The whole point of the 2017-18 Chicago Bulls season was to lose, and lose, and lose, in order to get a great Lottery pick in the 2018 Draft. The rebuild was set in motion by trading Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves last June, with point guard Kris Dunn, wing Zach LaVine and first-round pick Lauri Markkanen getting big minutes and absorbing all the Ls that young teams get. Things were exacerbated when Bobby Portis punched teammate Nikola Mirotic in the face during a practice altercation two days before the start of the season; Mirotic suffered facial fractures and a concussion, and missed Chicago’s first 23 games recovering.
Portis was suspended for eight games without pay. When Mirotic returned Dec. 8, the Bulls were 3-20, having lost games by 49 at Golden State, 39 at San Antonio and 30 at Utah. The plan, though painful, was well on its way to fruition.
But then, strange things started happening. Mirotic returned and played the best basketball of his career coming off the bench (even though he and Portis, understandably, are still on the outs). Unheralded, undrafted David Nwaba, the former Los Angeles Lakers guard who was a waiver claim in July, came back after missing 12 games and started providing outstanding two-way play. The Bulls began playing with the pace that Fred Hoiberg has desperately sought since becoming the team’s coach. And Chicago, improbably, started winning.
The Bulls beat Charlotte Dec. 8 and New York the next night, then blew out Boston by 23 and avenged the loss to the Jazz. They won at Milwaukee and beat then-hot Philadelphia, then throttled the Magic Dec. 20. In 12 days, they’d won seven games in row. They’ve cooled off a little since then, but they’re still playing very good basketball -- and jeopardizing their chances at a high pick, at least until they move Mirotic (they can’t trade him until Jan. 15) and veteran center Robin Lopez, who’s been very good in the middle.
And Dunn, the 23-year-old who’d flamed out in one desultory season of horrific shooting for Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota before being dealt, found his footing, both as a scorer and a floor general. He’d been too good in college -- a second-team All-American his senior season at Providence, where he worked and trained with God Shammgod. The former NBA player and fellow Friar -- legendary for the crossover dribble that bears his name -- was back at his alma mater as a grad assistant. Dunn’s offensive rating leaped from 97.1 in November to 100.9 in December; his assists rose from 4.3 to 7.8.
He made a huge 3-pointer down the stretch to tie the game with Philly, and two more buckets to salt the game away. He broke down the Bucks for six points late and made two free throws with seven seconds left Friday to help beat New York. “The biggest thing I’ve seen out of Kris is just his overall consistency at both,” Hoiberg said Sunday. “He showed flashes early of really being in a stance, and then he’d take plays off. But now, he’s out there with a great focus and mentality. And the most impressive thing about Kris is just how he’s learned to help finish games. It’s not easy at this level.”
Shooting 3-pointers is still a work in progress for Dunn, but he’s better than he was last season. And the Bulls are better than anyone thought they’d be -- and, frankly, than most of their fans want them to be.
Me: How much of your improvement in the last few weeks is getting more comfortable with the speed of the game, and how much is guys like Mirotic and Portis getting back on the floor who can help you finish?
Kris Dunn: I think Fred (Hoiberg) also helped me. He liked to play with a fast pace, get in the lane, be aggressive at the rim. We’ve got a lot of shooters spread out when we can spread out. His offense helps. And when you’ve got shooters around you, it’s easier to get in the lane, especially when they’re making shots. Everything opens up. I think we all watch a lot of film, and we’re all starting to get used to each other. The chemistry’s building. I think everybody knows their role on the team, so I think that helped us.
Me: Was there any game in particular where it started clicking for you?
KD: I can’t really remember a game. But each and every game, I feel like I’m improving, getting more comfortable, getting better. There’s going to be bad games. There’s 82 games; you can’t be perfect all the time. But I’m starting to learn, in order to be an elite player, you’ve got to build consistent games. That’s what I’m trying to work on.
The game’s slowing down for me at a tremendous rate. Last year, I couldn’t even tell you what position -- one, two, three. I’m just out there, trying to impress the coach. That was what it was, and I couldn’t really learn."
Me: When you get your individual cutups from Paul (Miller, the Bulls’ video coordinator), what’s the first thing you look at?
KD: Right now, just my pace. Pace is everything with this team. When we have good pace, and we’re running out in transition, swinging the ball, I think we’ve a good team. So I look at pace. Then I look at my decision making -- was that the right read, at the right time? Turnovers. And then I go look at the defense.
Me: Why are you more successful now making plays at the ends of games?
KD: The game’s slowing down for me at a tremendous rate. Last year, I couldn’t even tell you what position -- one, two, three. I’m just out there, trying to impress the coach. That was what it was, and I couldn’t really learn. This year I’m learning. I’m playing the role I’m used, point guard. I’m huge on film, so I watch a lot of film, see what I do wrong, see what I’m doing good. Honestly, it’s really slowing down for me.
Me: Do you learn more from when you execute successfully at the ends of games, or when you don’t?
To be honest, I look at Kobe, his mentality. He enjoys that situation. He always wants the ball. I study him a lot when it comes down the stretch, his footwork, being able to get to his spot."
KD: When you don’t succeed. When you succeed, it feels good. But when you don’t succeed, you go back and look at the film, see what you missed, or if somebody else was open. Why the shot didn’t go in. Every day, you can’t be a hero, and I understood that.
Me: Any point guards around the league you look at to see how they handle end of game situations?
KD: Naw. To be honest, I look at Kobe, his mentality. He enjoys that situation. He always wants the ball. I study him a lot when it comes down the stretch, his footwork, being able to get to his spot. Even if the defender knows what spot he’s going to go to, but still be able to get to that spot and still raise up and be able to make the play, that’s fascinated me. I watch a lot of him.
Me: Has the game gotten so 3-point heavy that there’s more opportunities in the mid-post and for mid-range players than people realize?
KD: Yeah. Nowadays, fours, they’ve got to be able to shoot the ball, stretch the floor out. A person like me who likes to be aggressive, stay downhill, that helps me out a lot. ‘Cause now I can either spray it out, or I can get the four man on me -- he’s got to switch. You’ve got the four man on you, (it’s) pick your poison kind of thing. I think the game evolving is a good thing for a lot of bigs, but it’s even better on the guards, ‘cause you can get to the basket.
Me: But you’re getting more comfortable shooting the three?
KD: Yeah, definitely am. I’m’a keep shooting it. I’ve got a lot of years ahead of me; I want to get comfortable with it. The more you shoot it, the more you get comfortable there, the more you’ll be able to tweak the kinds of things you’re doing wrong. You can make it more polished. I’m gonna try to do it now, while I’m young, so as the years come by I can make those tweaks in the offseason, and make it more polished.
Me: How much are you staying in touch with Shammgod?
KD: Oh, man, we talk, at least twice a week. That’s my guy. He’s doing an unbelievable job with Dennis (Smith, the Mavericks’ rookie point guard) and all the other players. One thing about Sham, he’s a good mentor of giving people confidence. Even when you feel like you’re in a dark place, he’s good at giving people confidence.
These guys are a great group of guys. Their character is unbelievable. It’s going to throw the chemistry off a little bit (if) guys get traded. As a team, we’re going to have to find a way to get through that.
Me: I imagine that was very necessary last year for you?
KD: Yeah. You know, I knew it was going to be tough, coming in. I sensed it. I ain’t know to deal with it at first. This was the first time I ever had to come off the bench, first time I didn’t know what the coach wanted from me, and etcetera. It was a point in time during the season when I told myself, I can’t let this get to me. My family’s seen my whole personality change and everything, so I had to change it in the summer. I had to put in more work than I did the year before. I got a great group around me -- my family, my friends, Shammgod. And he reached out to me to make sure I was doing the right things. It was really up to me to bounce back.
Me: You’ve got a young group here that’s got a chance to get better. But you know that some of these guys could get dealt by the deadline. Is it hard to grow with this group not knowing what the future’s going to bring?
KD: Yeah, it definitely is. These guys are a great group of guys. Their character is unbelievable. It’s going to throw the chemistry off a little bit (if) guys get traded. As a team, we’re going to have to find a way to get through that. If they don’t get traded, it’s a blessing for us. We’re playing good basketball. Everybody’s starting to understand what their role is, and the chemistry is off the charts. It’s tough to say. At the same time, it’s a business -- control what you can control.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
-- Washington Nationals star outfielder Bryce Harper (@Bharper3407), Wednesday, 2:46 p.m., after the Wizards unveiled their version of their City uniforms -- which are, to be sure, fire.
THEY SAID IT
“My son actually told me before the game, ‘Daddy, I want you to make five threes.’ I told him I will try. I can’t promise. But I made eight actually. So I’m sure he’s very happy. And he was at the game too.”
-- Nikola Mirotic, after scoring 28 points in 27 minutes in the improbable Bulls’ ninth win in their last 11 games on Friday, over New York.
“The fans, the media wrote him off before he even went out and played. That’s what I was upset about. You don’t give him a chance to go out there and do what he’s supposed to do. Give him a chance and then go from there. Just don’t shoot him down because you’re looking at the money. Because that’s all you’re looking at. You’re not looking at his game and how he got better. You’re looking at his money and you don’t have to because everyone is getting paid [well] in this business. And Tim worked his tail off to get paid.”
-- Tim Hardaway, Sr., now a Pistons assistant coach, to the New York Post, defending his son Tim, Jr., from criticism that Sr. (correctly) felt was and is centered on the four-year, $71 million offer sheet from the Knicks to Hardaway, Jr., that the Hawks declined to match last summer.
''It's basketball, it's not the Middle East peace process. It's not figuring out why our democracy is being eroded. It's pick-and-roll. Big deal.''
-- Gregg Popovich, to local reporters, after being asked about the challenges of finding minutes for everyone on his roster now that Kawhi Leonard and other injured players are back in the rotation.
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