Bulls finish off preseason in Omaha

The musical question Thursday after the Bulls closed the preseason with a 97-81 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in Omaha may be whether Jimmy will eat world. Devour the basketball world?

Can Jimmy Butler emerge as a big time, prime time, all-world scorer with some clarity, a most beautiful thing that may be necessary with the offensive concerns facing the Bulls this season.

“I thought we took a step in the right direction in certain areas,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said as the team finished off a 3-4 preseason. “We took care of the ball, better defensively the first three quarters and that’s a potent, very efficient (Atlanta) team. So we took a step in the right direction there. Obviously, offense was a struggle all night. We weren’t hitting shots; they were packing the paint. I thought it affected our pace, affected our cutting when we weren’t scoring; something where we have to manufacture through cutting and being solid on the offensive end. Take that first game away against Milwaukee, we were doing a pretty good job getting down hill (on offense), making shots, getting into the paint. Tonight obviously that didn’t happen. Important week ahead (to) get ourselves ready for the opener.”

The Bulls begin the regular season Thursday at home against Boston, two days after the NBA season officially opens. The Bulls, at least initially, tried to play the final preseason game like a regular season game with what is expected to be the opening night starting lineup.

Butler led the Bulls with 18 points, but on five of 16 shooting as the Bulls had a brutal offensive night with 30.5 percent shooting in the Doug McDermott/Kyle Korver homecoming at the Creighton U. arena. McDermott and Korver each had 16 points, though Korver was more efficient with four of eight threes. Taj Gibson again stood out for the Bulls with 12 points. He was the only Bulls player to shoot 50 percent.

The Bulls trailed much of a sluggish first half, by 25-21 after the first quarter and 44-39 at halftime. The Bulls had their best run early in the third quarter behind Gibson’s eight points in the first four minutes to tie the game. But the Hawks getting 16 points and 15 rebounds from Dwight Howard led 68-62 after three quarters and broke open the game in the fourth quarter with the Bulls playing 13 different players. Though the starters shot a combined one of seven in the fourth before going out. Basically not able to produce for the Omaha stakes.

“Our pace has to be good, and it has been for the most part this preseason,” said Hoiberg. “We’ve been getting (the ball) up; we’ve been having some quick strikes before the defense gets set. Tonight I thought we settled for a lot of contested shots instead of trying to get in there. We missed a lot of looks as well, missed 66 shots, shot 30 percent, 18 from three. You are going to have those nights. But the thing is we did guard and that kept us in the game until that last part of the fourth quarter. We’ve got to continue to fight, to cut and screen when times get tough and we’ll work on that this week.”

The Bulls have scored reasonably well in the preseason, though some teams have tested out a mixture of reserves, like Cleveland not even playing anyone in their regular rotation. One of the principal issues hanging over the Bulls this season is whether they can make enough three pointers and score enough to support a combative defense.

It didn’t help Thursday that Denzel Valentine and Nikola Mirotic, both with three-point shooting potential, remained out with what is considered minor injuries. It’s still unclear if either or both will be ready for the opener. Michael Carter-Williams made his Bulls debut with four points and three assists with one of five shooting in about 20 minutes. He was the first point guard off the bench, though Hoiberg did experiment with lineups that had Isaiah Canaan with McDermott for floor spacing.

“I thought (Carter-Williams) was solid for the first time out there,” said Hoiberg. “He got fouled on a couple of post up opportunities. He can get in the paint and make plays. It’s about getting him comfortable about what we are trying to do.”

The Bulls were 54 for 170 shooting threes in the preseason, 31 percent. They were four of 22 Thursday. Surprisingly, Dwyane Wade with eight points Thursday was the team’s best percentage three point shooter in the preseason, 43 percent on seven of 16, as many threes as he made all last season. Wade shot 39 percent overall and Butler 34 percent with just six three-point attempts, making three in his five games. Rajon Rondo had three points, nine rebounds and six assists Thursday. He had been shooting close to 70 percent until two of 14 the last two games. Wade, Butler and Rondo had six assists each Thursday.

McDermott seemed to be pressing a bit Thursday as the fans back in his college home seemed to be trying to root the ball in every time he shot. McDermott was two of six on threes after a slow start. He finished the preseason 12 of 32 on threes, positive, however, in that the Bulls were finding him more three-point opportunities. He’s generally too good to miss too many, except for Thursday.

“I asked him how he scored 3,400 points when we had lids on the basket like we did tonight,” Hoiberg joked about McDermott’s collegiate records. “Doug’s a weapon out there. We want him shooting; his teammates want him shooting. I thought Doug had some good open looks. We took too many contested ones tonight; tonight we weren’t shooting well.”

There’ll be games like that as teams lay off the outside shooters. The Bulls potentially do have enough shooters to respond with McDermott, Mirotic and perhaps Valentine and Canaan. But perhaps what they miss most is that go-to type scorer when offense breaks down like it did Thursday. When Rondo cannot get into the paint and it’s too much to ask of Wade to be that guy regularly, can Butler be the player to break down defenses, create for himself, raise his scoring average dramatically? Butler has done a substantial amount of his scoring from the free throw line this preseason. He’s 32 of 36 overall from the line, averaging almost eight free throw attempts per game in about 22 minutes per game.

Butler averaged 13 points in the preseason in just those 22 minutes. Butler has made himself an NBA All-Star the last two seasons, averaging 20 points and then just under 21 last season. Can he do more? Does he need to?

The Bulls have a week of practices now to prepare for the opening game. Games then come fast then with six games in the first 10 days and 11 of the first 16 games on the road.

Hoiberg’s plan integrated with strong defense—Robin Lopez had six blocks Thursday for 16 in six preseason games—is a fast offense pushed by Rondo out of the backcourt. Not so much just spacing out for three-point shooting, but opportunity scoring inside with Gibson and Wade as well. But when shooting breaks down, like it did Thursday, will there be someone to carry the offense through rough parts? Can Wade do it? Probably sometimes. Is Jimmy the guy now to climb that next level to NBA elite where the top players can average 25 points and free up teammates by virtue of their excellence that demands defensive attention?

Will it be in the air? Your house, Jimmy?