Are the Chicago Bulls contenders? They aren’t even thinking about it.

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NBA fans, most of them anyway, don’t list the Chicago Bulls among the contenders in the East. It’s Miami and Boston. (Sorry Orlando, have to earn your way back onto that list.)

The Bulls being left off that list is really keeping Carlos Boozer up at night.

“That’s okay, we believe in ourselves,” Boozer told ProBasketballTalk with a little smirk. “We’re gonna keep doing what we do and we’ll see where we end up. We’ve got to prove it when it matters.”

That pretty much echoes what you hear around the Bulls locker room — they fall back to the “one game at a time” cliché like a Bull Durham character. They don’t mention that they beat the Celtics, Lakers, Heat and Magic last time they played them. Just focus on the next one. Especially now, as they are out on the ice show road trip.

But that road trip — and the time after the All-Star Break when they get Joakim Noah back and finally have a full roster for a stretch — will give us a chance to answer the contender question. So far they have been good but we don’t know how good — by the time Noah returns after the All-Star Break he and Boozer will have missed a combined 50 games. The excuses will soon be gone. We’re going to find out if the Bulls are contenders or just a piece or two away.

Back when the season started teams with new parts were slow to come together, but it was Miami drawing headlines and proclamations of failure a month into the season. The Bulls had a little of that awkwardness also — especially with Boozer out nursing a broken hand — but they flew under the radar then, too.

“We started off the season we knew the biggest challenge was how quickly we could all get on to the same page with all the changes that we had,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “The big thing for us was just to strive for improvement every single day. And we’re confident if we do the right things — and we want to start with our defense, defend and rebound and take care of the ball — we feel we’ll be in position to win (games).

“We’re still not where we want to be. We’ve got a long way to go.”

There it is again. One game at a time. Get a little bit better. Do that and they think they have a chance.

They’ve done that to the tune of a 34-16 record so far (sixth best in the NBA). But that record comes against one of the softest schedules in the league and that is starting to change. Things are getting harder right as the team has lost two straight on the road (and 18 of their final 32 are away from the United Center).

The Bulls have earned the wins they do have with defense — they are giving up 100 points per 100 possessions, the best rate in the NBA. Better than the Celtics and Magic and Heat. And they haven’t missed a beat with Noah out (they’ve been a little better, actually). The Bulls second unit doesn’t get enough credit — they may be the best defensive second unit in the NBA.

But is the offense good enough? They are scoring 106.2 points per 100 possessions, 19th best in the league. Below average. Their shooting is average, they turn the ball over too much and don’t get to the line enough (although Derrick Rose has been better about that lately).

Will that defense be able to hold up against a tougher schedule? Can their offense do enough being carried as it has been by Rose and his 24.6 points per game this season? Can the bench keep providing that boost at both ends of the floor?

The Bulls aren’t worrying about it, they are worrying about the Utah Jazz Wednesday night. One game at a time. Get a little bit better.

Who should be worried about it? Boston and Miami. Because one of them will get the Bulls in the second round of the playoffs and if things do come together as Thibodeau and Boozer plan Chicago will prove themselves a contender. And a very tough out.

Markieff Morris calls Paul Millsap a “crybaby,” Millsap responds “It definitely got personal now”

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The Atlanta Hawks owned the Washington Wizards from the opening tip Saturday, making it a 2-1 series with an easy win.

It’s a series now — and that includes trash talk.

Paul Millsap had 29 points, pulled down 14 boards, got to the line 11 times, and led the Hawks to the win. He got the calls he wanted this game, but Washington’s Markieff Morris was not exactly down with high praise for Millsap.

The key line here: “”He just did more for his team. He’s a crybaby. Get all the calls and you a crybaby.”

Millsap was asked about that comment in his postgame presser — and the best part may be Dennis Schroeder’s reaction.

“It definitely got personal now, yes. I mean, I don’t care. So what? He can take his loss and go back to the hotel and be ready for the next game.”

These two have already had a beef this series.

Game 4 in this series just got a lot more interesting.

Marc Gasol game-winner tops Kawhi Leonard’s brilliance, evens Spurs/Grizzlies series 2-2

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Best. Game. Of. The. Playoffs.

So far at least.

Kawhi Leonard scored 16 consecutive points for the Spurs down the stretch of regulation to force overtime, then in OT hit a corner three with 7.2 seconds left to tie the game at 108-108. Leonard finished the game with a career playoff high of 43 points.

It wasn’t enough. Because in those final seconds Marc Gasol did this.

The 110-108 Memphis win ties the series at 2-2 as it heads back to San Antonio for Game 5. I might not want to sit next to Gregg Popovich on the flight home.

While Gasol hit the big shot, he never gets the chance if Mike Conley isn’t every kind of amazing through the clutch parts of this game. Conley finished with 35 points, and that includes a floater in the lane that forced OT (although Leonard got a pretty good look to end it in regulation and just missed). I’m surprised the Spurs switched on the pseudo pick on this play.

The Spurs struggled to get stops down the stretch, mostly because they had David Lee and Tony Parker both on the floor and Memphis did a good job getting switches onto those defenders. Spurs starting center and best defensive big Dewayne Dedmon missed the game due to an illness, and that ended up mattering.

Hawks take control early, romp past Wizards 116-98

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ATLANTA (AP) — Paul Millsap scored 29 points, Dennis Schroder had 27 and the Atlanta Hawks delivered an early knockout blow against Washington, cruising to a 116-98 victory Saturday that sliced the Wizards’ lead to 2-1 in the opening-round playoff series.

After two tight losses in Washington exposed some bad blood between the teams, Atlanta returned home and built a 25-point lead by late in the first quarter.

The Hawks were never seriously challenged by the Wizards, who were essentially a one-man team. John Wall kept up his dazzling play in the series, scoring 29 points, but the point guard got no help from his teammates.

The other Washington starters combined to score 30 points on 14-of-45 shooting.

Millsap also had 14 rebounds, while rookie Taurean Prince chipped in with 16 points.

Game 4 is Monday night in Atlanta.

The Hawks came out intent on moving the ball, getting open looks and cutting down on the turnovers that plagued them in the first two contests.

Talk about following the game plan.

Atlanta pushed out to a double-digit lead before the game was 3 minutes old and stretched the margin to 38-13 with just under a minute to go in the opening quarter on Schroder’s 3-pointer.

Wall did everything he could to spark the Wizards. He posed along the baseline after a thunderous dunk, which might have had more effect if the Wizards weren’t losing by 23 at the time. He also darted through the lane against a collapsing defense to bank in an improbable shot, drawing gasps from the Atlanta crowd.

Wall made all but one shot and scored 21 points in the first half, but the Wizards trailed 64-46 heading to the locker room. The other four Washington starters had just 18 points.

Beal, in particular, had a miserable night after averaging 26.5 points in the first two games. He was held to 12 points on 6-of-20 shooting, missing all six of his attempts beyond the arc.

TIP INS

Wizards: Wall is averaging 31 points per game in the series. … F Otto Porter Jr. left in the third quarter with a strained neck and didn’t return. … After a video review, Jason Smith was called for a flagrant foul against Millsap late in the third quarter.

Hawks: C Dwight Howard remains a non-factor in Atlanta’s offense. He scored five points and took just four shots, giving him a mere 15 attempts over the first three games. He did have 11 rebounds. … Schroder had some issues at the free-throw line, making only half of his eight attempts. Millsap did, too, going 5 of 9. … Atlanta had a double-digit lead for the final 44:24 of the game. … Prince picked up a technical foul for taunting the Wizards after an alley-oop dunk in the closing minutes. … The Hawks had just 11 turnovers.

 

Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic to play, start vs. Golden State in Game 3

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In 20 games after the Trail Blazers traded for him, Jusuf Nurkic averaged 15.2 points 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 2 blocks per game. Portland was 9.7 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court and went 14-6, a surge that helped get them into the playoffs. Then a leg fracture had him sidelined for the end of the season and the start of the playoffs.

Until Saturday.

He will play limited minutes, but the Blazers will take it.

Portland is down 0-2 to the Warriors but are coming home to take on a Golden State team that will be without Kevin Durant again (strained calf) and coach Steve Kerr (illness).

Nurkic gives Portland some hope, he certainly helps their defense. We’ll see if that’s enough.