ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Chicago Bulls

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Last season: The Bulls went 45-37, putting together an impressive regular season that included the victory that snapped the Heat’s 27-win streak. Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler each got Defensive Player of the Year votes as Tom Thibodeau continuously reinforces a culture in Chicago.

In the playoffs, the hard-nosed Bulls beat the more-talented Nets in a seven-game first-round series. As Chicago injuries took a toll, Nate Robinson emerged as quite the spark. Chicago ended the talk of Miami going undefeated throughout the playoffs, but otherwise, the Bulls ran out of gas in a 4-1 loss in the second round.

Anything else from the Bulls’ season worth mentioning? Any other key storylines? It seems like I’m missing something or someone, but I just checked all the Bulls’ 2012-13 box scores and every name is accounted for in the preview. I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

Signature highlight from last season:

No. 2: Evidence that the Bulls had a mental edge over the Nets in their playoff matchup:

Key player changes: The Bulls signed Mike Dunleavy and drafted Tony Snell and Erik Murphy. Those players likely won’t make major impacts, but they could turn into glue guys, especially considering how much the Bulls need shooting.

Nate Robison left as a free agent, and though he could be a headache, he really brought an element the Bulls didn’t have. They might be better without him, but they’ll definitely be less fun. Marco Belininelli also left, and Richard Hamilton was waived.

Keys to the Bulls’ season:

1) How good is Derrick Rose? Rose took his time returning, but ACL tears are no joke. Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has completely ruined expectations for how long it should take a professional athlete to return to full health. Despite incredible medical advancements, it’s still possible Rose has lost some explosiveness.

Rose is almost certainly good. The question is just how good.

2) Will Gar Forman keep the team together? Luol Deng has an expiring contract and could be major trade bait. Carlos Boozer, now so overrated he’s underrated, is overpaid for the next two seasons, so Chicago might want to dump him. Those moves could arguably make the Bulls better in the long-term. But both players are key this season.

3) Can Tom Thibodeau hold back just a little? Need to win one game, and there might not be a better coach than Tom Thibodeau. But need to have the most successful season, and Thibodeau slips in the rankings. He’s relentless, which makes his teams fun to watch (see below), but it also wears on his his players. The Bulls are capable of making a deep playoff run, but not if all their players are fatigued and injured.

There’s no guarantee Thibodeau can instill toughness while still limiting minutes and allowing slightly reduced intensity on certain nights. But if he can, the Bulls would be better for it.

Why you should watch the Bulls: They play hard every game, and that often leads to a couple fun plays. Plus, if you enjoy defense, the Bulls play it as well as any team in the league. Joakim Noah is relentless on that end, a real throwback.

Offensively, the Bulls could be rough last season, but Derrick Rose should solve that. He’s the type of singular talent who really transforms the entire scheme. Chicago’s offense might not become elite overnight, but it will at least be passable while the defense excels.

Prediction: 55-27. If healthy, the Bulls should win a playoff series or two. With the right breaks, that could be three or maybe even four. Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah form a complete, talented and balanced lineup. But the Bulls’ bench has fallen off in recent years, which could prove costly (though I really like Taj Gibson). Unless Tom Thibodeau changes his hard-charging ways, it’s unlikely Chicago’s starting lineup holds all season.

Of course, none of this matters unless Derrick Rose looks like the player who won MVP. With that Rose, the Bulls’ ceiling is a championship. With a lesser version, every playoff series will be a scrap, and it’s tough to win many while going through that each round.

New Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer: ‘I think I’m in the best place in the league’

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Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo will almost certainly finish fourth in Most Valuable Player voting this year, his age-23 season.

The last coach to take over a team with a player who already accomplished so much at such a young age – Del Harris (a familiar name in Milwaukee), who inherited reigning MVP Moses Malone with the Rockets in 1979. It’s just so rare for jobs coaching such a promising player top come open.

“I think I’m in the best place in the league,” new Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said at his introductory press conference today.

Budenholzer had his pick of Milwaukee and Toronto, another highly successful team, especially for one seeking a new coach. But the Bucks offer Antetokounmpo and more modest expectations.

Milwaukee hasn’t won a playoff series in 17 years. Budenholzer was asked today as much about delivering a division title as an NBA title.

Topping the Cavaliers, Pacers, Pistons and Bulls sounds much easier than surpassing the Warriors, Rockets, Celtics and 76ers in coming years.

Not that Budenholzer, who reached the conference finals with the Hawks, is completely ducking big talk.

“We’re lucky to have a Giannis, who will do anything to win, and a Khris Middleton that will do anything to win,” Budenholzer said. “When you have your best players that are true competitors and that are truly unselfish and care more about the team than they do themselves, those are a couple of big, foundational blocks to winning championships and doing things that are special.”

The Bucks held the press conference at their still-under-construction new arena, the media wearing hard hats and orange vests:

But this isn’t a complete rebuild for Budenholzer.

Milwaukee has made the playoffs the last two seasons, including winning 44 games this year. Antetokounmpo is a superstar. Middleton is a borderline All-Star. Eric Bledsoe is a solid starter. Restricted free agent-to-be Jabari Parker is talented. The rotation is somewhat deep.

The Bucks just underachieved under former coach Jason Kidd (and never capitalized before him for more than a decade for other reasons).

Citing the potential of current players, Budenholzer said Milwaukee could become “elite” defensively. The Bucks are full of long and athletic players, and Budenholzer coached sound defenses in Atlanta. There’s only one reason to doubt him: Milwaukee finished just 17th in points allowed per possession this season.

But that’s a feature of this job, not a bug. The Bucks aren’t stuck with an inevitably bad defenders. They just underperformed. Budenholzer can nudge them ahead – and is positioned to receive outsized credit if he does.

“Working with the entire with the entire roster, with the front office, with ownership,” Budenholzer said, “I can’t wait to take us to the next level in Milwaukee.”

That next level isn’t that high, which is why Budenholzer is right.

Milwaukee is a great place for a coach to be.

Mike D’Antoni: Rockets ‘played soft’

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The Warriors beat the Rockets by 41 last night to take a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference finals.

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni:

We didn’t switch up into people, we didn’t box off. It’s just one thing led to another. Played soft, actually.

His stars agreed.

James Harden:

He’s right. We weren’t as aggressive as we needed to be. We started off the game pretty solid, and then we let them gain some confidence to end the first quarter. You know, but just defensively they didn’t feel us and it showed tonight.

Chis Paul:

Coach is right. We’ve got to be better. I think, you know, we’ve got to come out more aggressive. We were letting them hit first, you know what I mean? They were running their screens and all that stuff like that. I mean, we know that we’re at our best when we’re in transition and not taking the ball out the net. And tonight we were taking the ball out the net. We had 19 turnovers. That’s uncharacteristic of us. We knew we were going to get a great game from them being back here at home, but we’ve got to be better Game 4.

That’s a harsh assessment – but at least somewhat warranted. The Rockets applied far too little defensive pressure, and they missed shots inside and committed turnovers as if they were rattled.

I don’t think the Rockets are soft. But they looked soft in the face of Golden State’s elite ability.

The Warriors pressure teams into mistakes and then exploit many of them. Play that doesn’t look soft against other opponents suddenly does against Golden State.

Houston can toughen up before Game 4 Tuesday. Acclimating to the Warriors’ high level of play, especially at home, could help. The Rockets are good enough to hang at this level.

But it certainly won’t be easy.

Klay Thompson on Stephen Curry’s profane outburst: ‘I hope Riley didn’t see it’

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Through halftime of Game 3, Stephen Curry was shooting 3-of-20 on 3-pointers in the Western Conference finals. The Rockets targeted him relentlessly while he was on defense. The Warriors had been outscored with him on the court.

For days, questions swirled.

Is Curry overrated? Is he too soft to withstand the pressure Houston was applying? Is he still injured?

Curry answered in an an emotional third quarter of Game 3: No, no, no. The Golden State superstar scored 18 points on 7-of-7 shooting, including 2-of-2 on 3-pointers, in the period.

Along the way, he shimmied:

And after another made basket, he removed his mouthpiece and stayed behind the play to declare,”This is my f—ing house:”

That was quite a moment for Curry.

Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area:

So hyper-aware of it was Curry that had a ready response when asked about it after the Warriors laid a 126-85 beating on the Rockets in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.

“I already know,” he said.

“I blacked out,” Curry explained, his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. “I blacked out.”

People close to Curry didn’t miss it – nor did the many fans watching.

NBC Sports Bay Area:

Klay Thompson:

That was funny. I hope Riley didn’t see it. It got Oracle pretty fired up. And that’s a rare occurrence. I’ve never really seen Steph – I’ve seen him, yeah, use that langue. But that’s what the playoffs brings out of you. So, don’t do that at home, kids. It’s just once in a while.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

His mother, Sonya Curry, was pleased with her son’s performance, but not with his mouth.

“She already sent me two home videos, showing me the clip and playing it back,” Curry told ESPN. “She was telling me how I need to wash my mouth out, saying to wash it out with soap. It’s a message I’ve heard before.”

It was Curry’s breakout game in this series, but he is a devout Christian and says he understands why he received such a scolding.

“She’s right,” Curry told ESPN. “I gotta do better. I can’t talk like that.”

Curry has cultivated such a wholesome image despite massive amounts of showboating and taunting on the court. If his previous boastful behavior didn’t turn off anyone, this incident probably won’t, either.

No matter how he’s marketed, Curry is an exceptionally intense competitor. That’s a huge part of what makes him a great player, and it’s not always polite when that side shines through.

I won’t start chiding Curry for playing with emotion and, gasp, swearing. I’d much rather appreciate his passion.

I’d also prefer if we appreciate similar passion from all players rather than applying a double standard.

Warriors-Rockets features one of biggest game-to-game swings in NBA playoff history

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In Game 2, the Rockets handed the Warriors their biggest playoff loss with Kevin Durant.

In Game 3, the Warriors earned their biggest playoff win and gave the Rockets their biggest playoff loss in each franchise’s history.

Quite the turnaround.

The 63-point swing from Houston’s 127-105 Game 2 win to Golden State’s 126-85 Game 3 win is one of the largest reversals in NBA playoff history.

It’s been a decade since the last larger game-to-game swing. The last series to have one as large as these Western Conference finals was the 2016 NBA Finals, when the Cavaliers began their comeback against the Warriors after getting blown out in Games 1 and 2.

Here are the biggest game-to-game swings ever in the NBA playoffs:

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That’s a lot of momentum moving against the Rockets. Can they recover?