Preseason loss to Bucks has Bulls still getting defensive

Defense has been a problem throughout this rebuild, and the hope was strides would be made. The Milwaukee loss was a reminder of how much work is left.

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Bulls coach Jim Boylen talks with Denzel Valentine during the second half of Monday’s preseason game against the Bucks at the United Center.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Sure, coach Jim Boylen would’ve liked to have seen better results in the Bulls’ 122-112 loss to the Bucks in their preseason opener Monday, but he admittedly found comfort in some of the numbers that weren’t shining down at him from the new, huge United Center scoreboard.

“What you hope to learn in a game like [that] is the things you need to work on,” Boylen said. “And what you hope to find out is, the things that you emphasized the last five or six days, have you seen any of that become a habit?”

Boylen found some boxes he could check there. The Bulls took 38 shots from three-point range and went to the free-throw line 38 times. Both are categories where they’re working to improve from last season.

But the elephant in the room was a familiar one: Defense, defense and defense. The Bucks’ top players — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe — didn’t play, and it still didn’t change the outcome.

“Where we struggled and where [the Bucks] exploited us was our individual one-on-one defense,” Boylen said. “They spread us out, which they do to everybody, and they drove us. It’s great because now the film shows what we’ve been talking about, that it’s big area of improvement [needed] for us.”

The Bulls can preach up-tempo offense, multiple ball-handlers, a versatile lineup and team chemistry all they want, but at some point they have to be able to make defensive stops — an ongoing issue since coach Tom Thibodeau was fired in 2015. The Bulls finished 25th in defensive rating last season and 28th in 2017-18.

General manager Gar Forman and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson have been trying to address the problem with roster changes. The addition of free agent Jabari Parker last July was a low point, as Parker seemingly had no desire to play defensively, but the Bulls course-corrected with Otto Porter Jr., whom they got from the Wizards in a trade for Parker and Bobby Portis. They also added Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky in the offseason to help boost the defense.

But the NBA is a results league, and Bulls players know there’s still a lot of work to do.

“We want to be known as a defensive team,” Porter said. “We want to bring that toughness, that grit. We want to protect home court. We’ve been emphasizing that.”

Valentine’s day

Monday night’s game included 19 of the most important minutes Denzel Valentine has played in quite some time. The No. 14 overall pick of the 2016 draft returned off the bench after missing all of last season because of ankle surgery.

Valentine admitted he was emotional and had tears in his eyes on the drive to the arena before the game. But he also was focused on what’s at stake this season. The Bulls likely will have to make a financial decision sooner than later about whether to move forward with him, and he knows that.

“It’s definitely a big year,” he said. “There’s a lot that’s going to happen this year, but all I can do is control what I can control.”

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