting, so sticking with a Bulls team that looks to be in need of a massive overhaul makes less and less sense for him and for Chicago. He’s often been a bright spot this year, but it might be time for him to go when he’s officially a free agent in July.
- Last night, Butler ran the offense. Jimmy has been casual about the role of point guard in the past, but while Aaron Brooks presents trouble for the Pistons on defense, he offers little defense of his own and especially last night, was rarely consistent about actually running the offense. Though Brooks was able to score 14 points, he had just two assists. He regularly drove to the bucket last night without bothering to even look to see if passes could be made to set up a better shot, and then left the perimeter open to outside shooting on the other end of the floor. Brooks’ time on the floor probably should have been kept to shorter stints in order to offer scoring bursts and in order for Moore to keep the defense solid.
- The Bulls bench, which has shown just flashes of its former greatness throughout the season this year, greatly outscored the Pistons bench last night, but not enough to turn the tide of the game. Here’s where Brooks’ lack of reliable defense probably outweighed his offensive contributions.
- Though last night’s game was yet another microcosm of the frustrations of the season as a whole, Butler had an absolutely career night. His performance evoked the likes of Michael Jordan in some ways last night, particularly his team leading rebounding. In the end, he had his first career triple double with 28 points, 17 rebounds, and 12 assists. He was brilliant to watch, and probably the key reason the Bulls didn’t get blown out of their home arena last night. Butler has somehow been a name mentioned in trade rumors for the summer, though I am quite skeptical. The Bulls probably do need an extensive overhaul, but trading Butler means they are essentially scrapping the whole team as we know it, and the front office in Chicago has not shown a propensity for those kinds of extreme measures.
- Coming up: with just six games left, the Bulls have a chance to grab a win tonight in Milwaukee.
The Bulls continued their dominance over the Toronto Raptors Monday night. Playing without Mike Dunleavy, Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol, Chicago extended its winning streak against the Raps to nine games and are now gunning for the seven seed.
- Doug McDermott was shooting molten lava from his fingertips in the first half of this game. McDermott went into halftime with 24 points on 7/7 shooting, making all three of his triples and 7/8 of his free throws. This wasn’t the first time Doug has shredded the Raptors this year, but unlike the previous game, I don’t think Toronto’s defense was all that bad. McDermott connected on a few contested threes that were taken well beyond the arc and got several kind rolls on his patented flip shot off the dribble. McDermott finished the game with a team-high 29 points.
- Jimmy Butler made his second attempt at returning from last month’s knee injury. Butler did not have a great night shooting the ball, making just 5/18 of his field goals. While the percentage isn’t great, he shouldered the load for a team lacking options in the shot creation department.
- Butler didn’t have much touch on his shot, but his feel for the game was not an issue. Jimmy finished the game with six assists and zero turnovers in 34 minutes of play.
- 34 minutes sound familiar? The Bulls just refuse to learn from their mistakes with handling injuries. Fred Hoiberg seemed interested in limiting his shooting guard’s minutes in the first half, yanking him with five minutes left in the first and second quarters. But Fred ended up putting Butler back in to finish the first half, and rode him hard in the second, including all twelve minutes in the fourth quarter.
- The Bulls nearly collapsed in the last five minutes of this game as the team abandoned the offensive principles that had put them in a position to win. Butler, perhaps dealing with fatigue, grinded the offense to a halt down the stretch. I don’t have a problem with the Bulls trying to work the full 24 seconds of the shot clock when time is on their side. I do have a problem with the team walking up the ball not getting into any type of offense until half the shot clock has ticked away. Way too many unimaginative isolations led to the Bulls being outscored by six points in the final four minutes.
- Thankfully the Bulls had built up enough of a lead that their late game collapse was not big enough to sink them. E’Twaun Moore filled in admirably for Rose in the starting lineup, scoring 17 points on 8/11 shooting. Moore chipped in four assists, grabbed four rebounds and did his best to slow down All-Star Kyle Lowry. E’Twaun has an unorthodox shooting stroke, but he was letting it fly with confidence against Toronto. Moore scored on 5/7 shots taken outside the paint, benefiting from clean looks generated by smart passing and cutting.
- Nikola Mirotic chipped in 17 points of his own in his return to the starting lineup. Nikola made a few mental mistakes in the final minutes, turning the ball over once and then nearly turning it over a minute later, but for the majority of the game he was playing with the decisiveness that typically results in his success. Mirotic was 3/8 from three point range and provided valuable spacing for a team in severe need of it.
- McDermott had the big game, but it was Justin Holiday who got the start in place of Dunleavy. Holiday found himself in early foul trouble, but he finished 2/4 from the field and was a team high +13 in just 14 minutes.
- Taj Gibson finished with a double-double, scoring 13 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Taj logged a crucial 34 minutes as the only credible deterrent at the rim to play Monday night.
- The Bulls got lucky when the Raptors lost Jonas Valanciunas to injury in the first quarter. The Lithuanian center was 3/3 before hurting something in his wrist and was going to be a huge issue for the undersized Bulls.
- I really like when the Raptors play Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph and DeMar DeRozan together. Very few teams have a combination of size and skill to punish the Raptors when they trot out this trio. The Raptors are not flush with shooters, but having three players share the floor able to drive, dish or finish inside creates spacing for the offense in a nontraditional way.
- Coming up: the Bulls take on Washington tomorrow night.
I wrote about the last time the Bulls and Heat squared off against each other, and it’s unfortunate that the Bulls have not trended in a better direction since then. In fact, they remain solidly at .500, losing last night in Chicago, 118-96 to drop to 32-32. This marks their second loss in a row after having won two in a row. Granted, Thursday’s loss in San Antonio is about as tough of a matchup as a team will get, but returning to the United Center last night should have proven to be an opportunity to keep the winning going. And they looked fairly well positioned to do so through the first half, even with a somewhat weak second quarter, but the second half was all Miami. With just 18 regular season games left, the odds of an eighth seed are looking ever out of their favor, but let’s take a look at what led to this loss:
- Fatigue. Sure, it’s an easy thing to point to so late in the season on a team that’s not very deep to begin with, but after traveling back from San Antonio the night before, it’s no wonder. Back to backs are especially tough in the NBA because of the travel involved, and it certainly seemed to be affecting the Bulls last night. Their scoring dropped off quarter by quarter during the course of the game, and by the fourth, they could only muster 15 points. By then, the Heat had trended the opposite direction, increasing their scoring as the game progressed.
- They were down four players. Cameron Bairstow and Joakim Noah were both inactive, and Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler didn’t dress. Bairstow and Noah may not have a massive impact on a game like this, but they would have at least helped keep the starters fresh. The real loss is Rose and Butler, and by now, I have some concern about what’s happening with Butler’s knee. The Bulls’ medical staff being what it is, I fear that this could develop into a much more serious problem. With the season being so close to its end, the best long term decision for Butler might be to shut him down, but I’m digressing.
- The absence of Rose and Butler mean that Fred Hoiberg had to rely on E’Twaun Moore and newly acquired Justin Holiday. The University of Washington product played rather well last night though, leading the team in minutes played and adding 14 points on 6/15 shooting from the field. Holiday is playing in just his second full season in the NBA, and after having bounced around quite a bit, perhaps he can find his niche in Chicago. I’m a fan of Moore’s as well, and he played pretty decently (six points and five assists), but a guard duo of Holiday and Moore just isn’t going to lead the Bulls to a victory, even against the Heat at this point. Holiday did provide some reallly nice moments, like this one:
- Pau Gasol nearly had a triple double. He led the team in scoring with 17, pulled down 12 rebounds, and had nine assists. I joked on Twitter a while ago about Gasol and the idea that he thinks he can be a part of the Bulls’ long-term future, but he’s having a rather impressive season and his devotion to Chicago is admirable. The Bulls are certainly heading into a rebuilding phase in the coming years, and though Gasol isn’t likely to be a part of the next truly successful Bulls team by the time they come around, he’s at least giving us something good to watch, for the most part, in the time being. His defense was a little suspect, and he led the team in turnovers with six, but he’s a vital piece of any chance at success this season.
- The Heat are a changing team too. The days of the Big Three feel like a distant memory, and Miami is still in the process of figuring out where to go from there. Dwyane Wade is a shell of his former self, and a Chris Bosh return remains unclear, but they have players like Hassan Whiteside who might be reason enough to muster some excitement. Whiteside has turned into a fun player to watch, especially the way he can dominate the boards like he did last night. He was on nearly every defensive play, and 13 of his 16 total rebounds last night game on the defensive side of the court. The problem for Miami is that their roster outside of Whiteside gets pretty old. Wade and Bosh, of course, but even their recent acquisition in Joe Johnson has a lot of mileage on him already. Though Johnson’s arrival in Miami has corresponded with wins, he’s not a long term piece of their future either.
- Coming up: the Bulls will get two days of rest over the weekend before heading to Toronto on Monday night.
It’s always a tall task trying to beat the San Antonio Spurs, a franchise whose name is synonymous with “well-oiled machine.” They’ve been able to plug in players and win consistently year after year, always contending for a title under Gregg Popovich. But beating them this year at home proves to be particularly impossible. With a starting lineup that includes future Hall of Famers and established stars alike, along with arguably the deepest bench in the league, the Spurs came into tonight unbeaten at home this season, at 30-0.
The Chicago Bulls have fared well against the Spurs in recent contests, able to knock them off three out of the previous five games, a feat hardly any team can boast. Tonight, the Bulls hung tight with strong performances from E’Twaun Moore and Justin Holiday, but without Jimmy Butler, they would ultimately fall short, 109-101. Let’s dive into some of the BULLet Points:
- As stated, E’Twaun had a stellar game, stepping in for Butler by carrying the largest minutes load at nearly 36. He finished with 20 points, six rebounds, four assists, and a steal, shooting 8/12 overall and 4/5 from downtown. Several of those threes came in clutch spots, either stopping a Spurs run, or helping close the gap during a run of the Bulls’ own. Justin Holiday also stepped in nicely and shot with confidence, contributing 12 points, five for eight from the field.
- Derrick Rose‘s box score doesn’t tell the full story, although it is promising: 21 points on 9/21 shooting, 1/2 from beyond the arc, six assists and only two turnovers. But the troubling thing is just the two free throws. For at least the first half of the game, Derrick elected to shoot off-balance jumpers, step-backs, and contested bank shots, rather than drive to the hole. His shot selection still needs improvement – now that his speed and quickness are back, he should focus on attacking early, rather than the other way around.
- FRED HOIBERG TECHNICAL FOUL ALERT. That’s right: Mr. Calm, Cool, and Collected drew his first ever technical foul as a coach or player in the NBA. After playing ten seasons in the NBA and coaching over 60 games this season, he finally caved. In a 10 point game that started slipping from the Bulls, Taj Gibson went up for a dunk and got hit on the arm by the smaller Tony Parker. Taj blew the jam, there was no call, and Fred lost it on the ref (which, for him, probably sounded something like, “Terrible call, sir! Just terrible! Hogwash!”). Although I’m ecstatic to see some tech-worthy emotion on the part of Fred, sticking up for his players, I wish it would’ve come earlier in the game, when the foul may have resulted in some additional calls for the Bulls. But, beggars can’t be choosers. You can catch it here:
- Per Sam Smith, “Since his return from back surgery, Mike Dunleavy is averaging 9.5 points in 13 games and shooting 50 percent from threes in about 23 minutes per game. He’s averaging 12.2 points over the last five games and a season high 18 points in Monday’s win over Milwaukee in a season high 35 minutes.” Tonight, Mike struggled a bit, after having such a great chemistry with Butler back on the court a few nights ago. Tonight, just seven points on 2/8 shooting in 30 minutes. If anyone benefits the most from Butler being on the court, it’s Dunleavy. In their whopping 24 minutes together this season, their OffRtg is 123.0, DefRtg is 68.6, for a team-best net rating of 54.4 (!!!), a PIE of 91.7, and an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.89. I love small sample sizes.
- The Bulls struggled down the stretch with mental lapses, turnovers, and missed assignments. It didn’t help that Taj was ineffective and racked up four fouls early into the third quarter. Pau notched a double double with 21 points, but committed an unforgivable seven turnovers, trying to thread the needle on too many passes.
- Odd stat of the night: the Bulls scored exactly 27 points in three of the quarters, while the Spurs scored exactly 27 points in two of them.
- This was the 40th straight home win for the Spurs, tied for 3rd all-time with the Orlando Magic. This Spurs team is quietly only three games behind Golden State, at 55-10. Kawhi Leonard led the charge tonight against the Bulls with 29 points, going +19, alongside 26 from LaMarcus Aldridge and 20 from Tony Parker.
- Coming up: The Bulls endure a back-to-back against the Heat at home.