What to watch for in the Bulls second preseason game

Having fallen into a tie for last place in the preseason, the winless Bulls are poised for a shakeup with a change in the starting lineup for Thursday’s measuring stick game against the highly regarded Indiana Pacers. Have the Bulls reached the “must win” stage?

OK, OK, I’m joking.

Hey, with it being just Game 2 of the preseason, and with a pretty set lineup for the regular season, you need distractions with more than three weeks until the games count.

The Bulls visit the Pacers Thursday without rookie Denzel Valentine, estimated to be out about two weeks with a sprained ankle from the Game 1 loss to Milwaukee Monday, and Nikola Mirotic taking a shot at power forward with the start. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has been seeking to build deliberately toward the opener later this month with Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade expected to get just a few second half minutes after sitting out the second half in the 93-91 loss to the Bucks.

Actually, the Bulls starting group was very good in the loss. Though the offense wasn’t quite coordinated with three new starters, the defense was excellent as the Bulls took a fast 16-5 lead. Wade then went out and soon after Rajon Rondo and Robin Lopez. The Bulls still led by seven points with those three off the floor, but in substituting a weaker defensive unit the Bulls lost the ball and Bucks players at the basket.

Under normal circumstances, that group would have stayed in much longer and was dominating the Bucks’ starters.

“I thought they played very well together; the start was the best stretch of the game,” agreed Hoiberg. “And they (reserves) played well down stretch.”

That latter group, which came back from a 15-point fourth quarter deficit, included Spencer Dinwiddie, whom Hoiberg commended for setting up the offense, along with hustle from Doug McDermott, Cristiano Felicio and Bobby Portis.

Hoiberg has made it clear the power forward position is being contested. Mirotic after a one of seven shooting game Monday gets his chance Thursday. Missing shots doesn’t necessary mean poor play. Sometimes they don’t go in, and seven isn’t a lot to begin to turn yourself around. Kobe usually got up 25 or 30 after a poor start. Ok, OK, he’s no Kobe. Or John Kennedy. Mirotic obviously has the ability to potentially open the floor with three-point shooting, a fashion in the NBA these days.

“The biggest thing (with Mirotic) is he made strides defensively,” said Hoiberg. “I think he’s playing more within himself on the offensive end. Besides the game the other night he’s shot the ball extremely well (in practices). He was the first guy in the gym the next morning getting up shots and he made most of them. We’ll throw him out there to start (Thursday) and hope he plays well. I thought Cris was a big spark with his defensive play and going coast to coast; great feet and instincts. The biggest thing is the overall body of work. Consistency is what we are looking for. Spencer and Jerian (Grant) will have an opportunity to earn minutes (with Denzel out). Bobby’s second stint was good; he was on the glass and knocked down shots.”

Taj Gibson was exceptional in Game 1 and though there will be competition throughout the preseason—and one game doesn’t mean much or enough—he may be the preferable starter to pair with Lopez. There is the issue in modern NBA lore with neither a three-point shooter. But Lopez isn’t a high level rebounder since he doesn’t react to the ball quickly. Gibson still remains one of the Bulls’ best athletes, shot blockers and rebounders.

“They'll be out there a lot together this year,” Hoiberg said about Gibson and Lopez. “Taj has been really good in camp this year and followed that up with a great game (Monday). I thought Robin was really solid. He showed his ability to step out and knock down a shot. He had one heat check (miss) where we should have gotten the ball to the second side. But I thought overall he played a very solid game. That's two of our better defenders out there together, so obviously we're going to need them on the floor together a lot this season.”

It seems unlikely this Bulls team will develop a big time offensive identity with Butler, Wade and Rondo not great three-point shooters. But it can become an excellent defensive team with Wade, Rondo and Butler all good with stripping and stealing the ball and Lopez and Gibson anchoring the inside. That showed to start against Milwaukee. With this Bulls team in need of an identity, that may be the best way to not only create one but also be a team that will be in all the games because of tough play.

Shooting oriented teams can become too hit and miss because of the vagaries of the shooting game.

Defense can be a constant, and with Lopez, Gibson and Butler combined the Bulls could be formidable on the front line.

Though that first unit took the big early lead, they ended up in too many long possessions.

Much is made of moving the ball side to side, reversals and passing.

The Bulls did a lot of that, but it often seemed because just coming together no one quite knew where the others wanted their shot. Great offensive teams take the first good shot, not the third or fourth. But the Bulls don’t have enough pure shooters in the starting lineup to probably do that. If you are going to push the ball, which is the Bulls aim with Rondo, then stopping to swing the ball around for a better shot defeats the purpose because it enables the defense to set. Great offenses from the 60s Celtics to current Warriors push and take that first good shot.

Hoiberg said second round draft pick Paul Zipser will make his NBA debut Thursday and that the team probably will not get its first off day until Sunday. With two practices just about every day, this probably has been the Bulls’ most intense training camp in years. Wade has said he’s scrimmaged more with the Bulls than anytime in Miami.

But can they finally break this frustrating losing streak of one?