Bulls

Observations from Bulls-Rockets: Bombs away, a shot of Bobby, LaVine update, Niko suitor?

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Observations from Bulls-Rockets: Bombs away, a shot of Bobby, LaVine update, Niko suitor?

Here are the observations from the Bulls' 116-107 loss to the Houston Rockets Monday night at the United Center:

Rockets Red Glare: Fred Hoiberg’s offense is heavy on the 3-point attempts and insistent on space, but Mike D’Antoni’s system is if you pressed the fast-forward button on Hoiberg’s—dizzying defenses with a hailstorm of triples and sending even the most sound schemes into chaos.

Which meant it wasn’t a good dance partner for the Bulls’ defensive woes, as illustrated by the first few minutes of Monday’s contest when the Rockets blitzed the Bulls 25-11 in the first seven minutes.

They looked shell-shocked and ill-prepared as the lead swelled to 21 minutes later.

“We were in a little bit of awe with them coming out and hitting shots,” Hoiberg said. “I thought we came out of the gates flat. It was awful early, but a lot of that was them hitting shots.”

Two things are clear with the Rockets: There’s gonna be plenty of space to operate, and if they stop hitting shots, you can find a way to get back into the game.

Each was on full display through the 48-minute period, as Trevor Ariza kept shaking loose in transition and the Bulls could not locate Eric Gordon behind the long line.

The Bulls were having recent issues against middle of the road offensive teams, then had to face Chris Paul playing maestro with his team in the midst of a bad streak. The only solace was that James Harden’s hamstring injury made him unavailable, but it was little solace.

The Rockets hit 20 triples against the Bulls, the best output against the Bulls but it wasn’t close to the Rockets’ season-high—they torched the Jazz for 23 triples in early November.

Paul and Gordon each scored 24 with nine assists, Ariza hit six triples for 18 points and Clint Capela was a monster for 15 points and 16 rebounds.

All wasn’t lost, however: The Bulls shook off the early start to make it a nearly even game by halftime, thanks to Bobby Portis. Like a shot of espresso, Portis injected the Bulls with life in the second quarter.

Without Nikola Mirotic in the lineup, Portis became a primary offensive option and he delivered in a 33-point second quarter for the Bulls. Yes, he flexed and preened but he produced in 33 minutes, scoring 22 points with four rebounds.

“He had great aggressiveness,” Hoiberg said. “We were a little stone-faced when they hit us with that haymaker.”

(Apparently Hoiberg has no problem using the boxing analogies again.)

It wasn’t just Portis though, as Kris Dunn found life after looking pretty nondescript early, and three Rockets tried their hands at Dunn when he started getting to the basket and doing his best Paul impersonation of getting to the midrange area.

He finished with a respectable stat line of 19 points, eight assists and four rebounds, but even he knew the time the Bulls spent being overwhelmed by the Rockets bit them in the long run.

“We kept giving ourselves chances to come back. At one point we took the lead and they hit two threes in a row,” Dunn said. “We kept knocking at the door and they just kept hitting two threes every time we got close.”

The Bulls did rebound and take a 64-62 lead in the third quarter on a Dunn jumper but it never got larger than 66-63. The Rockets absorbed the Bulls’ comeback and restored order to 81-71 with three minutes left in the third.

Speaking of haymakers: Gerald Green, ladies and gentlemen. He keeps doing things like this to the Bulls. Whether it’s a Game 3 in the First Round as a member of the Celtics or Monday where he came off the bench a few games after getting picked up by the Rockets, it’s a pretty cool thing to see.

He scored 22 off the bench, including four triples and some devastating dunks that would make Zach LaVine blush.

Speaking of LaVine: The Bulls were supposed to have an update but John Paxson will address the media Tuesday morning before practice. It’s tough to see him playing against the New York Knicks Wednesday for a debut but Saturday night in Chicago, against the Detroit Pistons—the team he tore his ACL against last season—would appear to be a prudent observation.

But then again, these are the Bulls.

Niko update: The trade season has been quiet so far but the Bulls are hoping to be part of a flurry of activity soon enough.

January 15th is a week away—the first day the Bulls are eligible to trade Nikola Mirotic, assuming he consents to a deal. Although Mirotic has helped the Bulls win games since his return from his incident with teammate Bobby Portis, both Mirotic and the Bulls appear to want the same thing.

A separation.

Mirotic has a no-trade clause due to his restricted free-agent status over the summer, which complicates things to a degree. And the Bulls want future assets over immediate help in return, as in a first-round draft pick.

So far, the market for Mirotic has been described as “tepid”, according to a league source. The Utah Jazz have engaged in discussions with the Bulls, but to this point, the Bulls don’t want to take on Alec Burks’ $11.5 million for 2018-19 without the Jazz attaching a draft pick.

The Jazz could offer a protected first-rounder, considering they’re on the outside of the playoff picture in the West. But talks have not progressed since the two sides making initial contact weeks ago.

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.

Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.

But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.

The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.

Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.

“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”

Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.

In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.

Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.

Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.

If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.

“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”

Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.

But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.

“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”

Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.

His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.

The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.

Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.

“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”

Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.

“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.

“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”

When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.

No hesitation.

“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”

Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.

“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”

And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.

“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”

His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

In the latest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill recap the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, look at the continued growth of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, and discuss if Bobby Portis is part of the Bulls’ long term future.

They also check in on LeBron James and the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, discuss whether or not the Golden State Warriors can make another title run and the latest on the status of San Antonio Spurs guard Kawhi Leonard. The guys also discuss how Oklahoma guard Trae Young could look in a Bulls uniform if he’s available for them in the draft.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.