"What I like is he thinks ahead, which makes him quick," said Thibodeau of Mirotic. "He runs the floor hard. He does it every time. Those are things that help your team."
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Bulls open preseason with 85-81 loss to Wizards

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 By Sam Smith | 10.06.2014 | 11:59 p.m. CT | asksam@bulls.com | @SamSmithHoops

The Bulls Monday opened the 2014-15 preseason with an 85-81 loss to the Washington Wizards. Though, unofficially, make it 1-0 for the Bulls.

Derrick Rose with 11 points and four assists in just under 14 minutes and one-of-two on threes was the best player on the floor, albeit as little he played and only in the first half.

“I thought Derrick played well, very well,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “Everything; he’s been shooting the ball well throughout camp. I wanted to see what it looked like in a game. It looked like he had great rhythm. That was very encouraging.”

“Derrick looked great,” added Joakim Noah. “I think he was hungry for a little more time. But overall it was a very strong performance for him. I think he played really well. I think he’s moving really well. That’s really good for us. I think he’s taking it step by step. His mentality is really good; it’s where it needs to be.”

There was much curiosity and interest in the Bulls in this much anticipated season. There are the good shooting rookies, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic, the latter the leading Bulls scorer with 15 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter when all reserves played. There was the Bulls debut of Pau Gasol and the various rotations involving Taj Gibson and Aaron Brooks off the bench.

But the story of this Bulls season once again is the return of Rose, how much he can contribute and his level of play.

At first glance Monday, it was very impressive.

Rose started, playing the first seven minutes with the Wizards leading 14-13 in that stretch. Rose then played the last 6:43 of the second quarter to a 45-44 Wizards halftime lead. The Wizards led by one entering the fourth quarter. The Bulls took a brief lead in the fourth quarter on Mirotic’s three-point shooting and then fell away on the shooting of Wizards rookie Glen Rice, who led both teams with 18 points. It marked the end of the Bulls 12-game preseason winning streak.

But that remained mostly an overcharted asterisk compared with the flair of Rose, who looked more relaxed and confident than in his celebrated return last season.

Rose wasn’t the least bit hesitant, taking a handoff from Noah and putting in a running short bank shot for the first points of the game. Rose, who shot poorly during the summer with USA Basketball and promised he’d be better with the standard NBA ball, pulled up for a smooth three and added an almost three quarter court drive for a score past the defense before he left in that first quarter. It wasn’t until after Rose departed that John Wall scored his first basket.

It was the Wizards who knocked out the Bulls in the first round of last season’s playoffs. But it was a new Wizard, Paul Pierce, who curiously provoked a scuffle in the first quarter when he poked Noah in the face after Pierce committed a cheap and intentional foul on Jimmy Butler. Pierce seemed upset about not getting a foul call on a prior play with little contact. Though Pierce is known for over acting like with his fake wheelchair bit in the 2008 NBA Finals when he pretended to be hurt and then came back to finish the game strong. It also was Pierce whom Noah stripped and dunked over in the 2009 playoffs triple overtime game.

“It was a hard foul,” said Pierce of his hit on Butler. “Then it got out of control. It just goes to show the tension that has developed between these teams. It’s not something that was scripted; it just happened.”

Butler seemed non-plussed, though he also later took a cheap shot blind screen that knocked him down and drew a Wizards offensive foul.

“I think it was a good screen,” said Butler. “My teammates just didn’t call it out. It was hard, but OK. Whatever it was (the Pierce overreaction), I guess that’s what it’s going to come down to whenever we play those guys (Butler was the target in the Nene suspension in last season’s playoffs). Guys just don’t like us. I’m cool with that. Not sending a message to me or to us. Don’t back down from anybody; we’re fine, we’re good.”

Other than the curious physical moments in an opening preseason game, there were some Bulls debuts to watch and they all went pretty well.

Mirotic was a little shaky early, but came on with more authority and confidence in the second half, especially shooting the ball. He showed a deftness, not only with his shot, as we’d heard from training camp, but an ability to handle the ball and make plays off the dribble. He pumped his fist and pounded his chest after fourth quarter threes and was feisty in some inside play with the Wizards. One issue the way the Bulls play is they never have run plays for a shooting big man and Mirotic created most of his shots off his own dribble. Also, there’s a question of how Mirotic will get minutes with Noah, Gasol and Gibson a formidable inside Big Three and perhaps the top front court in the NBA.

Who sits?

But Thibodeau was positive about Mirotic.

“He can run the floor, put it on the floor, shoot, he can make plays, even a couple of his fouls were aggressive technique things he can clean up,” said Thibodeau. “You can see there is logic to the way that he plays. This is the preseason and there is a lot to improve upon, but I thought it was a good start for him. What I like is he thinks ahead, which makes him quick. He runs the floor hard. He does it every time. Those are things that help your team. He has got to get a little stronger; that will come. Because of the way he plays, it opens up the floor. He can set up some cutting for us. He puts pressure on the defense, particularly with Derrick. That gives Derrick more space to operate. I want to look at the film before I say too much.”

As for Mirotic, whom teammates said was nervous coming in, once he began making shots he seemed to relax and embrace the game and even the physical play, which he was supposed to reject by reputation.

“I feel good,” Mirotic said. “It’s very difficult to explain how I feel. It’s part of basketball, something normal, but this was my first three-point shots here in the United Center. Amazing feeling, and I hope I can make more shots like this.

“I’m very happy and excited,” Mirotic added. “My physical (size needs to improve). I need to work a lot. These guys are very strong. I never played before (against) somebody like them. It’s fine. I work every day hard, lifting, shooting. I feel better now. It’s just the first month. I know that I can be much better player. I am in a perfect team, perfect situation. I am going to grow (as a) player, so I feel good.

“I feel more relaxed (after the first shot),” Mirotic said. “Especially when I go in, coach told me, ‘Go in (and) enjoy, play basketball.’ I start to play hard; teammates started to pass me the ball. When I make the first shot, I feel more comfortable. After that, I make second, everything going better. I feel bad because we lost. This is something normal because young players play in the last quarter. They need to have patience with us. We are trying to do the best. I’m young I know; I know in the beginning of the game, I make a lot of mistakes. I lost the ball, missed the shots. Sometimes I forget the plays. The good thing (was) my teammates and coach, they helped me all the time. They try to talk with me, push me, say don’t worry, just play and this is good. They believe in me and I try to do my best. Today it was good, but I know not the best.”

It was encouraging for the team as was the play of fellow rookie Doug McDermott, who had eight points and made one of two threes. McDermott was effective coming off screens like Kyle Korver. You could see he is a natural shooter the way he already was in shooting position squared with his hands ready to receive the ball as he broke off the screen.

“Doug, I thought, played well in the first half, and Niko played well in the second half,” said Thibodeau. “So the two young guys, I know they have a lot of work to do, but the thing I love about them is they are workers. It’s a start.”

The Bulls showed their expected work ethic as on a couple of occasions, both Mike Dunleavy and Noah diving for loose balls after turnovers to start fast breaks.

“The ball is out there, go get it. What, not dive for it? It’s my job,” said Noah.

Noah after knee surgery following last season is being watched closely and will not play Tuesday in Detroit. Rose is expected to play.

“It is the right plan (to not play Tuesday),” said Noah. “I feel pretty good. I feel like it’s definitely going to be a process; I have a ways to go. I’m using this preseason to get stronger and to build up for the regular season. I had a knee surgery and the first two games are back to back. I think it’s a smart thing to do. I wanted to play more. Trust me, if it were my choice I’d be playing tomorrow. I’m going to stick to this and I’m going to use this to get better. I’m hoping this is the only one I miss and I can be ready and ready to go for the next one.”

It’s also going to be a work in progress to see where Noah fits in the offense.

He played high post, power forward with Gasol, though with Rose handling the ball Noah was involved much less offensively. He was one of six for two points with four rebounds in the same 13:51 as Rose. Gasol had eight points, but also a team high eight rebounds and three blocks with several effective plays with his length.

Gasol appears, as is his reputation, to be a bit of a reluctant shooter. He looks more to move the ball, passing up several open free throw line jump shots that he probably should take. Gibson picked up the void when he came in and attempted a team high 12 shots. No starter had more than seven.

Also, Brooks came in offensive minded, but he did show an ability to make threes as suddenly with McDermott, Mirotic and Brooks, the Bulls have an abundance of three point shooting options for the first time in years.

Butler didn’t shoot well, just one of seven. But he had seven rebounds, a team high five assists and three blocks, including a classic face up on Bradley Beal, who dribbled and dribbled and could never get past Butler. Butler reminds you more of a guard version of Andrei Kirilenko the way he can fill up so many box score columns without the great shooting touch.

But the focus was on Rose once again, and he produced adjectives, which Gasol is excellent at providing.

“Derrick looked really well,” said Gasol. “Explosive, aggressive, decisive and effective. So really positive performance by Derrick tonight.”

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