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.

Curry drains 7 3-pointers, Nets start homestand with win over Blazers

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NEW YORK (AP) — Kevin Durant scored 31 points, Seth Curry added a season-high 29 off the bench and the Brooklyn Nets beat the Portland Trail Blazers 111-94 on Sunday.

Curry was 7 for 10 on 3-pointers and had his highest point total with the Nets and the most by a Brooklyn reserve this season.

“I’ve always felt like if I get good shots I’m going to make them at a high clip,” Curry said. “Our offense was flowing pretty well. Guys found me open early on to start the game and I felt pretty good, aggressive.”

Kyrie Irving added 22 points for the Nets. Ben Simmons took just three shots but had 12 rebounds and eight assists.

“Ben did a great job of getting downhill,” Curry said. “He’s a great passer (and) he knows how to find me out there on the floor.”

Jerami Grant scored 29 points for Portland. Jusuf Nurkic had 17 points and 14 rebounds, while Anfernee Simons added 15 points and Justice Winslow had 14.

The Nets have won four of their last six games, while the Trail Blazers, who are playing without Damian Lillard, have dropped five of six.

“Tough little stretch that we’re in right now,” Portland coach Chauncey Billups said. “It is what it is. Every team goes through it.”

Brooklyn made 52.6% of its shots from the field overall, and 42.9% from 3-point range, in the second matchup between the teams in 10 days.

“It’s a make-or-miss league,” Durant said. “It’s about baskets.”

With the Nets leading by four entering the fourth, Curry scored Brooklyn’s first eight points of the quarter. Royce O'Neale‘s free throw gave the Nets a 93-87 lead and following a Portland turnover, Curry made a 3 that extended the advantage to nine.

Nurkic sandwiched a hook shot and free throw around two free throws by Irving to cut Brooklyn’s lead to 98-90. However, after a timeout, Durant hit a 3 to push the lead to 101-90.

Brooklyn led 58-57 at halftime, and 84-80 after the third quarter.

T.J. Warren targets Dec. 2 for return to court for Brooklyn Nets

2022-2023 Brooklyn Nets Media Day
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
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T.J. Warren was a breakout star in the bubble, averaging 26.6 points and 6.3 rebounds a game for the Pacers.

Warren has played just four games since the bubble due to stress fractures in his foot.

The Nets signed him this season hoping he could get healthy and provide some depth off the bench at the four. We’re about to find out if that can happen on Dec. 2, with Warren targeting his return then Toronto, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Nets have not confirmed this timeline. However, coach Jacque Vaughn has recently talked up Warren’s workouts and hinted that a return is getting close.

A healthy Warren could be a big boost for a Nets team looking for more of a spark off the bench.

 

LeBron becomes oldest player with 39 points, 11 boards, seven 3-pointers (he’s also the youngest)

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The first question after LeBron James put up 21 and 8 to help the Lakers beat the Spurs Friday night was whether he would play in the back-to-back Saturday. He had just missed five games with a groin strain, after all.

Not only did LeBron play Saturday, he had a historic night.

LeBron had 39 points, 11 rebounds, and shot 7-of-12 from 3 — making him the oldest player in the history of the NBA with a 35+, 10+ with seven 3-pointer game.

The youngest player ever to put up that stat line? Also one LeBron James.

The 39 points were also the second most points ever scored by a player in his 20th NBA season, trailing only Kobe Bryant gunning his way to 60 in his final game.

The Lakers got the second straight win over the Spurs on Saturday behind LeBron, 143-138, a game more likely to be remembered for Zach Collins getting ejected for a foul that left Russell Westbrook bloody. The Lakers have won three straight and 5-of-6 but have done it against a very soft part of the schedule (three of the wins were over the tanking Spurs). Los Angeles beat the teams in front of it and started to show signs of life this season, but now they have to carry that over into a stretch against better teams, beginning Monday against the Pacers.

Watch Deandre Ayton put up 29 points, 21 rebounds, lead Suns past Jazz 113-112

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PHOENIX — There was much debate during the NBA offseason about whether Deandre Ayton was worth a max contract.

On nights like Saturday, the answer is a resounding yes.

Ayton notched season highs with 29 points and 21 rebounds, Devin Booker added 27 points and the Phoenix Suns held on for a hard-fought 113-112 win over the Utah Jazz.

The Jazz led 81-78 after three quarters, but the Suns pushed ahead 99-93 by midway through the fourth. The game remained tight through the final minutes, but Phoenix never lost the lead. On top of Ayton’s scoring and rebounding, he also had a crucial steal in the final minutes that helped thwart a final Jazz rally.

“I don’t know what he ate for Thanksgiving,” Booker said. “I should have been over there.”

Ayton grabbed his 21st rebound of the game on the final possession, securing Booker’s miss off a 3-pointer to keep the Jazz from a final possession. Ayton signed a four-year, $133 million deal during the offseason after the Suns matched an offer sheet from the Indiana Pacers.

“That young man has been coming to the gym at crazy hours, lifting with (coaches), so that he can be prepared for moments like this,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “It’s just good to see the work pay off. It’s good to see him have monster games against really good teams on a back-to-back. That’s pretty impressive.”

Ayton was the first player to have at least 28 points and 20 rebounds in a game for the Suns since Amar’e Stoudemire in 2007. He shot 11 of 19 from the field and added three assists and two blocks.

“I want to do more, I feel like I can do more,” Ayton said. “I’m just trying to do what I can to contribute to my team.”

Curiously, the Jazz didn’t foul the Suns on their final possession, essentially allowing them to run out the clock. Utah coach Will Hardy said the last play simply didn’t unfold like the team expected and there was some miscommunication.

“We wanted to get the ball out of Booker’s hands, and then foul,” Hardy said.

Ayton scored a season high for the second straight night. He poured in 28 points against the Pistons in a 108-102 win on Friday. Booker had a tough night shooting, making just 8 of 27 shots.

Utah was one of the NBA’s surprise teams in the first few weeks of the season, starting with a 10-3 record. The Jazz are just 3-7 since that point.

“One game, one stretch of the season doesn’t define your season,” Jazz forward Kelly Olynyk said. “You’ve got to go through ups-and-downs. Adversity – learn from it and come out the other side better for it.”

The Suns have an 11-1 record at home this season and have won four straight games.

Jordan Clarkson scored 22 points for the Jazz. Collin Sexton added 20 while Lauri Markkanen had 15 points and 10 rebounds.

The Jazz had a 54-51 lead at halftime. Clarkson led the Jazz with 12 points while Ayton had 11 points and seven rebounds.