NBA Playoffs: Bulls get back to basics, even up series against Hawks

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If Game 1 between the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks was an aberration — after all, the Hawks converted tough jumpers at an extremely high rate, and rode the high of those makes into a well-executed defense and an improbable victory — then Game 2 was oddly typical.

The Bulls are no strangers to offensive inefficiency, and on those nights when Derrick Rose struggles to keep his turnovers down or his field goal percentage up, Chicago still holds the means to gut out ugly wins. For all of Rose’s strengths, the Bulls didn’t climb to the top of the Eastern Conference standings due only to the brilliance of his drives or his ability to set up his teammates; Chicago won a gaudy number of games by leading the NBA in effective field goal percentage allowed and dominating the boards on both ends of the court. The Bulls are as active and bothersome as any team in the league on the defensive end, and though Game 2 began with the MVP trophy being presented to Rose in front of his home crowd, it ended with the Bulls taking care of business in a manner that only included Rose as one valuable part of a successful team-wide effort.

The Bulls were back to their dominant ways on the glass, as they grabbed 32.6 percent of the available offensive boards while limiting the Hawks to a far lower mark on the other end. Joakim Noah — who had seven offensive rebounds and 14 boards overall to go along with his 15 points — was the star in that effort, but Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng grabbed a combined 19 defensive rebounds to prevent the misfiring Hawks from securing any extra opportunities.

Atlanta’s shot selection finally came back to bite them, and without a superior rebounding performance like the one they had in Game 1, the Hawks had no means to score reliably. Jamal Crawford and Josh Smith made some particularly questionable decisions, but the less prolific output from Joe Johnson (who finished with 16 points, just a few shy of his 34-point outburst from Game 1) was just as damaging to Atlanta’s cause. The Bulls didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard, but the Hawks still had trouble keeping pace, and scored at a rate of just 83 points per 100 possessions. That mark is atrocious, but was an inevitable result of Atlanta’s desire to shoot contested jumpers and live with the consequences.

The problems of Atlanta’s offense were due to no explicit fault of Jeff Teague’s, as the emergency point guard dropped a team-high 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting from the field. That said, Teague’s limitations did come into play; Johnson and Crawford initiated much of Atlanta’s offense, and while that strategic decision minimized Teague’s turnovers (he didn’t commit a single TO in Game 2, after giving the ball away just once in Game 1), it put a lot of pressure on Atlanta’s ball-handling wings to create a stable offense. That’s possible when all of the Hawks’ jumpers are falling, but once the defensive pressure increases and the exasperation sets in, the Hawks sometimes stymie their own offense at the point of attack. To a degree, it becomes less about what the Bulls are doing defensively and more about what the Hawks aren’t doing offensively. The ball movement becomes unproductive, the cuts and curls are mere tokens, the effort to really run a legitimate offense is subpar. These are the realities of the typical Atlanta Hawks, and even though Teague is doing an admirable job of filling in for Kirk Hinrich, the absence of the Hawks’ true starting point guard has stifled their already stiflable offense considerably. Things were going to be tough for Atlanta to maintain their offensive production even with Hinrich in the lineup (as-was?), but now this team seems capable of little more on the offensive end than splashes of hot shooting and benefiting from their occasional good fortune. It’s not easy for any team to execute against Chicago’s defense, but Atlanta doesn’t make it any easier on themselves, either.

Game 2 fell more in line with series expectation, though it’s likely that Chicago’s offense will improve from here through schematic means; we already saw a foundation for improvement with an increase in side screen-and-roll action, a fairly effective counter to the defensive pressure that had kept Rose from getting to the basket in Game 1. If the Bulls continue to work those side angles and implement more variety into their pick-and-roll attack while spacing the floor well, they’ll create more opportunities for Rose to charge toward the rim with a full head of steam or use his active dribble to create new passing lanes. Atlanta, on the other hand, is still too reliant on the bounce of the ball, not to mention the often questionable decision-making ability of its high-usage players. Johnson, Crawford, and Smith are often too willing to take a poorly chosen shot or stop the ball with isolation play, and though on their best days those three are a sight to behold, the norm is something a bit less fantastic. It’s 4-of-14 shooting for Smith with four turnovers. It’s 2-of-10 shooting from Crawford and a -9 plus-minus for the game, the single lowest for any player on either team. It’s dreadfully low scoring efficiency in what could have been a very winnable contest.

This is the result of a game in which the Hawks are the Hawks and the Bulls are the Bulls. If Atlanta wants to win a few more games and make this a series, they had better start working toward a few more aberrations.

Report: Markelle Fultz was available in trade packages on draft night

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The Philadelphia 76ers are saying all the right things about Markelle Fultz — they are patient, they believe in his work with his new trainer to rebuild his jump shot, and they see him as part of the future. Plus, his handles look sharp.

That doesn’t mean the Sixers are not willing to trade him in their pursuit of a star player. In fact, he was available on draft night in packages, reports Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Sixers say they aren’t shopping him. However, there was a report that they had internal discussions about packing him with Nos. 10 and 26 picks to move up into the Top 5 in Thursday’s draft. And multiple league sources have said that Fultz was available to be traded.

But it’s hard to get equal value in return for trading someone relearning how to shoot. The Sixers know that. They also know that if things do come together, Fultz will be a special player. He has the potential to become the type of player they would regret trading away.

Outside of a handful of superstars, every player in the NBA is available in a trade, at least in theory. Fultz is no different. The question in his case is what do they see as an upgrade vs. his potential?

Kawhi Leonard would be an upgrade, unquestionably. Fultz could be part of a package to land Leonard in a trade (Fultz, Robert Covington, the Miami 2021 first rounder, and probably more picks would be a starting point). Once the Spurs get serious about a potential Leonard trade (they are not there yet) how enticing that offer might be comes down to what they think of Fultz and his potential.

The Sixers are not shy about their desire to land an established All-Star to pair with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. If they don’t get Leonard, they will be looking at the next All-Star who becomes available, and Fultz could be part of those deals, too.

Fultz is not playing in Summer League for the Sixers, but if he comes back this fall trusting his jumper and starting to look like the player who was drafted No. 1 that trade value goes way up (and the Sixers may be less inclined to move him).  It may be then before the Sixers can get a respectable return on any Fultz trade.

Report: Indiana to retain Bojan Bogdanovic, he could start again next season

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Bojan Bogdanovic is the kind of floor spacing shooter the Pacers need next to the attacking Victor Oladipo. He started 80 games for the team, scored 14.3 points per game and shot 40.2 percent from three.

Bogdanovic is due $10.5 million next season, but the Pacers can buy him out before next Friday (June 29) for $1.5 million.

They’re not going to do that, the Pacers are going to retain Bogdanovic, reports Ben Gibson at the Pacers site 8points9seconds.com.

The Indiana Pacers currently plan to retain Bojan Bogdanovic — whose contract is only partially guaranteed for next season — and would be comfortable going into next season with him as a starter, according to a source familiar with the Pacers offseason plans.

There’s no surprise here, it was expected. Bogdanovic provides genuine value to the team — they need him on the court as a shooter, he averaged the second most threes per game on the squad. And, as an expiring contract, he could be used in any potential trades for another star.

The Pacers also have a decision to make on Darren Collison, who is owed $10 million next season but has a $2 million buyout by July 1. They will probably keep him around.

Al Jefferson is owed $10 million next season but can be bought out for $4 million before next January 10. Expect the Pacers to exercise that option and buy him out well before that date.

Carmelo Anthony sends message to haters: ‘Take A Step Back… And Enjoy Life’

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When the expected became official and Carmelo Anthony opted to take the $27.8 million contractually owed him next season, there were groans from the Thunder faithful.

It was Anthony’s right — and everyone knew he was going to take the cash (we all would have done the same) — but his value on the court has shrunk and that’s what eats at the OKC faithful. Anthony’s response on Instagram was, essentially, “relax, it’s just basketball.”

It will be interesting to see if Anthony is back with the Thunder next season, or if he gets bought out. If he does return, how do they better fit him in the offense?

Anthony’s defense has long been a concern, but his offense used to be efficient enough, and his ability to create shots important enough, that teams lived with the defense. However, his efficiency has slid in recent years and, as we saw in the playoffs in April, it’s not enough anymore. The Thunder played better with other lineups. To which Anthony responded he has to get back to his old style of play more.

It’s going to be a wild summer in OKC. Whatever happens.

Suns to sign French point guard Elie Okobo to first-round style contract

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The Suns have an impressive young core four: Devin Booker at the two, Mikal Bridges at the three, Josh Jackson at the four, and Deandre Ayton at center.

The hole: Who will be the point guard?

The Suns like Elie Okobo of France a lot. They drafted him 31st overall, the top pick of the second round, but they will give him a first-round style contract with two guaranteed seasons and two team options after that, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Suns hinted they were going to do this, and it’s a smart move at a fair price if they can develop Okobo (even as a backup).

Okobo has potential. Last season, at the highest level of the athletic French league he averaged 13.2 points on 57 percent shooting (38 percent from three) plus 4.4 assists per game. Okobo is an NBA level athlete who has all the tools to be a good NBA point guard — and he already knows how to score (he had 44 points in a playoff game this season). He’s going to have to round out his game and adapt to the NBA style, but the Suns think they have something.

And they are betting they have with a nice sized contract.