NBA Season Preview: Chicago Bulls

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Last season: Once again the Bulls outworked everybody in the regular season — while 29 teams treat games like the regular season, the Bulls grind every night and they were a league best 50-16 because of it. And that was with Derrick Rose missing 27 games. They were the top seed in the East and we were finally going to get an answer to the question if they could raise their game and challenge the Heat in the playoffs.

Except, we didn’t get that answer because Rose blew out his ACL on a jump stop at the end of the first playoff game. (And no, it wasn’t his shoes, stop that nonsense.) With Rose out the Bulls dropped four of the next five to the Sixers and were bounced in the first round.

Key Departures: The Bulls front office decided to shake up the bench — over the objections of coach Tom Thibodeau who thought that bench was key to Chicago’s 18-9 when Rose was out last season.

Gone are Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer, John Lucas and Omer Asik. Why? To start freeing up cap space so that either next summer or in the summer of 2014 the Bulls can make a run at some big name to pair with Rose. It is clearly their strategy at this point.

Key Additions: Marco Belinelli comes in as the new Kyle Korver, and that could well be an upgrade. Belinelli can shoot the three but also has a pretty well rounded game when healthy. Also added to the list are Kirk Hinrich, Nazr Mohammed, Vladimir Radmanovic and Nate Robinson. Hinrich will provide some solid play (although he’s not a great point guard, he’s better as a spot up guy), but Bulls fans shouldn’t expect too much out of the last three. Not consistently, anyway. Robinson will have his nights.

The Bulls also drafted Marquis Teague out of Kentucky, with hopes of grooming him to be Rose’s backup.

Three keys to the Bulls season:

1) When does Derrick Rose return, what does he play like when he does? For all the talk about what to make of Carlos Boozer, or how good Luol Deng and Taj Gibson can be, the Bulls are still Derrick Rose’s team. Those other guys can be key components, but Rose is the superstar you build around. Without him they are not the same, particularly on offense. The Bulls were fine in the regular season thanks to their work ethic and defense, but when they ran into a focused and (with Rose gone) simply better Sixers team they were done quickly.

Reports have Rose returning somewhere around March, maybe a little earlier. The good news is owner Jerry Reinsdorf, having long regretted allowing Michael Jordan to return too quickly from an injury, is not going to make that same mistake with Rose. The Bulls star will be fully cleared by doctors before he steps on the court. Which is the right play — this is your franchise anchor for the next decade. Think long term, not short.

When he does come back, he might not quite be his old self. Not at first. There will certainly be rust on his game but the bigger issue with guys coming back from ACL tears is them fully trusting their reconstructed knee again. Rose was the league’s most explosive player, he had a jump stop and quick changes of direction that dazzled. It may be a while before he makes those moves with the same force again. Like maybe during the 2013-14 season.

2) Where are the points going to come from? Luol Deng and Taj Gibson are fantastic defenders and paired with Joakim Noah and Thibodeau’s drive you can bet the Bulls will remain one of the best defensive teams in the NBA.

But Rose was the offense — not just his points, he was the catalyst for everyone else. No one player can make that up and the Bulls will try to do it by committee, but they will be a much easier team to defend now. Deng and Gibson both took nice, efficient steps forward on offense last season and they need to make leaps this season again. Deng played through last season (and the Olympics) with ligament issues in his wrist, he needs to do it again and play like it wasn’t even an issue. He needs to keep draining threes. As for Richard Hamilton, he slowed down last season as he didn’t get to the line as often — he doesn’t create his own shots any more. He is not going to pick up a lot of the slack.

Bulls’ fans saying “this is why we pay Carlos Boozer” should know you pay him to be the No. 2 guy. He is an All-Star level regular season scorer and rebounder (15 points, 8 rebounds a game last year and he is efficient in the lane), and he will continue to make plays this season. He will score for you. But if you expect him to be a No. 1 guy you will be disappointed. He is what he is, what he has been since Utah. Jazz fans expected differently, too, and had the same feelings you do. My advice: Accept him for what he is and stop trying to make him into something he is not.

3) How big a drop off will there be from last year’s role players/bench to this one? You can try to argue — as some Bulls fans have — that the drop off from last season to this with the bench is not that severe. And it’s not as severe as some have suggested, but it is a drop off. Hinrich is not quite the same player that was with the Bulls last go around and has not looked strong at the point the last couple years, where Watson gave the Bulls quality play when Rose was out.

Nate Robinson will win the Bulls a couple games with instant offense off the bench, he will lose them a couple too by shooting them right out of it when he is cold. Nazr Mohammed will provide some points but his defense will drive Thibodeau crazy. Vladimir Radmanovic can play a limited role any more.

The bottom line is I wouldn’t trust this bench like the Bulls did theirs last season

What Bulls fans should fear: Jerry Reinsdorf’s penny-pinching ways. There are two areas it could come back to bite them.

One is the Thibodeau contract negotiations. The team and coach are talking about an extension, but it is possible that Thibs holds out thinking he is being lowballed and if he ever ends up on the open market he will have plenty of suitors. It’s not going to come to that. Thibs wants to stay and eventually I bet a deal gets done. The only thing that can hold it up is an owner lowballing one of the league’s best coaches. (Now, if you want to go with a shorter deal, say three years, I can see that because hard-a** coaches like Thibs can wear on teams.)

The other area is the roster retooling that is coming. The Bulls clearly have looked at the Heat, looked at their roster and decided they need another “A” list guy to go with Rose. I can see that. But you can’t just have Rose and Player To Be Named Later, you still need Deng and Gibson and Noah to make it all work. And that means paying some tax — which the Bulls are doing for the first time ever this next season, but do you want to bet on it as a trend?

How it likely works out: Make no mistake, the Bulls are going to keep defending, keep outworking every team they play up until Rose’s return, and then after. That is what they do. And with that they have some talent, they are going to get wins. However, they sacrificed depth and points are going to be a lot harder for them to come by this season. They will get wins, but the 18-9 record they had without Rose last year seems optimistic.

When Rose does come back, and as he finds his legs closer to the playoffs, they become the team nobody wants in the first round. With Rose they have a puncher’s chance against anyone.

Prediction: 45-37 in the regular season, which will net them a seven or eight seed. But once in the playoffs and with Rose back and feeling healthier, this is not the team any of the top seeds want to see in the first round. The Bulls may not get past them this year, but they will not be an easy out by any means.

LeBron, Lakers top Tatum’s big afternoon for Celtics

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LOS ANGELESLeBron James scored 29 points and put the Lakers ahead on a fallaway jumper with 30 seconds to play, and Los Angeles split its season series with the Boston Celtics with a 114-112 victory Sunday.

James missed a tying free throw moments before he coolly nailed the shot the put the Lakers ahead to stay in a frenetic fourth quarter to cap the latest chapter of this famed NBA rivalry.

Anthony Davis had 32 points and 13 rebounds in the fifth straight win overall for the Lakers, who took a 32-point blowout loss in Boston last month.

Davis hit two free throws with 12.3 seconds left and added one more with 6.7 seconds to play, before Jayson Tatum was called for charging in the final second as he attempted to create one last basket.

Tatum matched his career high with 41 points for the Celtics, who had won 12 of 14 starting with that dominant win over the Lakers in January.

Boston turned the ball over with 15.5 seconds left after James’ big shot, and Celtics coach Brad Stevens got a technical foul for arguing about it. Davis missed that free throw, however.

Grant Williams hit two free throws for Boston immediately afterward, and Davis hit one of two to give a final chance to the Celtics.

Jaylen Brown scored 20 points for Boston, but Kemba Walker missed his second straight game with left knee soreness.

The rematch was far more competitive than the teams’ first meeting this season, with both taking small leads in the fourth quarter before the exciting finish.

Davis’ third 3-pointer put the Lakers up 108-105 with 2:08 to play, but Gordon Hayward hit a jumper before Brown’s 3-pointer put the Celtics back ahead 110-108 with 1:17 to go.

With the Lakers’ immediate return to excellence since beating out Boston to acquire Davis last summer, these longtime rivals are both playoff-bound championship contenders yet again.

Los Angeles is comfortably atop the Western Conference standings, while the Celtics sit third in the East. Both teams have a decent shot of meeting in the NBA Finals for the 13th time if they continue to grow from big games like this thriller.

Tatum underlined his growing superstardom by matching the career high he set against New Orleans last month. He scored 16 points in a five-minute barrage alone during the third quarter, finishing the period with 18.

The Lakers hung in with 16 points in the third from Davis after his quiet first half.

Walker scored 20 points against the Lakers last month to beat James for the first time in the stars’ 29 career meetings. The Lakers took their worst loss of the season in that initial meeting while getting just 23 minutes from Davis, who had just returned from a two-week injury absence.

The rematch featured much more defense than the teams’ first meeting, with Rajon Rondo and Brown both making big steals for their respective clubs. Only Tatum made a major offensive impact in the first half with 19 points.

TIP-INS

Celtics: Walker’s injury is “not a long-term thing,” Stevens said. Walker did work in the weight room before the game. … The bench scored just five points in the first three quarters, including only one field goal, and finished with 11 points.

Lakers: James went down in pain early in the fourth quarter when Daniel Theis ran into him under the basket. James stayed in the game after a timeout. … Rondo spent much of the pregame warmup chatting with Kevin Garnett, his longtime Celtics teammate. Garnett then watched the game from the baseline near the LA bench with Lakers part-owner Patrick Soon-Shiong. … The matchup is always a hot ticket for celebrities. Fans near courtside included Eddie Murphy, Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington.

UP NEXT

Celtics: Visit the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night.

Lakers: Host the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Jaren Jackson Jr. out for at least two weeks for Grizzlies

Jaren Jackson Jr. and Gordon Hayward
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The Memphis Grizzlies announced that Jaren Jackson Jr. suffered a sprained left knee late during the second quarter of Friday’s game vs the Los Angeles Lakers:

Memphis says Jackson will be re-evaluated in two weeks.

In his second year, Jackson has been a big part of the Grizzlies surprising success. Memphis is currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with a record of 28-28. Jackson has proven to be an ideal running mate for rookie point guard Ja Morant, as the Grizzlies have rebuilt quicker than anyone expected.

With Jackson out, Memphis will need to replace 16.9 points and 1.6 blocks per game. Jackson also regularly functions as the Grizzlies backup center, sliding over to play the pivot when starter Jonas Valanciunas is out.

With Jackson out for at least two weeks, and potentially longer, Memphis will lean on Kyle Anderson and rookie Brandon Clarke at the four. The trickle-down impact may be more minutes for backup center Gorgui Dieng, who was acquired at the trade deadline, up front behind Valanciunas. In addition, Josh Jackson, who spent the first few months of the season in the G-League, has had a bit of resurgence in recent weeks. With Anderson likely to play more at power forward, Jackson may see even more minutes on the wing.

Ben Simmons out at least through Monday

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Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons‘ troublesome back will keep him out at least through Monday reports NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters. Winters reports that Simmons went through testing upon the Sixers return to Philadelphia on Sunday and will have further testing done on Monday:

Simmons missed the first game back from the All-Star break on Thursday due to back soreness. He then exited Saturday night’s game at the Milwaukee Bucks after playing less than five minutes.

Simmons went to his second-straight All-Star game last week. He’s averaged 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 8.2 assists and a league-leading 2.1 steals per game through 54 games this season.

An up-and-down season sees Philadelphia currently fifth in the Eastern Conference. The 76ers are an equal 1.5 games behind Miami for fourth and ahead of Indiana in sixth. The Sixers would love to climb to fourth for homecourt advantage in the postseason, as they’ve been dominant at home with a 26-2 record, while underwhelming on the road at just 9-20.

With Joel Embiid continuing to suffer from injuries, while also having his minutes managed, Philadelphia can’t afford to be without Simmons for long. The 76ers added depth on the wing at the trade deadline with Alec Bucks and Glenn Robinson III, but have little behind Simmons at point guard. Raul Neto started in Simmons’ place on Thursday, but did not play on Saturday until the game was well in-hand for Milwaukee.

Lance Stephenson hopes strong season in China springboards him back to NBA

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The Chinese Basketball Association season is up in the air because of the Coronavirus outbreak. The season is postponed and, while there is talk of restarting it on April 1, there are more questions than answers about that plan right now.

Lance Stephenson was in China playing for the Liaoning Flying Leopards and — as many American scorers can do against the soft defenses in the CBA — put up impressive numbers. Stephenson is hoping to use that as a springboard back to the NBA, reports Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Will it work for Stephenson? Maybe. It only takes one GM looking for a little scoring punch down the stretch to buy-in.

However, GMs also know the numbers are inflated in China and it doesn’t translate to being able to do the same thing in the NBA. Jimmer Fredette is example 1A. Or, here are the top five scorers in the Chinese league so far this season:

1. Dominique Jones (Jilin Northeast Tigers) 37.8
2. Joe Young (Nanjing Monkey Kings) 35.9
3. Darius Adams (Qingdao Eagles) 34.9
4. Tyler Hansbrough (Sichuan Blue Whales) 32.3
5. Jonathan Gibson (Jiangsu Dragons) 31.2

All of those guys, and a lot more, would like to use China as a springboard back to the NBA. That, however, is proving to be a long leap.