NBA Playoff Preview: Chicago vs. Indiana

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SEASON RECORDS
Bulls: 62-20 (No. 1 seed in East)
Pacers: 37-45 (No. 8 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Bulls 3-1, with the Pacers winning the most recent when Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough just took over.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possessions)
Bulls: Off. 105.4 (12th in NBA); Def. 97.4 (1st in NBA)
Pacers: Off. 101.8 (23rd in NBA)’ Def. 103.5 (12th in NBA)

THREE KEY BULLS:

Derrick Rose: The soon-to-be MVP is pretty much everything to the Bulls offense — he is the guy they run off screens to get shots, he is the guy they give the ball to in isolation. What will be interesting in this series, and particularly as the playoffs move on, is how the Bulls adjust when teams make it a priority to get the ball out of Rose’s hands.

Luol Deng: He is key in two ways: 1) He will get the defensive matchups on Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy Jr., the two guys the Bulls will key on stopping; 2) He is the difference between the Bulls having an average offense and a good one. Rose will get his, as will Carlos Boozer most nights, but when Deng gets going with them the Bulls offense is infinitely harder to stop.

Taj Gibson: The Bulls depth — and the ability of that depth to control Mike Dunleavy and Josh McRoberts off the Pacers bench — will be one of their keys in this series. Gibson (or whoever the Pacers put on Dunleavy) needs to make him work on defense as well. Which means attack the rim, when Gibson spots up he is far less dangerous. He needs to use his athleticism and attack.

THREE KEY PACERS

Danny Granger: Indiana has got to find a way to score on the Bulls stout defense, and Granger is the guy most capable of creating his own shot and knocking it down. His game has taken a step back this season — he is not shooting at as high a percentage, he is turning over the ball more — but simply put he must have a monster series for the Pacers to have any chance.

Darren Collison: No one man can stop Derrick Rose, it takes a team effort. But Collison is the first line of defense. He has to guide Rose to help, he has to create turnovers and make life hard for Rose, and when the Pacers decide to trap or take other steps to get the ball out of Rose’s hands, he cannot let Rose just split the double and waltz inside. The other key for Collison — holding on to the ball. Collison can be a turnover machine, particularly when he is handling the ball on the pick-and-roll. The Bulls are one of the best pick-and-roll defending teams in the league. If he turns the ball over and the Bulls get easy points in transition, the Pacers will not be able to keep up.

Mike Dunleavy Jr.: The Pacers take a lot of jump shots and Dunleavy is their best guy curling off screens and on catch-and-shoots — the things the Bulls are going to make very hard but the Pacers have to execute to have a chance. He has to get looks and he is going to have to knock down some contested shots for the Pacers to have any chance. And he should put the ball on the floor too (which he is better at than people think, he’s got a pretty rounded game).

OUTLOOK

The Bulls are the league’s best defensive team; the Pacers are a pretty good defensive team. So rule one, bet the under. The key here is the Pacers are not a good offensive team either and what strengths they do have play right into the hands of the Bulls defense. That showed in the regular season meetings when the Pacers mostly struggled to score.

Indiana likes to run guys off screens, have them pop out to open spaces for quick shots or to get room to attack — you can bet the Bulls will bump guys off those lines in this series. Chicago will grind it out, take Pacers players off their preferred lines. Also, the Bulls close out hard on shooters, taking away clean looks. Indiana needs to find a way to get some easy buckets.

The best way to attack the Bulls is to get out in transition — the Bulls are not a great transition defense team. Once you let them get set in the half court they are a wall. Problem is, Pacers do not like to get out and run, and they’re not good at it when they do.

On the other end of the floor, the Bulls are going to do what they do, which is run Rose off a series of screens and put him in isolation and get enough points. The Pacers will have some success slowing this, they are a good defensive squad. But will it matter?

Indiana did beat the Bulls once this past season — the Bulls had one of their worst interior defensive games of the season and Tyler Hansbrough and Roy Hibbert combined for 44 and 19. Want to bet on them being able to do that four times in seven games?

PREDICTION

The Pacers just do not have the offensive firepower to hang in this series. It’s going to be a low scoring series. Also expect some ugly games. But the Bulls are the better grinders.

Bulls sweep, 4-0.

Doncic’s 30, Mavericks’ 17-0 run lift them past Knicks at MSG

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NEW YORK (AP) — Luka Doncic had a game-high 30 points, Tim Hardaway Jr. chipped in 28 points against his former team, and the Dallas Mavericks beat the New York Knicks 121-100 on Saturday.

Spencer Dinwiddie scored 17 points for Dallas, which outscored New York 69-41 in the second half for just its second win seven games.

“I think it’s great that everyone’s in the locker room smiling,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “Everybody saw the ball go in, we shared the ball, we played the right way. … We’re a team that lives or dies by the 3, and today we made them.”

Forward Julius Randle led the Knicks with 24 points, and Immanuel Quickly chipped in 23. Leading scorer Jalen Brunson had 13 points playing against Dallas for the first time since he signed with the Knicks on July 12, but New York fell for the sixth time in its past eight games.

“To be honest, not fun,” Brunson said when asked what it was like playing against his former team. “They played great tonight. You got to give them credit. No matter who is on the floor, my approach stays the same. But to see them after the game and shake their hands, that was pretty cool.”

Hardaway exacted revenge against his former team, with whom he played 254 games over parts of four seasons. Hardaway had 17 points in the third quarter, including five 3-pointers, during a 27-6 run. He credited familiarity in New York – and Dallas’ previous game in Detroit – as keys to his third straight 20-plus point game.

“This road trip, when you have family and friends in both cities, it lightens you and brings some positive vibes and some positive energy,” Hardaway said. “To come here, to Detroit and to New York, both places where I used to play college and professionally, was a great atmosphere. I was comfortable, and my teammates (were) keeping me positive.”

Doncic, the NBA’s leading scorer, had just 11 points on 3 of 11 shooting in the first half. But he took over in the third, scoring 19 points on 8 of 10 shooting. Dallas outscored New York 41-15 in the third quarter, turning a tight game into a rout.

“The first half I wasn’t really participating,” Doncic said. “It was a challenge to come out of the locker room with more energy.”

The Knicks shot 55% in the first half, including 63% from the field in the first quarter. Randle had 14 of his 21 first-half points in the first quarter, including seven on a 9-0 run that gave New York an early 14-5 advantage.

The Knicks led by as many as 15 in the second quarter, but Dallas turned up the defensive intensity and cut New York’s lead to seven, 59-52, at halftime.

“The start of the game, I thought we were pretty good,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We built the 15-point lead, then we sort of lost traction mid-second quarter.”

Ja Morant fined $35,000 for using ‘ inappropriate language’ toward referee

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A frustrated Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant must have used some special language near the end of the Grizzlies’ loss to the Timberwolves, because both were ejected within a matter of minutes near the end of the game Wednesday night.

The league fined Morant $35,000 for “confronting and directing inappropriate language toward a game official and failing to leave the court in a timely manner following his ejection.”

Morant was not demonstrative at the time and was clearly surprised by the ejection. Before leaving the court he dapped up Anthony Edwards (who was shooting free throws) and a couple of other players before heading back to the locker room. Afterward Morant took to social media.

If the official said that to Morant, he should also be punished. The league can’t come down on players for not showing the referees respect if it’s not a two-way street.

It was an ugly loss for the Grizzlies, who fell to a Timberwolves team without Karl-Anthony Towns.

Teams reportedly watching to see if Bulls make stars available; Lakers had internal discussions on it

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It was a talking point going into the season: What teams we thought would be good will struggle, and then pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama in the lottery.

What about the 9-13 Chicago Bulls? They barely look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even at their best where do they fall in the East? Would they blow it up? With DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine, they have players that would interest other teams and could bring quality picks (or young players) back to Chicago. Other teams are watching, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

One of those teams: The Los Angeles Lakers.

That is according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post Podcast. He was discussing a potential trade floated by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons where the Lakers send Russell Westbrook and two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) to the Bulls for DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.

“The trade I saw on Twitter was Russ and both picks, one with light protections I think for DeRozan and Vucevic. I can tell you 100% for sure that the Lakers have had internal discussions about that very possibility, if it would ever come up. Not that they would do that. Let me be clear.”

None of this matters if the Bulls don’t decide to pivot, and they are not there yet. They may never get to that point. But the Lakers and other teams are surveying what teams might make game-changers available at the deadline, and the way the Bulls are stumbling has other teams keeping an eye on them. Expect the rumors to keep coming.

But for now, that’s all they are, rumors and speculation.

On the bright side for Bucks, Khris Middleton looks good in return

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton initially said that making his 2022-23 debut in his return from offseason wrist surgery felt great.

Then he quickly corrected himself.

“I should actually say good,” Middleton said Friday night after the Bucks’ 133-129 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “If we got the win, I think I would have been (feeling) great. It felt really good to be back out there with the guys competing and playing,”

Middleton, 31, had 17 points and seven assists while playing 26 1/2 minutes in his first game since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee April 20 in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. That injury caused him to miss the entirety of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinal with the Boston Celtics, a series Milwaukee lost in seven games.

The 6-foot-7 forward then had surgery on his left wrist in the summer, having played through the injury late last season.

“Pretty impressive how kind of seamlessly he got back into the game on both ends of the court,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Middleton said Friday at a post-shootaround availability that he might need some time to readjust, but the three-time All-Star didn’t show any signs of rust in his first game back. He shot 6 of 11 and went 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

“Just relying on my experience,” Middleton said. “Just (trying) not to rush and let the game come to me. Don’t try to do too much the first game back and try to fit in and play off my teammates.”

The most important thing is that Middleton felt just fine physically.

“Hopefully tomorrow when I wake up, I feel the same also and I won’t feel too sore or whatever,” he said.

The Bucks had gone 15-5 in Middleton’s absence. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Boston Celtics.

Middleton’s teammates believe his return should make them even better.

“It takes us to a whole different level,” Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We scored 129 points and we had a bad first half. That says a lot.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham knows how much Middleton means to the Bucks’ title hopes. Ham was an assistant coach on Budenholzer’s Bucks staff from 2018-22, including their 2021 championship season.

“Giannis is the heart and soul and the engine, and Khris is like the steering wheel,” Ham said before Friday’s game. “He’s the GPS in terms of understanding what to do. Giannis is the focal point but Khris is the master of putting guys where they need to be. He’s like that quarterback.”

The Bucks aren’t going to overexert Middleton as he returns to the floor for the first time in about 7 1/2 months. Budenholzer said Middleton probably won’t play Saturday at Charlotte.

“We’ll talk about it on the plane, but my guess is he will not play a back-to-back,” Budenholzer said.

Middleton’s just happy he’s back on the floor at all.

“Just a range of emotions,” Middleton said. “(I’ve) been through a lot these last couple months. Happy, sad, anxious, nervous. To finally get out there and play and get a lot of those nerves past me felt pretty good.