Bulls have the parts, still honing fit

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
7:13
PM CT
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CHICAGO -- So it's obvious to pretty much everybody what the Chicago Bulls have now, particularly to the Bulls. It's not just the five straight wins, or that Pau Gasol is so reinvigorated, or that Jimmy Butler is now one of the very best two-way players in the league, or even that Derrick Rose is on the verge of striking that hard-to-find balance between self and others, warp speed and slow dance.

It's that as the Bulls leave the first stage of the NBA season and head with a little more determination toward the All-Star break, it seems they have pretty much every element a team needs to have serious championship aspirations.

Byron Scott, given to old-school reserve when it comes to assessing opponents, said of the Bulls after their 20-point win over his Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas night, "They are the best we have played so far in the East. They are good. They have length and athleticism. They have two of the best passing big men in the game. They are unselfish. They have a rising star in Jimmy Butler. They have a great basketball team."

The middle of the five-game winning streak is what has gotten the league's attention, even out West. You don't win in Memphis, in Chicago against Toronto, and back on the road against Washington unless a lot of important elements are coming together.


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Thibodeau: Nothing Anthony Davis can't do

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
2:17
PM CT
Powers By Scott Powers
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau knew like everyone else Anthony Davis had plenty of ability before coaching him with Team USA.

Thibodeau learned a lot more about Davis over the summer.

“It’s funny,” Thibodeau said on Friday. “You really don’t know somebody until you’re around them, and you have an opportunity to coach them. So, you can see the talent. That part I knew. But once you’re around him and see how serious he is and what a great teammate he is and just how he carries himself, he was a pleasure to be around.”

Davis may not be such a pleasure come Saturday when he and New Orleans Pelicans face the Bulls. Coming off his summer experience with Team USA, Davis is having an MVP-type season, averaging 24.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks.

“He's something,” Thibodeau said. “I was around him all summer, and I don't know if there's any big that's more talented than him. There's nothing that he can't do. He's got great touch, he can post, put it on the floor. He's got great hands, he's great defensively. He's got the skills of a guard, and the speed and quickness of a guard and obviously the size of a big. So, it's a tough combination.”

Davis, a Chicago native, may have some extra motivation Saturday as it’s his first NBA game back in Chicago. He missed the Pelicans’ past two games in Chicago because of injuries. He did play at the United Center for Team USA over the summer.

Davis played in high school at Perspectives Charter Schools’ Joslin campus, which is about 4.4 miles from the United Center. He was an unknown high school player until he blew up on the club scene prior to his senior season. He became the No. 1 player in his high school class and went on to play at Kentucky for one season.

Rookie of the First Trimester

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
1:30
PM CT
Stein By Marc Stein
ESPNChicago.com
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Nikola MiroticChris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsNikola Mirotic has made an immediate impact with the Bulls after six years playing in Spain.

Rookie Of The First Trimester: Nikola Mirotic, Chicago



A draft for the ages, huh?

Not quite.

Not yet.

The NBA's much-hyped Class of 2014, as a collective, is in the midst of a thoroughly forgettable and deflating introduction to the pros. Only two rookies -- Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker -- are scoring in double figures. And that's with Wiggins leading all rookies at a mere 12.6 points per game, with Parker, after going No. 2 overall, suddenly out for the season after a knee tear that has sadly shelved him just like No. 3 pick Joel Embiid (foot), No. 4 Aaron Gordon (foot) and No. 7 Julius Randle (leg).

So you could make the argument, in this climate, that we should have skipped this category entirely for Trimester purposes. The problem there is that some youngster is eventually going to win Rookie of the Year honors in late April or early May, no matter how underwhelming his production might be, so we're somewhat duty-bound to try to identify a leader at the one-third stage.

Which brings us to Mirotic.

Perhaps he's not a rookie in the truest sense after spending more than half a decade in Real Madrid's system before finally matriculating to Chicago, but what qualifies as big league production from Mirotic in the month of December -- averages of 10.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and .419 shooting from 3-point range -- is enough to put him in the lead.

Who else could we conceivably propose here? Wiggins and Nerlens Noel have shown occasional flashes, as has Noel's Philly teammate K.J. McDaniels, but none of those more celebrated recent draftees is clearly on an upward career arc at this juncture.

As of Christmas morning, Mirotic was the only rookie in circulation with a PER above the league average of 15.0, sitting at a promising 18.2. No. 11 overall pick Doug McDermott was actually supposed to be Chicago's marquee rookie, but McDermott's own Year 1 knee woes have helped open the door for his 23-year-old fellow rook to establish himself as a rotation player.

Who else can say so, for teams with legit playoff aspirations, besides Houston's Kostas Papanikolaou or Brooklyn's Bojan Bogdanovic?

It also doesn't hurt Mirotic's Trimester cause that his new Three-kola nickname, meant to be shouted with the gusto of the guy in the Ricola cough drops commercials, is pretty catchy.

Most Improved Player of the First Trimester

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
11:30
AM CT
Stein By Marc Stein
ESPNChicago.com
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Jimmy ButlerJoe Murphy/NBAE/Getty ImagesJimmy Butler, the East's reigning Player of the Month, is the early runaway favorite for MIP honors.

Most Improved Player of the First Trimester: Jimmy Butler, Chicago



After years and years (and years) of whining from us about how hard it is to sift through the wide range of players who are nominated for this award and then zero in on a name or three, 2014-15 appears poised to give us our first overwhelming MIP favorite in memory.

Have to believe Chicago's Jimmy Butler would be a unanimous hoister of the MIP trophy if the voting were done on Christmas.

Even with Draymond Green making his own mega-leap in Golden State, what Butler has achieved defies explanation, even after we've had a couple of months to let the transformation sink in. He's hiked his shooting percentage from .397 last season to .483, which bumped his scoring average from 13.1 PPG to 21.6 PPG and, more than any other Bull, has helped Tom Thibodeau cope with the steady stream of injuries Chicago has faced by happily taking on a league-leading 40.1 minutes per game.

He's tireless. The offensive spike means he's now an impact player at both ends. And Butler has been seen taking shifts at every position but center, which is why Green -- despite his transformative emergence as a perimeter threat out West -- would have to make another leap in-season to close the gap on the guy setting the MIP pace.

The guy who won Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors for October/November out of nowhere.

Rewind to Halloween and Butler was in the headlines thanks to his thoroughly unsatisfying contract extension talks with the Bulls, who were unwilling to offer more than $40-44 million over four years. Now? Butler and agent Happy Walters look rather wise to have opted for patience, with rival GMs routinely saying that Butler is on course to generate four-year max offers as a restricted free agent come July, a la Gordon Hayward last summer from Charlotte.

Best of all? Butler and Green have been so good that we don't even have to launch into our usual speech about how second-year players (like our beloved Dennis Schroder and Giannis Antetokounmpo) and high lottery picks who are supposed to keep developing toward stardom (like Klay Thompson and that Anthony Davis kid) really aren't the sorts of candidates we're looking for in keeping with the true spirit of this award.

An agony-free MIP dissertation?

Butler did it.

Efficient Carlos Boozer returns to friendly confines of United Center

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
12:44
AM CT
Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Unlike fellow class of 2010 free agent LeBron James, Carlos Boozer wasn’t welcomed back to his old stomping grounds with a video tribute on Christmas.

Of course, he didn’t win two titles with the Chicago Bulls, either.

And yes, Bulls fans yelled “Boo,” not “Booz," during the Bulls’ 113-93 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Boozer
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images"This is like a second home for me," Carlos Boozer said of his return to Chicago. "I know everybody here. We became like a family over the years."
Boozer, the Bulls’ consolation prize four summers ago, was “amnestied” after last season to give the Bulls salary-cap room for a new crop of free agents. It was an expected move -- and the right one as his minutes atrophied over his last season. Outside of the locker room, he's not exactly missed, especially with the way his replacement, Pau Gasol, is playing.

Now a backup power forward for the Lakers, Boozer had an efficient game in his return to Chicago, scoring 14 points on 7-for-11 shooting and adding five rebounds in 17 minutes, 19 seconds off the bench. He is averaging 13 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in 26 minutes for the 9-20 Lakers.

The Bulls are a mirror opposite of Boozer's new team at 20-9.

While the Bulls are much better off with newcomers Gasol and Nikola Mirotic teaming up with frontcourt holdovers Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, the United Center is certainly a quieter place without the voluble Boozer, one of the louder players in the NBA.

“He was pretty quiet tonight, actually,” Noah said after the contest. “But overall, I thought he had a good game.”

While he wasn’t a fan favorite -- and often spent fourth quarters marooned on Tom Thibodeau’s bench because of his defensive liabilities -- Boozer still has plenty of fans in the Bulls organization, from the trainers to the PR staff to the players and coaches. His trademark saying/hashtag, "Holdat," remains popular with the team.

“This is like a second home for me,” Boozer said. “I know everybody here. We became like a family over the years.”

And he can still scream with the best of them.

Take the start of his postgame news conference, which took place in the hallway outside the visitors locker room, for example.

A Lakers TV reporter said, “Carlos, what was this like for you --”

“Easy!” Boozer yelled to Bulls assistant Ed Pinckney, who was down the hall. “Don’t leave yet!”

Then, he seamlessly looked at the reporter and said, “Go ahead.”

“What was it like for you to come back to a place I know you have strong feelings for?”

As you might surmise, Boozer said it was “weird” to play against his “brothers” out there, but he still wanted to get a win.

“I’m just playing,” he said. “You just got to play out there. I’m just out there hooping. I was just trying to be efficient when I’m out there.”

Coming off the bench as an offensive threat seems like a good niche for Boozer to end his career.

“It was cool to see Booz, seeing him out there, just doing his thing out there, just competing,” Noah said.

The Bulls have won five in a row and are very deep. Against the Lakers, nine guys played at least 14 minutes, led by Jimmy Butler’s 42:11. Gasol led the Bulls with 23 points, Butler added 21 and Rose 20. Gasol can finish inside, and Mirotic is a 3-point threat.

Boozer found out what it’s like as an opponent playing against this team, which is pretty healthy for the moment.

“They came in waves, man,” Boozer said. “Jimmy played well, D-Rose played well late, Pau was amazing all game long.”

Boozer visited with his ex-teammates in the home locker room after the game. His locker now belongs to Gasol, a fan favorite who will try to do what Boozer couldn't: win the Eastern Conference and get to the Finals.

Pau Gasol: Facing Lakers 'weird'

December, 25, 2014
Dec 25
11:29
PM CT
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CHICAGO -- Veteran big man Pau Gasol admitted after Thursday night's 113-93 win over the Los Angeles Lakers that it was "weird" facing his former team for the first time since signing with the Chicago Bulls in the summer.

"It's weird," Gasol said after racking up a game high 23 points and 13 rebounds. "Obviously it's an emotional game because you find yourself on the opposite side of a team that you've played for for so many years and you've been through so much [with them]. So it was weird, difficult at first to kind of get going and once you start playing you're just playing the game the best way you can."

Gasol said he spent some time speaking to former teammate Kobe Bryant on Wednesday and was sad that the Laker legend didn't play against the Bulls. Bryant sat the game out with soreness.

"We saw each other for a while," Gasol said. "We sat down for over two hours. Just catching up. It felt good to really to hang out, to talk, spend quality time together. I really enjoyed it. Obviously I miss him, I don't get to see him that much now for obvious reasons, but he's like a brother to me and I wish him the best. I have the utmost respect for who he is and we're always going to support [each other]."

Gasol didn't reveal exactly what was said in the conversation but did note that it had little to do about basketball. He is hopeful that Bryant will be back on the floor soon.


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CHICAGO -- Pau Gasol had 23 points and 13 rebounds against his former team and the Chicago Bulls beat Los Angeles 113-93 on Thursday night with Lakers star Kobe Bryant resting his sore body.

Jimmy Butler added 21 points, and Derrick Rose had 20 points and six assists to help the Bulls win their season-high fifth straight.

With Bryant missing his second straight game, the Lakers were unable to pull off another upset. They stunned Golden State on Tuesday night but came up short against the Central division leaders.

The Bulls hung on after a 16-point second-quarter lead dwindled to two in the third. They pulled away in the fourth, sending the Lakers to their fourth loss in five games.

Gasol, a two-time champion in six-plus seasons with the Lakers, was 9 of 14 from the field in his first game against Los Angeles since joining the Bulls in the summer.


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Bulls 113, Lakers 93: Kobe out again

December, 25, 2014
Dec 25
7:33
PM CT
Holmes By Baxter Holmes
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- No Kobe Bryant -- and no Los Angeles Lakers blowout win, either.

After pummeling the Golden State Warriors without Bryant earlier this week, the Lakers scrapped against the Chicago Bulls here but came up short after shooting 39 percent from the field.

Bryant sat out again to rest, which was unexpected since it meant missing a nationally-televised Christmas Day matchup, but the Lakers held their own for most of the game, coming to within 2 of the Bulls in the third quarter.

In the end, the Bulls, who led by as much as 22, had too much firepower, dropping the Lakers to 9-20. The Lakers did maintain their balance, with five players scoring in double figures, led by Wesley Johnson, who scored 19 points to go along with nine rebounds.

Player of the game: This one goes to Bulls forward Pau Gasol, who scored 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds against his former team.

Not so Swaggy: Nick Young struggled for the Lakers, scoring just 3 points on 1-of-6 shooting in 18 minutes off the bench. Without him and Bryant, the Lakers really lacked a scoring punch.

More reunions: Lakers forward Carlos Boozer scored 14 points and grabbed five rebounds off the bench against his former squad.

Up next: the Lakers head to Dallas to play the Mavericks on Friday. Bryant said there's a "slim" chance that he plays in the game.
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Michael Wilbon on Kobe Bryant sitting out tonight when the Lakers face the Bulls.

Kobe Bryant misses 2nd straight

December, 25, 2014
Dec 25
5:37
PM CT
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CHICAGO -- Lakers star Kobe Bryant missed Los Angeles' 113-93 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night.

The 36-year-old Bryant sat out to rest for the second straight game, Lakers coach Byron Scott announced before the game.

"It's extremely difficult, especially playing here, playing on Christmas Day and playing in this city. I love playing here," Bryant said. "The fans have always been great. There's always a lot of energy in the building.

"At the same time, I've just got to try to be smart. It's really going against my nature, but I've got to be smart about this."

When asked if there was any particular injury hampering him, Bryant cited age and soreness.

"Old age. My knees are sore at this stage of the season," he said. "My Achilles are sore -- both of them. My metatarsals are tight, back is tight. I just need to kind of hit the re-set button."

Bryant also said he'll likely play fewer minutes going forward. When asked about the chances that he'd play Friday in Dallas against the Mavericks, Bryant said, they're "slim right now."

Bryant was listed as probable to play in his 16th career Christmas Day game, but Scott said Bryant notified him of general soreness Thursday morning and decided to sit him out. Scott said he didn't get much resistance from Bryant.

Bryant is averaging 24.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game this season.


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LeBron James top ASG vote-getter

December, 25, 2014
Dec 25
11:17
AM CT
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NEW YORK -- Cleveland's LeBron James and Stephen Curry of Golden State are the leading vote-getters in the first returns from NBA All-Star fan voting.

James had about 553,000 votes at the Eastern Conference frontcourt spot, where New York's Carmelo Anthony ranked second and Chicago's Pau Gasol was third in the results released Thursday. Washington's John Wall topped East guards, and No. 2 was James' former Miami teammate, Dwyane Wade.

Curry had more than 549,000 votes to lead second-place Kobe Bryant among West guards. New Orleans' Anthony Davis had the most votes in the West frontcourt, followed by the Clippers' Blake Griffin and Memphis center Marc Gasol.

Voting runs through Jan. 19, and starters for the Feb. 15 game in New York will be announced Jan. 22.


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Pau Gasol: Will be 'hard to focus'

December, 24, 2014
Dec 24
1:22
AM CT
[+] EnlargePau Gasol and Kobe Bryant
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesPau Gasol is looking forward to facing former teammate Kobe Bryant on Christmas Day.

WASHINGTON -- Former Los Angeles Laker Pau Gasol said it will be "emotional" and "weird" to face his old teammates on Christmas night when his new team, the Chicago Bulls, takes on his former one.

"Emotional, weird, hard to focus," Gasol said of what he expects for his range of emotions Thursday night. "But at the same time, I kind of look forward to it in a way. To see some of the people that I've been through a lot with."

Gasol, who scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds in Tuesday's 99-91 win over the Washington Wizards, signed with the Bulls as a free agent over the summer after spending 6½ years with the Lakers. He knows it's "a little more special" to play on Christmas and is looking forward to facing former teammate Kobe Bryant, who sat out the Lakers' win over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday to rest.

"He's playing really well," Gasol said of Bryant. "I think it's impressing a lot of people about what he's able to do at this point in his career. And all his accomplishments and milestones that he's achieving are incredible. It must be hard for him to lose most of the games, but they have a pretty new team with a lot of new faces and a new coach, a lot to adjust to. And the Western Conference, you get no breaks, it's no joke, and everybody's going to challenge you and everybody wants to beat the Lakers, too, so it's kind of hard but I think they'll improve."

There will be another reunion Thursday, with Lakers power forward Carlos Boozer


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Rose, Bulls draw it up perfectly in D.C.

December, 23, 2014
Dec 23
11:02
PM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
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WASHINGTON -- This is the way things are supposed to work for the Chicago Bulls.

This is the way Gar Forman, John Paxson and Tom Thibodeau drew it up over the summer. Tuesday's 99-91 win over the Washington Wizards unfolded exactly how the Bulls' triumvirate envisioned. A deep Bulls' roster would build a lead heading into the fourth quarter against a quality opponent, and then Derrick Rose would shut things down late in the game.

Those visions have become realities for the Bulls over the past week, as they've put together one of the most impressive stretches in the past three years. Four wins in a row, the past three of which came against Memphis, Toronto and Washington -- teams that have a combined record of 62-22.

"It's real," Bulls center Joakim Noah said of the recent stretch. "Chicago Bulls are getting healthy. It's very real. We know that we're still not where we want to be. And we know the sky's the limit for our team. Our confidence is just getting better, and we're going to keep working, and we feel like we can even get better defensively. But it's all coming, and it's going to be a special year."

The frightening part for the rest of the league is, if the Bulls can somehow stay healthy and continue playing together, they are going to be even better a few months from now than they are right now. That's part of the reason the confidence Noah exudes right now is off the charts. The other reason is, for the second straight game, Rose put the Bulls on his back in the fourth quarter.

After scoring 15 of his 29 points in the fourth Monday night against the Raptors, Rose scored 10 of his 25 in the fourth Tuesday night against the Wizards. He's not all the way back to where he was before he tore the ACL in his left knee in April 2012, but this recent stretch is as close as he has been.

"He's stringing the games together, and so that's important," Thibodeau said. "He had the two games when he was sick, and then he's picked up right where he left off. The good thing was him working through the back-to-backs. It's been a step-by-step process. This is really the first time he's played really well in a back-to-back. He's been playing and playing pretty good minutes in the back-to-backs, and he's felt good, but you could tell his confidence is growing. He's feeling a lot better, and that's great."

What's also great for Thibodeau is the depth he has to work with on a nightly basis. Noah called this Bulls squad the most talented offensive team he's been on since being in Chicago. That point is underscored by the fact that Jimmy Butler, who had a rare off-night on Tuesday and went just 4-for-13 from the field, still has developed to the point that he's opened up space on the floor for Rose.

"Even with me with a live dribble, I know it's dangerous," Rose said. "So to see the attention going somewhere else or going so many places now, it's kind of new for me. A lot of people want me to score 30 points in the first half, [but] I don't have to. I can pick and choose when I want to score or try to change the game. And that's all I'm trying to do with this team."

The former MVP says teams still aren't doubling him, in part because of all the other options the Bulls have on the floor. Between Butler's ability to get to the rim, Pau Gasol's ability to score down on the blocks, Aaron Brooks' ability to penetrate and create his own shot and Nikola Mirotic's long-range jumper, the Bulls are dramatically different than the team that lost to the Wizards in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals last season. Unlike in years past, Thibodeau's team has several weapons to go to on the floor when Rose isn't in rhythm, a credit to Forman and Paxson for creating a deeper roster in the offseason.

As usual with the Bulls, though, everything revolves around Rose. He's proving yet again that even after being out of the game for most of the past two years, he still has the rare ability to turn a game around -- or close one out -- by himself. He never doubted he would be able to do it again, despite all the fans and pundits who thought otherwise. He believes the Bulls are getting used to playing with one another again -- a fact proven in their recent play.

"Just having faith, man," Rose said of maintaining his confidence over the past two years. "I know how special I am as a player. I really feel like I was born to play this sport. I bring joy to people whenever I play. That's all I can say about it."

That's all he and the Bulls need to say right now. Their play is saying more than any other words could.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Jimmy Butler
PTS AST STL MIN
21.6 3.4 1.5 40.1
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsP. Gasol 11.5
AssistsD. Rose 5.0
StealsJ. Butler 1.5
BlocksP. Gasol 2.0