Bulls open preseason play with a victory over the Pelicans, 128-116
Zach LaVine, Bobby Portis and Antonio Blakeney each scored 21 points and Jabari Parker had 15.
It was the running of the Bulls Sunday night in the United Center. It also was the shooting of the Bulls, 99 field goal attempts, and mostly the scoring of the Bulls in a 128-116 victory against the New Orleans Pelicans to open the preseason.
Zach LaVine, Bobby Portis and Antonio Blakeney each scored 21 points and Jabari Parker had 15. Kris Dunn added a dozen points with eight rebounds and a pair of blocks and Wendell Carter Jr. had a plus debut with 11 points and seven rebounds.
But it mostly was the style of play, perhaps an identity, that was the star of the game for the Bulls, a smooth, scoring oriented, quick shooting game, finally, with enough players to make it work. And that was even without the injured Lauri Markkanen, one of the team's best scorers, and hardly anyone who could make a three-point shot, the Bulls just four of 18.
So much for the modern game. That's right; teams used to average 120 per game before the three-point line.
Anyone for old school?
"Zach's been awesome, done everything we talked to him about. His explosiveness is there,"
- Head Coach Fred Hoiberg on Zach LaVine
It doesn't seem like a team that is going to play much defense, and yes we know defense wins championships. But this is a team many say cannot win 30 games. Scoring more points than their opponent, and they likely will more than 30 times this season and perhaps many more, should be viewed as positive. After all, that is the most important statistic.
"Really excited to have a lot of offensive weapons," said LaVine. "A lot things we have to do better, especially on the defensive end. It was a good run for the first time going out there. We miss Lauri, obviously, but he'll come back and jump right into the mix. We're gonna run fast, get open shots. Whenever someone has it going we're going to look to go to him. I think we played with a good pace; everyone contributed.
"I score the ball, but we have so many scorers," LaVine added. "If any of us have an off day, I think we'll be able to pick up the slack really easily. We know our roles. I know I am here to be a leader, put the ball in the hoop, become a complete player; we have so many offensive weapons."
No one can say how successful this Bulls team will be, but they're going to be a lot more interesting to watch.
Especially LaVine, who once again looked like the guy who was supposed to be the centerpiece of that Jimmy Butler trade. You'd almost have done a Butler/Markkanen swap the way things went last season. But LaVine 19 months after ACL surgery—which is really about how long it takes—showed the explosive play, quickness and fluidity that seemed to be making him a star with the Timberwolves.
He was fouled on one play as he crossed over and slammed the ball, came out scoring first for the team and showed he pretty much can get his shot whenever and wherever he chooses. Call it a Zach Attack?
"He had a terrific summer, got himself in great shape, getting up in front of the ball where we could throw ahead to him," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said about LaVine. "Defensively, he's really trying to take the next step. Zach's been awesome, done everything we talked to him about. His explosiveness is there, did make some good defensive plays in the passing lanes. He's a guy who can put the ball in the hoop, doesn't need a lot of plays called for him. He can get by his man and I liked the way Zach has attacked. I've liked his mentality this preseason."
Portis wasn't treating the game like an exhibition; you get the sense he doesn't treat any game casually. Finally assured a role for the first time to start a season with the Bulls, he came in confident and certain. He's always energetic, and recognizing a smaller player on him buried his defender in the post for multiple easy scores in the second half. He had 19 shots in 19 minutes with a pair of steals, his eyes bugging out in midseason form.
"I think we are a high tempo team, push the ball whether they score or not, get it out and take early shots," said Portis. "He (Hoiberg) wants us to have over 100 possessions a game. With me probably I'm not going to score 21 points in 19 minutes every game. But trying to get my feet wet and get ready for the season. We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things. We scored 120 points and hit only four threes; I think that shows our arsenal there."
Pelicans star Anthony Davis didn't play in the second half, and former Bull Nikola Mirotic sat out with mild tendinitis, more to rest. The Bulls ran up their double digit spread mostly against the end of the Pelicans bench late in the game. But the Bulls only trailed 64-62 at halftime and 97-91 after three quarters, still on a pace for 120 points against the New Orleans starters. The Pelicans play quickly without much concern for defense, also. So it's not a complete test yet.
The Bulls did have some defensive plays, mostly from Dunn and Carter, the rookie playing position and physically like a veteran. He probably won't get as many offensive opportunities, but his calm demeanor and maturity is impressive to see with a nice mid range game.
"Wendell is not going to back down from anybody; that's what we love about him," said Hoiberg. "He's a 19-year-old kid, but I think sometimes we forget that because he's a very mature, high IQ player. You see his skill set, hit the right hand floater and next time down hit the left hand floater. He's got the ability to step put and hit a shot. Made some really good defensive plays, a good first experience."
"Wendell is not going to back down from anybody; that's what we love about him."
- Head Coach Fred Hoiberg about Wendell Carter Jr's first NBA contest
Parker moved well with his history of a pair of ACL surgeries, though he is not an explosive or athletic player. He has a wide variety of skills and added eight rebounds and four assists. He's reminiscent somewhat of a taller Brandon Roy, someone who can make plays despite not being able to blow by on the wing. He and LaVine combined for several scores playing off one another with movement in the pick and roll.
"I liked Jabari's attack," said Hoiberg. "The first half he did a little bit of everything, scored, three assists, three rebounds; that's what he does. He's an unselfish player you can use as a facilitator all over the court."
The reserve group was encouraging led by Portis and Blakeney. Blakeney with a team high eight free throws finally demonstrated that appealing sixth man ability of instant scoring. He played more in control and assured, and perhaps even more than LaVine has that ability to get a shot whenever he wants. And he wants a lot of them. Denzel Valentine is written in at that spot, but he is out with a sprained ankle. Valentine is a better playmaker and rebounder, but Blakeney possesses that rare ability to score quickly. Cameron Payne with a team high seven assists looked like a lock for backup point guard with quickness out of the backcourt and astute ball handling while Dunn played with confidence and added a sweet spinning baseline dunk early.
"Kris is turning into a veteran point guard," said Parker. "I remember when he was a rookie. He was so out of control, but now is very under control."
This Bulls team may be more difficult to control than many anticipated. Which would be a good thing.
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